Can the Lessons from Finnish Schools Be Applied Elsewhere?

Finland’s education expert Pasi Sahlberg, author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?” addressing the focus on teacher effectiveness in the US:

What if Finland’s Great Teachers Taught in US Schools?

To finish up, let’s do one theoretical experiment. We transport highly trained Finnish teachers to work in, say, Indiana in the United States (and Indiana teachers would go to Finland). After five years—assuming that the Finnish teachers showed up fluent in English and that education policies in Indiana would continue as planned—we would check whether these teachers have been able to improve test scores in state-mandated student assessments.

I argue that if there were any gains in student achievement they would be marginal. Why? Education policies in Indiana and many other states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning. Actually, I have met some experienced Finnish-trained teachers in the United States who confirm this hypothesis. Based on what I have heard from them, it is also probable that many of those transported Finnish teachers would be already doing something else than teach by the end of their fifth year - quite like their American peers.

In other words, the problems are systemic. While better teacher education and training might help a bit, the quality of individual teachers is not the main problem in the US. It’s not surprising that performance-based incentive programs for teaching are currently forcing out good teachers and rewarding ones who game the system. The remnants of “No Child Left Behind” — which focused on tests to the exclusion of actual learning — have undermined what few tendrils of actual education theory have managed to insinuate their way into the system. Everyone agrees that something is wrong. No one makes positive systemic changes.

Japan also has endemic problems with their education system. The relatively high standardized test scores mostly mask these problems from the outside, but they’re obvious given any level of privy access. The secondary school system reflects the same problems, which is probably why Todai (Tokyo Daigaku, or Tokyo University), the top university in Japan, isn’t even in the top 30 universities in the world, and is ranked only 9th in Asia.

Teachers are respected and have comparable working conditions to other professions requiring a similar amount of education. Teaching is a relatively attractive choice for a career still, despite a declining fertility rate which limits the potential for career growth. In contrast to the US, attracting young people who aspire to be good teachers is generally not a problem in Japan. There is better job security, and pay is decent compared to the business sector.

The main problem is the way things are taught. The teachers are a product of the education system, they are taught to teach within that system, and the system fails abjectly at nearly every metric — with the sole exception of standardized test scores. Nearly everything in the education system is geared toward passive learning and memorization, both of which test very well.

Japanese students have very little training in critical thinking, because virtually no curriculum time is devoted to production. They very rarely write essays or reports; they don’t do projects either. They don’t practice giving speeches (outside of the handful who participate in English speech competitions) and they don’t have debates or discussions. Questions asked in class are meant to elicit a factual response based solely on the class materials. Virtually nothing in the way of interpretation or opinion is required, and is discouraged by many teachers because it takes time away from covering the official curriculum.

I have been living in Japan for over a decade, and very little in the education system has changed in that time. According to people I met in the first few years here, who were involved in the education system, almost nothing had changed in the previous decade or more. The few positive changes I’ve seen, like the abolition of Saturday classes in public schools in order to give students time to study and have some creative free time, have been subject to regression, mostly because of pressure from the education ministry.

But there are still occasional articles that point to Japan as having a better school system. Believe me, they don’t. Nothing could be better for Japan than a top-to-bottom reform of the education system (preferably starting by throwing out the old buggers who keep approving biased textbooks).

If American schools or Japanese schools want to enact a Finnish-style system, they will have to gut the entire mess and start fresh. Established systems resist change in much the same way bodies react to foreign objects. They absorb, encapsulate, reject, or outright destroy new ways of doing things.

You’ve probably experienced this first-hand if you work in a big company. There have been a few high-profile examples recently. Ballmer got the axe, probably for daring to make a bold belated gesture toward systemic reform at Microsoft, and Ron Johnson got shitcanned by JC Penney even though he was starting to have moderate success with his boutique shop approach in the short time he was allowed free rein there.

I’ve certainly experienced it in my time here in Japan. Every time I have been asked to create something new, I have subsequently been “strongly requested” (read: ordered, nicely) to change a few things…and then a few more, until the results are nearly indistinguishable from what was in place before. I was requested to enact change, then required to negate that change, so in the end, nothing changed. Welcome to Japan.

Brains vs. Brawn

Why is academic performance under-acknowledged compared to athletic performance? In Japanese schools, at every assembly the principal announces awards and certificates for athletic meets. Academic awards are presented once, at the end of the year. Some exceptional students are given academic awards at graduation, alongside the students who had perfect attendance. In the US, you might have a graduation speech given by a valedictorian and salutatorian…and that's about it.

Unless you have the potential to be a professional athlete — one of a few tens of thousands of people out of hundreds of millions — high school, and just maybe college will be the last time you get any official recognition for athletics. It doesn't have any impact on the rest of your professional life. That might be one reason for acknowledging athletic performance when young.

But I think the main reason academic performance is not celebrated more is that most people aren't capable of appreciating excellence. Almost anyone can see when an athlete is performing better than others. In most Olympic events, performance is explicitly objective. If your time is faster, if the distance you cover is greater, you're the best. Most normal people can see and interpret performance of this type on their own. In team events and other scored performances, it's easy to tell who is winning and losing, and again it's usually easy for normal people to see which team or individual is performing better.

In academics, often only those who are capable of understanding the problem are capable of appreciating a good solution. Depending on the field of study, that might be a very small number of people. For example, I was classified as a “gifted” student in school. I consistently scored more than 2 standard deviations out from the norm on IQ tests, which means I'm in the top 1–2 percent of the population. And there are entire fields of study in academics that I don't understand. At all. There are far more things I am incapable of understanding than those I can comprehend.

So, if even smart people are incapable of appreciating excellence, what chance do “normal” people have? I think that's the core of the problem.

Academic achievement by children is often ignored because there aren't many people who can even assess that achievement. Unless you've got exceptionally bright teachers and administrators, the kid might be the smartest person in the room at an average school. Grades and tests are a way to attempt to measure performance, but, aside from continuing controversy over whether those tests actually measure any real intelligence, the fact is that we just don't give out awards for getting high scores on IQ tests, passing an AP exam, or skipping a grade. In fact, you're more likely to face opposition, frustration, and even criticism if you're smart than if you're average.

In the two cultures I'm familiar with — Japan and the US — acknowledgment of intelligence generally marks you for derision, not admiration. No one tries to beat up the fastest runner in school because he or she is too fast, but being obviously smart is enough to make someone a target for bullies who want to prove they're superior to them in at least one way. Ironically, this is true even if you're good at athletics, especially if you participate in the “wrong kind” of athletics, i.e. any non-team sport.

Academic achievement is held in slightly higher regard in Japan, but the acknowledgement is just as scanty as in the US. Compounding the lack of recognition is the fact that the classroom model of education is terrible for dealing with exceptional students. This is true for both countries. Classrooms are fairly bad even for “average” kids. Smart kids who succeed later in life often do so in spite of the education system, not because of it.

This is a particular problem in Japan where 「出る釘は打たれる」 (deru kugi ha utareru; “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”) is the rule. It's hard to learn to think when academic achievement equals memorizing and regurgitating information on tests, you are discouraged from asking questions, and conformity is paramount.