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Reading about Finland

jccohen's picture


transitfan's picture

moving from skeptical to impressed, but still not satisfied

Initially I as a read the first chapters I was unconvinced: Surely, this success must correspond to the country's homogenity. But then the author noted that in fact equity is improving. Well, then, that must be excluding the recent wave of immigrants. But the author notes that immigrants are doing well also. This must be expensive, I thought, but it seems that is not the case.

There are some contradictions, I think. While Finnland does less in the way of standardized testing, it seems their success is measured in standardized tests. Meanwhile, students take a test for graduation.

Ultimately, it seems like there are some amazing strategies used in Finnish education that we definitely could apply. I was struck to see as a sidenote that they are being used in Alberta as well. Alberta has been on my mind recently as it has profited from the Tar Sands which will cause irreparable harm to Canada and the U.S. and will continue to the destruction of a livable future for humanity. I am guessing this education method is not teaching students the critical thinking in order to rise up against the Tar Sands. Can we take the strategies used in Finnland and use them not just to teach students the subjects in international tests, but also to change the world?

dshu's picture

Mathematics/Science Education

A take away from the reading was the methods or "solutions" for improving students' mathematics skills. What really struck me was the second point: "both teacher education and mathematics curriculum in Finland have a strong focus on problem solving, thereby linking mathematics to the real world of students.....and using mathematics in new situations rather than showing mastery of curriculum and syllabi" (51). Tying this into my past education and current field placement experiences, I saw the lack of bring what we have learned or currently learning into real-life experiences. In fact, it doesn't necessarily have to be math/science... even in other fields, this can be done too. I notice from my placement, there have been a few times where students are using mathematics topics of what they have learned to real-world examples on the paper. I think this is a good transition from learning the material. However, I believe it will be more beneficial if it could be more engaging. In high school while I was learning geometry, my teacher made us use our knowledge to construct a project, such as building a lantern. Since Finland has shown positive results, why are we not starting to use/adapt to this style of teaching? This reminds me of the preparation for real-world, i.e., life outside academia. Wouldn't be applying what we have learned to deepen our understanding a goal of expected education outcomes?


Sarah's picture

Education is not separate from a country

On page 4 Sahlberg lists questions he commonly gets , which include, “How much does the lack of ethnic diversity have to do with good educational performance there?” and “How do you know that all teachers are doing what they should when you don’t test students or inspect teachers?”.  These two questions stuck out to me for a couple reasons.  In my own study abroad experience in Denmark, one of my greatest struggles in trying to compare Danish education with American was that the Danish schools were very homogenous, and in the case that they weren’t, they weren’t very welcoming of outsiders or anything that they deemed as “un-Danish”.  This shows the interplay between education and a countries overall attitude or way of being.  In Denmark, Danes were sometimes described as tribal; they were very protective and supportive of what it meant to be Danish, but not supportive of diversity.  At best they would tolerate it, but I felt very few people were accepting of it.  Danes were also very trusting of one another; they often commented about how weird it was that in American people were suing each other all the time.  These two attitudes were present in the schools: the hesitance to diversity was present in the schools policy to not teach mother tongues that were from countries outside of the EU, and the level of trust was present in the schools lack of permission slips when taking the students on field trips.  In the US we have this attitude of individualism and competition.  This is demonstrated in our schools through hanging the highest test scores on the wall. I appreciate the way Sahlberg presents information about Finnish schools so comprehensively; he discusses Finnish history in general, Finnish beliefs, and then aspects that are specific to Finnish schools, such as the teachers.  In some ways, I feel like I haven’t comprehensively learned or explicitly discussed all these different aspects in the US.  Usually, when I think about education, I think of it as a separate entity (especially before I went abroad), but it is important to connect to history, politics, and current affairs.

