Opinion: Learning a lesson from Finland

Finland is a star in the educational world. To catch up on Finland’s work, I was recently reading Pasi Sahlberg’s book on the Finnish education system, titled “Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?”
Finland has been recognized for the growth of its educational system over the course of the last 30 years, as it has risen to one of the top spots on the PISA global student assessment over the last decade. Education reformers from across the globe have been visiting Finland for years to get a better sense of what the Finns are doing and how they have seen such dramatic growth over a relatively short period of time.
Sahlberg is in high demand. His work has been focused on distilling the essential tenets of the Finnish educational system and outlining how that work may be applicable to other countries. These “Finnish lessons,” as he has called them, range from a focus on the social and moral imperative of education to the necessity to provide individualized guidance. Perhaps one of his most interesting assertions regarding Finland and its global education strength is around teacher collaboration and its impact on both the profession of teaching and on student outcomes.
In the United States, our history of teacher collaboration and collaborative models has been capricious. The design of our educational system did not have collaboration at its core, and originally focused more on individual classrooms without formalized collaborative connections between them. We have embraced, in different reform eras over the last 30 years, some of the following to work to bridge the silo-effect of the classroom: co-teaching, professional learning communities, collaborative consultation, team and house configurations, School within School structures, and many more models.
We haven’t found one model that sticks, which isn’t a surprise. I think this can be attributed to our focus on models and structures as means to change our educational systems. To build a real collaborative framework, we need to go beyond the implementation of a model. We need to understand what strong collaboration is, what it looks like, and how it can empower our educators and leaders to be more reflective, creative and insightful. It means building spaces where teachers not only collaborate meaningfully together, but also alongside students to strengthen their practice. I think most educators can speak deeply about powerful collaborative experiences they’ve had that shifted their thinking or illuminated their understanding of teaching and learning, but they will also share that those experiences could be much more common and consistent.
As a country, we need to figure out how to get out of our penchant for large-scale, prescriptive approaches to education. We have been reducing our understanding of learning to standardized assessments and the narrow lens of accountability for too long, rather than throwing our energies headlong into developing stronger, more authentic collaboration among our educators and students. As Finland has shown the rest of the world, our work is building the right collaborative space for exceptional teaching and learning to take place, with a structure that supports student agency and inquiry and focuses on individualized, personal development and success.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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