“The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”

– Pasi Sahlberg

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist based in New York City,  is writing a book about what America can learn from Nordic societies.
In her December 2011,  Atlantic article, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success” she comments on a quote by Finnish teacher, teacher-educator, policy advisor and director, Pasi Sahlberg :

“When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve (educational) excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

Published Nov 11, 2011 by Canada’s tvoParents.com.,  “Pasi Sahlberg sits down for a one on one conversation with Cheryl Jackson.” (YouTube)


About Donna

Changing educational paradigms motivate me to share new technology as well as the admirable work of others who integrate contemporary research on how people learn with supportive, free digital applications and resources. Do teachers ever have enough time or money? Perhaps my discoveries will expedite the journey of a busy educator seeking a 21st Century 'true north' of his or her own.

One response »

  1. Ran across this today by accident but need to comment here. I am an American living now in Finland for more than 15 years and I can say there are good and bad things about both educational systems. Having been a teacher in middle school and in business school, I am speaking from experience.

    First, Finland does not represent the panacea of educational problems. The Finnish system works for one big reason that is nearly impossible to duplicate, that is a homogeneous population. There is zero diversity in Finland. In a population of 5 million there are only 100,000 people from any place else. Everyone comes from the same viewpoint and way of thinking–that does not exist in the US, or in most countries. Diversity is a challenge and also a benefit as it forces new ideas and ways of thinking.

    I strongly disagree that lack of competition is a good thing. Just look at Nokia and how they went from world leader to approaching bankruptcy in just a few short years. This is solely do to a lack of experience with competition. Finns are ill equipped to function in a competitive world. Their education system does not support or nurture competition, and their past business environment has been filled with monopolistic state owned and supported businesses that bartered with the old USSR.

    If you look at venture capital spending and where money is put for new ideas and new technology it is the US – specifically Silicon Valley – where more venture capital is given than in the rest of the world combined. Why is that? It is because of the highly competitive nature of American business and people. US people are taught early that to survive you must differentiate and innovate – stand out from the crowd. Finland you are taught early to know your place and quietly obey. This is why no one internally at Nokia ever questioned the many bad managerial decisions that are sinking the company. Finland is also a low risk taking country and this goes back to being group oriented. You must first look at what the group would like to do, individualism is punished severely here. But innovation is not something that is driven by the group (we all know of group think and its dangers).

    It is easy to look at the stats of Finnish education and see they are good–which they are in some respects. But stats only tell half the story, and basic levels of education competencies are no indication of the competitiveness of the country and it’s chances for future success.

    Finland is now trying to export its knowledge of education and its model. God help those countries that adapt it and go down the road to egalitarianism and lack of competition. It is not competition and the inequality of the social system that is at fault. The US has proven time and again that these are the things that has driven success. Look at all the great success stories in the US, from Carnegie and Rockefeller, to Gates, Dell and Zuckerberg – they all thrived in the US because of the things you now say are holding it back.

    Simply put, Finland could learn a lot also from the US system.

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