Sharaai's picture

I have to agree with Sarah in

I have to agree with Sarah in that I really appreciated how Sahlberg gave us a brief overview of Finnish history and just how exactly it all played out to turn out the education system that they have. This is an aspect that I feel that I have not gotten from many or any of my education readings in the past. Maybe it is because I haven’t taken a course with the intent of covering history? Or maybe it is assumed that one must know the history of the school system(s) they are looking at? Or is it just not considered important? These are questions that are running through my mind as I hope to compare the American school system I went through and this new one we are learning about

 I can’t help but jump to the reaction of “If it works so well there, WHY hasn’t it been implemented elsewhere (i.e. The U.S.)!!” but I am also trying to take a step back and think about what these reasons could be. They are two very different countries and a lot of posts have touched upon the governmental structure, Sarah talked about the homogeneous classrooms and I am wondering about our history. What could students, teachers, future educators and many more learn from studying the history of the American school system and just how it came about, how it evolved and how it turned into what we currently have.

ccalderon's picture

American Dream?

When reading Finish Lessons I kept thinking, if it’s working there why not do it here. What I had to remind myself was to ask why is it working so well there.  In correlation with Sociology of Education I thought about capitalism in the United States and how that affected the schooling in the U.S.. With this in mind I kept reading on and saw the approach that Finland was taking- it was closer to a socialistic approach. What I mean by this is that although the U.S. promotes the American Dream there are barriers, which allow only some social mobility, like education. Social mobility is then determined by where you live and therefore where you go to school. Meanwhile, in Finland they take a different approach where there is a lack of “if you have money and a great location you have a better chance of moving up because of the school you went to”.


Another thing that stood out was how they used special education. Their special education is different from the special education here. Here special education is viewed as extra education students who are lacking in something need. In Finland they look at it as a different way of learning.  Although from my special education course it seems like we are trying to move away from deficiency to a different way of teaching but I wonder how far along are we.

mschoyer's picture

Slow versus Quick Reform Processes

Beginning in the introduction as early as page 3, the reader learns that Finland's reformed and successful education system took time in order to get where it is now. "In this age of immediate results, education requires a different mindset. Reforming schools is a complex and slow process. To rush this process is to ruin it. Steps must be grounded in research and implemented in collaboration by academics, policy makers, principals and teachers." The first and second chapter go on to detail Finland's history and path to becoming a leader in Education. This was not a rushed process, and I think that most would agree that the slow path was the right path.

This made me think of our previous discussion on Geoffrey Canada and the HCZ. While the whole class was not united in one opinion, many of us praised Canada's quick acting initiative in founding the HCZ. We liked that he simply decided that he would be the one to change things. Granted, HCZ and the country of Finland are very different, but its interesting to see how two different methods (fast and/or slow) can be beneficial. Based on both readings, I am leaning towards the idea that for individual districts/schools/communities, fast action is not a bad thing. For entire countries it probably is.Education reform does take time, as shown by Finland, but people don't like waiting for results to happen.  Perhaps programs like HCZ can be temporary fixes while countries take their time to fix their flawed systems? HCZ was an all encompassing school/community outreach program that dealt with issues that were occuring in a particular community at that time. After reading about Finland, my opinion continues to develop. I would love to see the US think critically and enact change in our education systems, and model it after Finland. I respect the detailed and slow process that Finland used, and think programs like HCZ are good alternatives until the entire system is fixed.

et502's picture

Competition vs. Cooperation - Capitalism vs. Socialism?

“The Finnish system has not been infected by market-based competition and high-stakes testing policies” (Sahlberg 39).

Throughout my reading of this text, I couldn’t help but compare my own experiences in the US system of education.Talking about testing is most straightforward, so I’ll start here. I strongly agree with Sahlberg’s statements regarding testing: “the ultimate success of a high-stakes testing policy is whether it positively affects student learning, not whether it increases student scores on a particular test... If student learning remains unaffected, or if testing leads to biased teaching, the validity of such high-stakes tests must be questioned” (39). I think I am more conscious of the role of testing at the moment, because the students I’m working with at my praxis placement are currently preparing for the PSSAs - their thoughts on this test? They are tired of going over the same things over and over again in school. They don’t have any homework right now, which, to me, suggests that their teachers are not working on any projects other than PSSA preparation. Which seems very limiting and very boring - adjectives that don’t describe a community focused on learning.

