Finnishing School: what Canada can learn from Finland’s education system

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Education expert Pasi Sahlberg delivers RWB Jackson Lecture

Better teachers do not necessarily lead to better students.

That’s the myth-busting message that Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg brought to a rapt audience at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) recently as he delivered the annual RWB Jackson Lecture.

Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What the world can learn from educational change in Finland, told the audience that Finland is guided by a common vision, of a great school for each and every child, equity and quality, and a commitment to having the best school system in the world by 2025.

Since Finland placed first in the first PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results in 2001, educators, bureaucrats and researchers have been visiting Finland to try to discover the small country’s secrets to quality education.

Sahlberg is the former director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki and currently a visiting professor of practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. In introducing Sahlberg, OISE Dean Julia O’Sullivan called him “a teacher, teacher educator and policy advisor in Finland who has studied education systems and reforms around the world.”

After regaling the audience with jokes about Finnish hockey superiority and shyness (“How can you tell the difference between a Finnish introvert and a Finnish extrovert? The introvert stares at his own shoes, the extrovert stares at your shoes,”) Sahlberg argued that having better teachers in schools does not automatically improve students’ learning outcomes and that teachers alone cannot overcome the societal issues affecting children’s opportunities to learn.

"The research doesn't support the idea that teachers would be the most important single factor," Sahlberg said. "We know that the most important single factor in most countries is the family background."

Even if researchers consider only factors related to schools, Sahlberg added, teachers "are just about the same level as leadership of the school."

Sahlberg also contrasted what he calls the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to the Finnish way: competition vs. collaboration, standardization vs. personalization, test-based accountability vs. trust-based responsibility, choice vs. equity, human capital vs. professional capital. In concluding his talk, he said that the quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teachers work as a team, and moral purpose, collective autonomy and shared leadership are the keys to performance beyond expectations.

Sahlberg praised Ontario and Canada for having “some of the most successful school systems in the world” and noted that his first visit to OISE came 20 years ago.

“Everybody knows this institute – not only here in North America but everywhere. I want to thank you for your service and for your work for education and public education in Canada and beyond.”

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