Educational reform in the US and Finland

While homogeneity in Finland certainly plays a role in the different trajectories of educational reform in the United States and Finland, a closer look reveals that there might be more at play:


PBS teaching timeline
Education Reform in Finland Powerpoint
PBS Benchmarks of Reform
OECD: Slow and steady reform for Finland
Statistics Finland: Education
Economic History of Finland
NYSED Historical Overview
Fordham Institute: Real lessons from Finland
Pasi Sahlberg
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PISA scores and Poverty


I’ve been explaining this to countless Finnish teachers and it has been provoking so many interesting conversations about equity and resources, that I thought I would simplify it into a visual representation.  Find the articles that I sourced most of the information from here and here.  The question now becomes, “How do we take this information and do something about it?”  Mel Riddile (quoted above) would argue that we need to stop looking to countries like Finland because the difference in poverty levels make the results here irreproducible in the States.  He suggests we look at schools in the United States that have turned around performance in areas of high economic need. I agree.  But now that I have been intricately looking at Finnish schools, I am realizing that there are definitely aspects that can be pulled towards our classrooms in the United States… none of them are the silver bullet that we Americans love to search for, but they are practical changes that teachers and schools can implement…more to come…

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Finland’s Choice-Based Educational Structure

This infographic illustrates the various trajectories students can follow to become educated, socially valuable, successful members of their society -one of the high points of what I have seen in the months I have been here… Enjoy!

infographic copy

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school spaces

Thanks to Bonnie Kaplan, here is a collection of shots from the schools I have been spending time in. They illustrate what the typical schools look like -comprised of open areas flooded with bright outside light, clean community spaces, and with inviting areas for students to relax and chat during the 15 minute breaks they get between classes.  Rather than describe each one, I will let the pictures speak for themselves:

school1 school2 school3 school4 school5 school6 school7 school8 school9 school10 school11 school12 school13 school16

school14 school15

school20 school21 school22 school23 school24 schools25 schools26 schools27 schools28 schools29 schools31 schools32 schools33

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A roller coaster ride at the Nobel Prize Museum


While in Stockholm last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Nobelmuseet, a museum chronicling and showcasing the creative endeavors of the past 112 years of Nobel Laureates’ work. As I walked up the steps facing Stortorget Square and made my way through the etched glass doors,  I imagined how I would bring this experience to my students, having no idea of the emotional rollercoaster I was about to get on.

the ride itself

nobels_willThe backstory is intriguing. Alfred Nobel made a name for himself even on his deathbed.  His controversial will, written in beautifully flowing cursive, was not well-received by many in his immediate family.  In fact, after a lifetime of success as an inventor and industrialist, he caused a prolonged dispute when he penned in his will that each year forward, a portion of his fortune would be awarded to persons making significant contributions in five major fields: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

The current exhibit in the central hall of Nobelmuseet is dedicated to Swedish poet and winner of the 2011 Nobel prize in Literature, Tomas Tranströmer, including objects, texts and images representing his life’s work.  One of the central components of the exhibit was his extensive childhood insect collection featuring hundreds of carefully labeled specimens indicative of the artistry Tranströmer would later employ in his writings.


I was initially drawn to the cases of insects by the sheer aestheticism of them:  meticulous rows of precisely pinned bodies, colorful wings and appendages delicately protruding upwards in frozen poses, patterns of light reflecting off the glass separating living from lifeless…

…it was all very attractive at first glance.

bug2 bug9






the initial climb

But as I leaned in closer, I was struck by the pointlessness of it all.  Were all of these living creatures, I wondered, robbed of their little bit of time on earth, just to satisfy a child’s hobby?  Even if it was for the greater good of science, did that matter to the copris beetle I was staring at, a carcass stabbed through the chest with a metal pin?

bugs4bugs5Knowing that I would want to explore this further, I took care to photograph them and then pulled out my iPhone, found a bench in a quiet corner off to the side and began exploring the necessity of this process.




building potential energy

I came across an article by biodiversity researcher, Greg Pohl, who defended the practice by stating that although “each species is important in the ecosystem, a given individual of each species [does] not have equal ecological importance.”


That’s all well and good. . . save for this specific, individual copris beetle, destined to dangle lifelessly in its glass tomb at the Nobel Museum.  That is the problem with being focused on the collective instead of the individual.

the decent

Now put this in the context of the thinking I’ve been doing lately about how standardized texts rely on the concept of an “average” learner, at the expense of the individual.  So whereas a few minutes prior I was thinking about the limitless possibilities for my students to become innovative creators, now I was feeling the tension of viewing them in light of a world that devalues the individual…and it was looking pretty bleak from where I was standing…

everything slows down

Perhaps Alfred Nobel was feeling the need to reconcile his role in the invention and production of dynamite when he first envisioned the Nobel Prize; or perhaps, in an even more noble gesture, he understood the significance of promoting innovation and ideas. Luckily there was much more to see in the museum and I spent the remainder of my time in awe of the contributions I was able to witness.

There is no doubt that by the end of my visit, the more than 800 Nobel Laureates showcased in the museum certainly inspired me to reflect on humankind’s ingenuity and potential, despite my rocky start with the insect collection.  As I finished my exploration of the museum’s corridors, I dreamed up ways to transfer some of that inspiration and motivation to my students back home.

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the. best way to cross a frozen lake. ever.

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What happens when we turn the educational hierarchy upside-down?


There is no doubt that the federal role in U.S. public schools has increased dramatically over the past decade with the adoption of No Child Left Behind and its equally intrusive successor, Race to the Top.  Local and state control has eroded significantly as mandates (surreptitiously disguised as incentives in the latter) force states and local districts to give up control of assessment and curriculum.

With the locus of control shifting further and further away from the classroom,  external curriculum modules and standardized assessments attached to the Common Core dictate what is happening in classrooms. In an attempt to implement a one-size-fits-all education reform model, the individual needs of students and communities at the district level are being plowed over, leaving students, teachers and schools pressured to comply with a top-down hierarchy that many feel is inescapable: a hierarchy that sadly puts teachers and students at the bottom.

Maybe Washington can take a page from the Finnish National Board of Education, and re-imagine how we look at the educational framework.  Here’s how the Director General, Timo Lankinen, represented the Finnish education system:

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 6.25.47 AM

This decentralization of steering powers, coupled with the autonomy of local education providers to organize schools and implement educational policies, leads to communities and educators playing a much bigger role.  But more importantly, rather than relying on the concept of an “average” learner, students’ needs, diversity and differences in motivation in the specific educational context of an individual school district can dictate what is taught and how.

Students at the top…imagine that.

Democracy works when citizens are able to change their minds when presented with new information.  In the U.S. we have been challenged by the Department of Education to think differently and to fight for quality education and social justice. It is time we all challenge ourselves to think about the early effects of these initiatives manifesting in our local schools and classrooms; it is time to think about what education might look like if we were to turn the top-down hierarchy upside-down.

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