Closely aligned with this focus on high-stakes tests is the general issue of accountability. In The Atlantic, a Finnish writer comments on US responses to the Finnish system: Partenen writes about Sahlberg’s statements from a roundtable discussion with students. On the subject of accountability of teachers and administrators, “Sahlberg shrugs. ‘There's no word for accountability in Finnish,’ he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. ‘Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.’“ I read these statements with the US in mind - here, we are not asking or expecting teachers to be responsible for their teaching. Rather, I think that forcing various standards of accountability suggests that we don’t think our own educators would maintain good teaching practices without them. Our system has many boundaries/rules, because we don’t think that teacher would actually do their jobs without them.

In contrast, the Finnish system emphasizes “instruction” as key, more so than “standards,” “assessment;” because of this, the system gives due attention and responsibility to teachers. They’ve created a cycle - developing high expectations of teachers, leading to high respect for this profession (and around again). Because of this sense of respect and responsibility, teachers and principals are invited to participate - they are directly involved in change initiatives. Inherent in this system is a sense of trust - that teachers will take their roles seriously, and that schools will ensure curriculum development that maximizes learning. In other words, administrators are getting out of the way, and letting educational professionals do what they do best.

As I was reading, I was particularly struck by this phrase: "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" (9). Sahlberg emphasizes Finland's cultural values and societal expectations as supports for the changes in education infrastructure; the system shifts were possible because they were based in preexisting cultural norms: basically, socialism. I know that he said he advised against copying Finland: "it is better to have a dream of your own than to rent one from others" (6). But I wonder whether it is possible for the US to really learn from the Finnish example?  This is a very pessimistic view, but I think it seems more likely that we will remain trapped in our perceived need for "accountability" and competition.

So, to take these questions a step farther, I ask, Is it possible for the US is to draw from a Finnish example without doing some major cultural changes in the process?  I think we need a cultural shift - unless we make some changes in our values, then when we work to establish a vision for our system of education system, that vision will be based in capitalist values (competition and choice), which, Sahlberg states, “infects” the system.

Note - got some inspiration for this post by looking at other blogs:

'Capitalist' US vs. 'Socialist' Finland -

"Finland vs America is simply socialism vs capitalism. The Finnish are running their public education system according to the model of democratic socialism… In Finland, their social democracy doesn’t encourage or prioritize capitalist competition but instead encourages and prioritizes democracy in its best sense. In America, on the other hand, capitalism has had a long history of undermining democracy and hence public good"

And related articles:

Partenan, Anu. What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland's School Success -

"Real winners do not compete. It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation."

"Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity."

lyoo's picture

Socialism versus Capitalism

I would disagree with the blogger that "Finland vs America is simply socialism vs capitalism"

I would actually argue that the American public school system is more socialist than it is capitalist today. The basic definitions of socialism and capitalism implies that socialism yields more state intervention while capitalism yields less state intervention.  Today, American's public schools are completely government run as are Finland's. However, Finaland's national curriculum is only a broad guideline for teachers to follow, whereas America's national curriculum has become dictated by the state through high-stakes state testing that occurs every few years. I have had similar experiences as you when I was observing public schools and could clearly tell that the teacher was teaching to the PSSA tests. I have a low opinon of the state-given standardized tests, and as Sahlberg puts it, it is a "test-based public sector policy" that is clearly not working.

In the section titled "Test Less, Learn More" Sahlberg writes: "It is up to the school to decide the criteria for this evaluation based on the national student assessment guidelines."  When Sahlberg talks about a trust-based system in Finland, I see it as a more capitalistic or laissez faire (hands-off) approach to education. Trusting individual schools and teachers to be accountable for themselves rather than having the government come in policing the progress of these schools. This is what the charter school and school choice movement is about, getting state-mandated tests and failing policies out of the way so that teachers and school boards have more control over their classrooms.

