Lessons in Education from Finland November 22 2011

The task of teachers is to transform the lives of young people. - Stephen Murgatroyd

Last year I was in the company of about five thousand other educators from southern Alberta as we attended the annual teachers’ convention at the Telus Center in Calgary. The quote above is from one of the keynote speakers at the two day event.

Over the course of those two days I was really impressed with the quality of the workshops I attended. At this event, the second keynote speaker was an educational specialist by the name of Dr. Pasi Sahlberg. Dr. Sahlberg comes from Finland and has worked in many countries, specializing in educational reform. Both of these speakers, while coming from different backgrounds and slightly different perspectives, seemed to focus their speeches on a similar theme – giving schools back to teachers and their students.

With so much emphasis these days on standardized tests at incremental grade levels – starting from Grade 3 in some jurisdictions, both guest speakers called for a renewed focus on learning and caring, to paraphrase Dr. Sahlberg. While listening to Dr. Sahlberg in particular, I found it quite interesting when he noted that in his home country of Finland there is no evaluation of students of any sort before Grade 6. He went on to say that in Finland (which, by the way, is reputed to have the best educational system in the world), there exists a culture of trust among teachers, and a collective responsibility for quality education.

The above speaker also made a follow-up point that I found equally intriguing. Apparently, the word “accountability” (a common term in the lexicon of educators in this part of the world) does not exist in the Finnish language. The word responsibility takes the place of accountability. Yes, I know, it may be just semantics, but I like the distinction.

Towards the end of his speech, Dr. Sahlberg showed us some graphs depicting how Finnish schools ranked (on key indicators of effective schools) relative to other countries in the European Union and the U.S. and Canada. I believe Finland came out on top, or close to the top, in just about every category. He attributed this to the fact that in Finland teachers are not only trusted to do their jobs in a professional manner, but they are also strongly encouraged to be flexible and creative in their teaching so that current pedagogical research informs their practice.

Well, you may be thinking – isn’t that the case in most countries, including Canada? Yes, you’re probably right. So what’s the difference? I think if you asked Dr. Sahlberg he would point to a number of things: a 99% school completion rate among high school students; teachers being held in high esteem by the general populace; and a fierce competition among school graduates to even get into the teaching faculty at universities in Finland. To be a teacher in Finland is to be accorded the same status as a doctor or lawyer.

The art of teaching and education in general in this Scandinavian country has benefited, over the last few decades, from a societal emphasis on high standards and elite performance. As an audience member on that morning in February, it was apparent to me that the joy of learning is of paramount importance in Finland – not just to achieve high results on some standard measure of performance, but for a much more compelling reason. That reason is, I think, best expressed in the wisdom of the following Chinese proverb: “Learning is a treasure which accompanies its owner everywhere.”

About the Author: Leonard Quilty is a Teacher with the Center for Learning@Home in Okotoks, Alberta. He can be reached by e-mail at lquilty5@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @leonardquilty.