Learning Innovations: Crossing the Finnish Line with Pasi Sahlberg

January 31, 2013

Pasi Salhberg, in Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, doesn’t pretend to have a universally applicable solution to the problems we face in providing effective learning opportunities. But the wonderfully produced snapshot he provides of the Finnish school system and its support of vocational training is something none of us can afford to ignore. If we’re at all interested in seeing how the top-ranked education system worldwide produced its successes, we’re in the right place with Finnish Lessons.

Sahlberg--Finnish_LessonsThis is not a book that is useful only to those in academia. The descriptions of a learning system that eschews a single-minded emphasis on testing and explores, instead, ways to engage all learners and provide them with communities of learning that produce results, touches any trainer-teacher-learner. It’s a fabulous approach to the wicked problem of reinventing learning, and Sahlberg engagingly and concisely helps us understand what he and his colleagues have achieved.

As writer-speaker-researcher-teacher Andy Hargreaves tells us in his forward to Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons shows how a vision “of educational and social change connected to inclusiveness and creativity” that relies on “high-quality, well-trained teachers” engaged in creating, nurturing, and sustaining communities of learning has propelled the Finnish education system to recognition as a world leader.

There are many striking elements to what Sahlberg documents—not the least of which is the difference between Finnish perceptions and those held by the rest of us. He describes the transformation as having been relatively quick—extending over a 40-year period, with much of the crucial work done between the 1980s and the turn of the millennium. It’s a staggeringly different view of time than that held by many of us here in the United States, where we seem foolishly stuck in a way of life predicated on the belief that every two- or four-year election cycle marks a time for a “new start.”

Sahlberg summarizes his work concisely within the first few pages of Finnish Lessons: “The main message of this book is that there is another way to improve education systems. This includes improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals” (p. 5). He also tells us that “The Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation—not choice and competition—can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvements” (p. 9).

It’s not hard to see how we can apply that philosophy to any learning environment—from K- 12 all the way through any workplace learning and performance (staff training) program by focusing on learning rather than on lowest-common-denominator testing–by developing our faculty/trainers rather than, as so often happens in staff training, shoving “accidental (unprepared) trainers” into learning environments in a sink-or-swim endeavor that serves neither learners nor learning facilitators.

The Finnish system, according to Sahlberg, also works within a framework that “places a stronger emphasis on understanding students’ cognitive development and also invited schools to make the best use of their own and their community’s strengths” (p. 25)—something our best colleagues incorporate into academic settings as well as successful workplace learning and performance programs.

The results, for Finland, have been spectacular: “What is noteworthy is that Finland has been able to upgrade human capital by transforming its education system from mediocre to one of the best international performers in a relatively short period of time” (p. 42).

Sahlberg turns to a broad roadmap, in the final pages of his book, to help us explore what he and his colleagues have created. Suggesting that we create “a community of learners that provides the conditions that allow all young people to discover their talent” (p. 140)—and there’s no reason why we have to limit ourselves to “young people” here—he suggests four broad steps: development of a personal road map for learning; less classroom-based teaching; development of interpersonal skills and problem solving; and engagement and creativity as pointers of success.

If we can adapt any part of these Finnish lessons by applying them in our own settings, perhaps the wicked problem of reforming education and lifelong learning in our country will become a little less wicked.


Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 2 of 4): Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams

March 9, 2012

If you think developmental molecular biologist John Medina’s ideas for rethinking leaning and learning spaces in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School require a bit of an open mind, wait until you see what author-presenter-entrepreneur Seth Godin is (re)thinking.

In Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?), Godin’s  newly released FREe-book (which is about the only term I can come up with to describe a book-length manifesto published free of charge online by someone whose work routinely reaches and inspires large audiences in traditional print form), he joins Medina and others in encouraging us to reconsider—and fight against—the ways our learning systems and learning spaces stifle creativity and steal learners’ dreams. And what he offers should be of interest equally to those working within formal academic settings and those involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors.

It doesn’t take him long to get to the heart of our problems and challenges: “Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars…Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor” in spaces far from conducive to learning even though that has little to do with what is needed to succeed in the contemporary workplace (p. 7). We use measurement tools such as multiple choice tests—created in 1914 by a psychologist and popularized by a professor who referred to it as “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders” before disowning it as a learning tool a few years later, according to Godin (pp. 12-13). But we continue to use it in training-teaching-learning from the moment students first enter school all the way through the time we complete formal certification programs that are supposed to be offering some sort of guarantee to employers that the certified job applicants standing before them are fully prepared to meet those employers’ needs.

The “new job of school” is “to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation” (p. 18) if we’re going to meet the needs of employers, communities, and the larger global community into which we’ve so quickly been thrust, he reminds us—and I would suggest the same should be said of workplace learning and performance offerings designed to produce the employees needed for workplace success.

Getting there is going to require that we more quickly move in the direction that our most innovative and forward-thinking learning programs are taking us: group (collaborative) projects rather than a reliance on rote learning so that no child (or adult) is left behind; learners who are encouraged to dream—and to act on those dreams—rather than learning ephemerally to pass tests and receive certifications; the nurturing of the artist—whom Godin defines as a person “who brings new thinking and generosity to his work, who does human work that changes another for the better. An artist invents a new kind of insurance policy, diagnoses a disease that someone else might have missed, or envisions a future that’s not here yet” (p. 32).

We should, he maintains, “rebuild the entire system around passion instead of fear” (p. 37), and that includes focusing on learning as much outside as inside formal learning spaces by devoting time each day “to learning something new and unassigned” (p. 42) so we keep passion and drive in training-teaching-learning. We should also be encouraging “an open-book/open-note environment” instead of one where “drill and practice” is the default setting (p. 52). And one in which homework is done during the day in group settings while recorded lectures are delivered at night in online settings so that live instructor-learner time facilitates active learning and experiential learning rather than rote recitation and often unsuccessful attempts at passive absorption of material flowing from the mouth of an instructor to the often unreceptive ears of learners at the instructor’s convenience rather than at the learner’s moment of need—or passion.

School, Godin says toward the end of his manifesto, “needs not to deliver information so much as to sell kids on wanting to find it” (p. 78)—an overt reminder that learners of all ages benefit as much from getting away from us and following the leads we inspire them to follow as they do from taking in what we offer them (pursuing interesting discoveries, seeking exciting growth opportunities, and learning from those places and experiences where their learning passions lead them).

Godin begins Stop Stealing Dreams by providing the example of a public school where administrators “create a workplace culture that attracts the most talented teachers, fosters a culture of ownership, freedom and accountability, and then relentlessly transfers this passion to their students” (p. 6). The learning spaces he ends up describing are libraries “where people come together to do co-working and to coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring to bear domain knowledge and people knowledge an access to information” (p. 88)—the sort of space some of us are referring to as social learning centers or the new Fourth Place (both onsite and online).

For those of us immersed in serving learners who become dynamic members of our communities, the possibilities are inspiring.

Next: Cathy Davidson and “Now You See It”


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