I personally don't have a problem with the idea of tests.  It is politcally charged high-stakes testing that ends up dictating whole curriculum of a school that worries me.  I would attribute Finland's success mainly to the flexibility given to its schools and the high quality of their teachers. I think it is ironic that this author demonizes competition when it is competition in the field of education that seems to assure the high quality of their teachers. The book says that teachers are respected just as much as doctors and lawyers. It is seen as a desirable job and so the path to becoming a teacher becomes much more competitive.  Business Insider cites the fact that teachers are chosen from the top 10 percent of their graduates.

So often in our public schools, our teacher's hands are tied to the multitude of rules of regulations that our schools are bound by. Teachers are forced to teach to the test because if their class doesn't pass PSSA testing, then the state pulls funding to their schools. Teachers can't easily suspend students who are consistently disrupting the rest of the class and therefore keeping the whole class from learning. Bad teachers can't be fired because of union influences in the schools and so schools are stuck with ineffective instructors.

I think it is a fallacy to label Finland's education system "socialist" and American's "capitalist." Objectively speaking, both systems have qualities of both socialism and capitalism.  Just because something is called a certain label, it does not mean that it is actually that.  We need to look at what these systems are actually doing and then categorize the policies as either hands on or hands off, more government or less government, socialist or capitalist.

Benjamin David Steele's picture

Blogger Response

"I would disagree with the blogger that "Finland vs America is simply socialism vs capitalism""

As the blogger in question, let me respond.

"I would actually argue that the American public school system is more socialist than it is capitalist today. The basic definitions of socialism and capitalism implies that socialism yields more state intervention while capitalism yields less state intervention. Today, American's public schools are completely government run as are Finland's. However, Finaland's national curriculum is only a broad guideline for teachers to follow, whereas America's national curriculum has become dictated by the state through high-stakes state testing that occurs every few years."

First, you make a common mistake. Socialism isn't the same thing as centralized bureaucratic statism. There is statist socialism and non-statist (including anti-statist/anarchist) socialism. There is bureaucratic socialism and non-bureaucratic (grassroots, democratic &/or community-oriented) socialism. There is centralized socialism and decentralized (localized &/or non-hierarchical) socialism.

For example, anarcho-syndicalism is a non-statist/anti-statist variety of private sector socialism used as a way to organize workers and run a business/factory. Such alternative forms of socialism can be found in the real world. There is East Wind community that operates a number of businesses cooperatively and democratically. On a larger level, there is the Mondragon Corporation that even educates it's own employees which is an education system operated according to private sector democratic socialism.

Second, the US public education system is government owned and operated. This means it is statist, but this doesn't necessarily mean it is socialist. There is a large private sector of education (large and growing ever larger). The charter schools that get government funding are essentially a form of corporatism. There is a big push in the US to go entirely to the charter school system. It's a system that has always been popular among the upper classes, especially in the South because of racism.

"When Sahlberg talks about a trust-based system in Finland, I see it as a more capitalistic or laissez faire (hands-off) approach to education."

You are mixing up capitalism with democracy. The school system in Finland sounds very democratic. Capitalism theoretically can be democratic, but in most of the world it isn't. Likewise, democracy theoretically can be capitalist, but no one has ever proven the two systems are perfectly compatible. The most democratic systems ever developed are the anarchist forms of socialism.

"Trusting individual schools and teachers to be accountable for themselves rather than having the government come in policing the progress of these schools."

As for trust, that has nothing directly to do with either capitalism or socialism, although it directly relates to democracy in terms of social capital. Trust is about culture more than anything. Finland has a culture of trust greater than the US. There are plenty of capitalist societies with extremely weak cultures of trust. And obviously examples like East Wind and Mondragon wouldn't be possible without strong cultures of trust.

"I think it is a fallacy to label Finland's education system "socialist" and American's "capitalist." Objectively speaking, both systems have qualities of both socialism and capitalism. Just because something is called a certain label, it does not mean that it is actually that. We need to look at what these systems are actually doing and then categorize the policies as either hands on or hands off, more government or less government, socialist or capitalist."

I agree. My above analysis is based on what systems actually do. As for labels, pure socialism and pure capitalism don't exist anywhere in the real world, never have and probably never will. Labeling is just about identifying the central or dominant organizing principle or else ascertaining which is greater by some measure.

JBacchus's picture

Finland Education as Socialist

I completely agree with lyoo on this topic. The definition of socialism refers to state ownership and equalizing. Unlike in Finland, the US has federal standards for testing that the schools must meet in order to be a school. Furthermore, socialism defines the importance of production by state ownership. Both of you have mentioned that Finland has more flexible standards in terms of schools and what they produce, and for that reason I would argue that the US is far more socialist in terms of educational standards and standardized production than Finland. 

transitfan's picture

My two cents is that I agree

My two cents is that I agree with the guest blogger Benjamin David Steele on this topic. I see the divide as one of co-operation versus competition, which relates to the ideology of social-anarchism. But I think we are all operated under different definitions of socialism, and I'm not sure how much farther we need to go in debating that definition since it would seem to have more implications for a polticial theory class than an education class. I suspect we have similar values but are using different language.

Benjamin David Steele's picture

I feel like I was intruding

I feel like I was intruding on this discussion. I'm sorry to divert attention away from the subject of education. It's easy to fall into quibbling about non-essential points that too often are superficial rather than fundamental.

You are correct that definitions aren't overly relevant to the topic at hand. I'd simply point out that defining socialism according to the framework of capitalism is no different than defining capitalism according to the framework of socialism. To be fair, both need to be taken on their own terms.

Many people have complaints about overbearing statism. I would add that, in a world dominated by capitalism, socialists often are the strongest critics of statism these days. I'm sure there is more capitalist statism (fascism or corporatism) right now than socialist statism (communism) as even former communist China has switched over to capitalist statism.

Nonetheless, all of that is neither here nor there.

As an outsider to this discussion, I would be interested in seeing where this discussion goes. Both my parents worked in education here in the US, my mom as a public school teacher and my dead as a college professor. As my parents are conservatives, I know the conservative views of education well. It is interesting, though, that my mom remains a strong advocate of public education whereas my more libertarian dad prefers charter schools.

What I'd particularly be interested in is any data and/or analysis about differences beyond just comparisons of public education vs charter schools. Part of the problem is that, such as in the US, even charter schools get public funding and have to follow government standards, including testing, which means charter schools are under the same constraints (and research shows that in the US charter schools do no better than comparable public schools). So, US charter schools are more closely tied into the public education system. I don't know if there are any countries with charter schools that are entirely independent of the public education system or if there are any countries with an education system that is entirely run by independent charter schools.

I don't know that the government is any less involved in the schools in Finland. It sounds like the involvement is simply different than necessarily less. I'd like to hear more about how and why the government relates differently to schools and teachers in Finland. Is it just culture such as related to social trust? This leads to another question: If school systems develop based on the kind of government and if the kind of government develops based on culture, then can culture be changed and improved such as increasing social trust?

Anyway, I appreciate this nice discussion and I appreciate you allowing me to throw in my commentary. I'll bow out now and let you get back to these educational concerns.

transitfan's picture

thanks for jumping in!

I really appreciated your contribution to this topic, which we all discussed further in class!

Benjamin David Steele's picture

Glad to contribute

In case anyone is interested, I'd recommend the book Trust by Francis Fukuyama.

The author is a former neo-conservative with definitely no biases toward socialism. He mostly keeps his ideological assumptions in check and offers insightful analysis about cultures of trust in different countries. He unfortunately doesn't even mention Finland, but he discusses other countries such as Sweden and Germany. His focus is more narrowly on economics, although I'm sure much of his analysis could be applied to education.

I find culture fascinating, moreso than ideology. I think it is problematic when a system (political, economic, educational, etc) is forced onto a culture. Not all cultures are the same and what works in one culture may not work in another. It is a tricky thing trying to understand culture.

Thanks again for allowing me to participate.

lyoo's picture

Related Article


Appreciated the input as well. The main point of my post was that it's not fair to simply call what finland is doing socialist and what america is doing capitalist. And we seem to come to a consensus on that. Maybe the real issue then is statism (more bureaucracies, regulation, gov't control, i.e. NCLB and Race to the Top) versus anarchy (experimentation, flexibility, voluntary interaction, etc). 

I found an interesting article titled "Is Anarchism Socialist or Capitalist" on and it related so well to this discussion that I wanted to post the link here:

Again, appreciate the input and thanks for participating in our class discussion!

transitfan's picture

My two cents is that I agree

My two cents is that I agree with the guest blogger Benjamin David Steele on this topic. I see the divide as one of co-operation versus competition, which relates to the ideology of social-anarchism. But I think we are all operated under different definitions of socialism, and I'm not sure how much farther we need to go in debating that definition since it would seem to have more implications for a polticial theory class than an education class. I suspect we have similar values but are using different language.

jcb2013's picture

Social Justice in Finland/Education

"The social policy climate had consolidated the the values of equality and social justice across the social classes of Finnish society" (21).  

I found this statement to be interesting in relationship to the education courses that I'm taking.  What is the role of social justice in education? We've touched upon in very briefly in Ed311, while in my Schools in American cities course we discussed it more thoroughly.  Using a the barometer method in SAC we discussed our views on whether or not social justice is related to education.  While there were many view points, people were generally in the middle to agree.  I argued that social justice is always a part of education (whether this is a conscious decision or not).  You can actively teach social justice to students, or the mere act of teaching a student and providing them with the opportunity to expand their learning could be considered social justice. I believe that social justice education is social justice and social justice can be education. I found it interesting that Sahlberg discusses the prevalence of social justice in creating the present day Finnish education system.  This system believes that all students are capable of meeting the same learning expectations, and should not be held to higher/lower expectations than other students.  This ideology is reflective of the culture often associated with welfare states in that they stress equality in all aspects of their society. I believe that this is especially important iin education in ensuring that students are not held back in meeting their full potential because of assumptions made about them, or special needs that they may have.  Allowing social justice to become a part of our broader education system (as in Finland's) is just as important as teaching it in our classrooms, and subconsciously practicing it as educators.  The importance of social justice has led to an advanced education system in Finland (and other scandinavian countries) that could be used as a model for broad reform within the United States education system.  

Also, in considering this, I see similarities between Finland's high expectations for all, and "no excuses" reform movements within the United States.  Both disregard factors outside of their education that could be holding students back, and leave it to the schools to overcome these issues.  

rbp13's picture

One aspect of the Finnish

One aspect of the Finnish education system that was particularly salient to me, and which I believe is lacking in the United States, is that teachers are expected to occupy a variety of roles, in addition to simply imparting knowledge to students. Sahlberg writes, "Teachers in Finnish schools have many other responsibilities besides teaching: They assess their students' achievement and overall progress, prepare and continuously develop their own school curriculum, participate in several school health and well-being initiatives concerning their students, and provide remedial support to those who may need additional help" (64). In class, we have spent a significant amount of time thinking about how to be effective educators, and perform the responsibilities that we see as being ideally associated with that role, without getting burned out. The Finnish answer to this is the "Teach less, learn more" idea (62). Essentially, although Finnish students spend less time in school, the time that is spent there is more productive because more emphasis is placed on teacher development. I think the U.S. would benefit from considering how to implement aspects of this model.

Not only does the "teach less, learn more" mentality allow more time for collaboration among teachers, curriculum development, and lesson planning (all of which contribute to students' experiences in the classroom and make effective learning more likely), but allowing teachers to fill multiple roles increases teacher accountability. Accountability has been a major focus in the United States, particularly since the passing of NCLB. However, how to make students and teachers accountable for students' learning has been a problem. Currently, test scores, and the ramifications of poor performance, are one of the only means of ensuring that teachers are effectively educating students. I think that through more thoroughly incorporating teachers into the functioning of the system as a whole (e.g. through having them develop their own assessments rather than relying on high-stakes tests) would increase teacher engagement and subsequently student performance. Essentially, I think that the more integrated teachers are into the system as a whole, the more motivated and productive they will be. Largely this is because greater involvement in more aspects of the system increases the coherence of the system , thereby making it function more effectively.     

sully04's picture

"Old School" Thinking

“A fundamental belief related to the old structure was that everyone cannot learn everything; in other words, that talent in society is not evenly distributed in terms of one’s ability to be educated. In Finland, there were echoes of the Coleman Report, favoring the view that a young person’s basic disposition and characteristics were determined in the home, and could not be substantially influenced by schooling (Coleman et al., 1966),” (21).


In thinking about this quote in conversation with the class Sociology of Education, it is clear that these fundamental beliefs of the ‘old school’ in Finland are still alive in our school systems in the US. Our education systems, where the rich can pay their way to a good education (either in private schools or in districts that serve richer communities) and the poor have to learn in schools that aren’t doing the job, perpetuate class and status standards. The American dream says that if you work hard enough, social mobility is possible yet, with our education the model the way it is, mobility is predicated on which school system you can get into. I would argue that this ‘old school’ belief that everyone cannot learn everything may be threaded throughout our education systems and the American dream: in Sociology of Education we learned it is theorized that students in lower class schools learn more career motivated skills- blue collar skills. Schools that serve this population teach less abstract or critical thinking, but focus on more factory-style learning, where listening and following directions is valued. While this sounds like some sort of conspiracy theory, I can see how arguments in this direction may be true. Even within schools, classes are tracked so that two different outcomes can happen- one where students learn the thinking required for higher education and one where it is not- and it is not hard to see race and class differences embedded within the tracks.

The difference maker in regards to this idea in Finnish schools seems to be the career counselors. Sahlberg writes “career guidance was intended to minimize the possibilities that student would make inappropriate choice regarding their future. In principle, students had three options: continue education in upper secondary general school, go on to vocational school, or find employment” (23).  With a structure in place to ensure either a stable job once a student leaves school, or is on the right track to a job or higher education, it seems that Finnish students have a lesser chance of falling through the cracks. I know that at my high school, counselors were only interested in helping you navigate the college process (and even in this they were not very helpful). A stronger counseling program that ensures every student is cared for, plus a school system that gives equal opportunity to everyone despite their background is what sticks out to me as exceptional in Finnish Lessons. 

Uninhibited's picture

Special Education is not Defiency

I also noticed how Finland used special education differently, but I focused more on what it means for most students to receive special education. I thought that this was a great way to note that special education is not a deficiency but rather a different way of learning, which probably meant that students were more likely to seek out this help. I think that because in America's public schools there's such an emphasis in way of learning and showcasing this learning (testing) it doesn't leave room for people to really work through their strengths and differences. In many ways, I understood special education in Finland more like specialized instruction. As I was reading, I thought of people who may be great writes but struggle with math. In the US they may be scared to seek out "special education" because of the stereotypes associated with it, but in Finland they may understand that they're just stronger in one subject than the other. I think it's important to note that special education should not be seen as negative since it is almost absurd to think that everyone will learn the same material, at the same pace, in the same way. By having special education no longer be "special" they are removing the stereotypes that are often associated with it in the US and allowing students to truly engage and succeed in schools.

ellenv's picture

I think this is particurarly

I think this is particurarly interesting in the context of middle and high school education where often a teacher is only exposed to a student's work in the context of a single subject area. This means that a student that they might notice is struggling in class could be excelling down the hall in another subject/with another teacher. If there is any discussion/cooperation/coordination/dialouge between teachers then they will probably become aware of this fact as one teacher can speak to a student's strengths and another can speak to their struggles. But this does not necessarily change the fact that teachers have certain expectations for "sameness" in their own classroom as you stated, "learn the same material, at the same pace, in the same way."

mencabo's picture

Nothing Special about Special Education

         There were a lot of good points in these early chapters, but what stood out to me was the idea that the majority of the students receive some sort of special education in their primary and lower secondary years: “up to half of those students who complete their compulsory education at the age of 16 have been in special education at some point in their schooling. In other words, it is nothing special anymore for students” (47). This removes any social judgment or stigma and helps students accept the fact that everyone has different needs and that is ok and normal.

            In my field placement, my students (adult ESL) expressed their observation and disappointment that because nowadays most parents tell their kids that they are “special,” kids act more spoiled in schools and have other attitude problems. My students seemed to imply that if kids grew up thinking that they, as individuals, were “special,” then they could end up feeling like they are better than others. It is reminiscent of the dangers of “othering.” On the other hand, if everyone is special, then no one is really “special.” That is what the Finnish schools seem to be promoting during the students’ formative years. (Special is equivalent to normal?)

            Labels certainly affect students emotionally and socially so the fact that the Finnish system can assuage the negative image of special education indicates that embedded in their practice is the veneration of values such as acceptance, humility and unity. Even if there is diversity in learning styles and abilities, the mission to educate every student unites schools, educators and even the nation.

Laura H's picture

Special Education

I also found the high rates of "special education" in the Finland education system very interesting, and it got me thinking about my Special Education course I took two years ago. One thing I took away from that class is that special education is about being aware of different learning styles and accomodating them, yet I wondered why all education shouldn't be like this. I still find it so interesting that Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are unique to special education students. Why can't all students have an IEP? As you said, there is always a diversity in learning styles and abilities, so a successful education system should take that into account rather than stigmatize those who differ from a very narrow concept of what is "smart." 

dshu's picture


I find it interesting as well that we are aware of the different learning style people/students have and
we need to accommodate their needs. I wonder and kind of rely on a teacher's own philosophy in
teaching because when I took the Special Education course, the key in the class was we were our own
advocates. What do you need/do to help you succeed? This has been successfully implemented in Finnish
Lesson “…students build their own personalized learning schedules from a menu of courses offered in
their school…” (p.60). Their “…selected courses can be completed at a different pace depending on the
students’ abilities ….” (p.60). Can we add this flexibility to IEPs?

hl13's picture

Special Education and Tracking

The study of the Special Education program as well as its perspectives on tracking caused me to reflect on a conversation I had with the lead teacher in my placement. He told me that the school, a small Quaker school with one small class per grade (my 4th grade class has under 15 students), will now start tracking math, science, and maybe other courses (I'm not sure) by ability level rather than grade level. He pointed our particular students (to me only, obviously) that will end up with older students the following year, and ones that will stay on grade level, and perhaps be joined by older students who were not as successful. He made it seem like these tracked classes were likely a good idea, and that these classes might be entirely different topics (I imagine something like algebra, trigonometry, etc.). 

While the revision of the Finnish education system praised the format of small-scale special education in its varied settings, it moved away from the large-scale emphasis on tracking that existed in the older system. While the two systems, special ed and tracking, are not one and the same, the debates surrounding them pose similar questions. Both concern differentiating instruction by ability level, and both can involve separating students by these differing abilities. What I think is interesting is how the special education system can work in such a positive way, while tracking systems clearly had a more negative impact. On one level, this clearly happened because in the old Finnish system children were tracked after primary school. But I think the scale of these two systems speak to their success or failure.

When discussing Tough's book, we spoke a lot about the positive impact a sense of community has on a school or classroom. I believe this holds for both ides from Finnish Lessons and the anecdote from my placement. The special-education program happened on a small, individualized, community-oriented level aimed at lifting students; the tracking program happened in a top-down imposition aimed at dividing them. This is where I think tracking has the chance at being a positive thing (though this chance is slimmer than the role special education plays). My placement school, a private school with many rescorces and freedoms, can make a tracking system work for all students involved, because it comes from an entrenched, tight-knit community. In this way, the students' learning seems more individualized. 

transitfan's picture

special education as a virtue

I too was struck by this. In the U.S., we often read of "high special education rates" in urban school districts as a decifit for these urban schools to overcome. While special education requires additional expensive labor (especially since school districts have to pay for their teachers' healthcare benefits etc. unlike in Finnland which has single-payer healthcare; probably a major reason their education costs appear lower), Finnland shows how high rates of special education can be a positive.