Can we all just listen to @pasi_sahlberg?! An overview of his @NJEA Convention keynote speech

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg is a captivating speaker.  He’s intelligent, he’s credible, he’s funny (evidently there’s more to Finland than reindeer and snow! Who knew?!), and he’s confident in the message he delivers about the differences between Finnish and American school.

But most of all, he JUST. MAKES. SENSE.

In his hour-long lecture to a convention hall full of NJEA members who had waited in line to hear him, Sahlberg described the fundamental differences between his native country and ours that account for the differences in our respective students’ educational experiences.

Central to his discussion was this question: What’s the purpose of education? Sahlberg’s answer: in Finland, nobody thinks of education as a global competition.  Instead, it’s a vehicle to help kids find and lead the best possible life they can–because in Finland, everyone seems to understand that the nation’s fundamental goal should be to ensure its children are healthy and happy.

(What!? What about college and career readiness? test scores?)

About those test scores. 

Sahlberg explained that when the OECD, the organization responsible for PISA, released its first study in 2000–and Finland was #1–the country’s educators were shocked. They thought there had been some mistake. They weren’t sure how to explain the results–and they worried about the embarrassment that would result if they celebrated the scores and then realized that an error in reporting had occurred.


So the Finns waited for the 2003 results–and then the 2006 results.  When both confirmed Finland’s spot at the top of the pack, the country’s educators finally decided that the OECD hadn’t made an error and that they really did need to identify the causes of their children’s PISA success.  Sahlberg’s explanation:

Finland is a nation that’s good at “taking care of everybody inclusively.” Good PISA scores were simply a by-product of this philosophy–and certainly not something the country’s educators had deliberately and exclusively set out to achieve.


So what does “taking care of everybody inclusively” involve? In Finland, Sahlberg says, people value political empowerment of women.  Half of the members of country’s parliament are women, and Sahlberg explains that women help to shape and promote policies that are both child-friendly and family-friendly.  Finns enjoy universal healthcare, new mothers are granted one full year of paid maternity leave, and universal daycare is available for children until they start school when they’re 7 years old.

Ultimately, Finns also believe that while good teachers are important, most of the challenges facing children and educators have to do with factors outside of school–rather than with teacher quality.  These are society’s problems, not education’s problems. Places where education is labeled as “failing” typically have failing societies for children–and no amount of innovation, which American schools are evidently known for, will address America’s glaring societal problems. And it’s not surprising, Sahlberg pointed out, that America is known for its income inequality–and Finland is one of the most equal nations in terms of its distribution of wealth.

Next, Sahlberg described “Five things you won’t find in Finland”:

  1. Unhealthy competition. Sahlberg seemed genuinely perplexed and disturbed by the extent to which we focus on competition in the United States–both in terms of test scores and in terms of teacher and school quality.  In Finland, the focus is on providing a “great school for each and every child”–and there’s no room for toxic competition in such an environment.
  2. Standardized teaching. Sahlberg is famous for saying that “the worst enemy of creativity is standardization,” and the fact that Finnish children earn top scores on PISA scores without engaging in any kind of standardized testing or test prep (children take one standardized test at the end of their education experience–when they’re 19 years old) should give everyone who promotes high-stakes testing pause.  In Finland, the focus is on individualized learning, and students are assessed against their own potential rather than assigned a statistical averages.  (In fact, children receive no grades in their first five years of schooling; the practice of assigning grades to small children is illegal.) 
  3. Test-based accountability. Finns believe in trust-based responsibility–and they don’t see the need to test everybody every year.  Instead, they take samplings to measure student achievement.  (Sahlberg compared this practice to regular health check-ups; when doctors draw blood for diagnostic purposes, they only take a small vial–they don’t drain a person of all his blood to determine how healthy he is.)
  4. Obsession with the myth of “teacher effectiveness.” Sahlberg noted that education policy in America is driven by the myth that schools are populated with an overwhelming number of “bad teachers” and that teachers should compete with each other–and that doing so will make them better.  The opposite is true, he says: teaching is a “team sport,” and discussions in Finland are about school effectiveness rather than teacher effectiveness.  Sahlberg also noted that even great teachers can’t necessarily overcome problems that result from failures of society. (Here’s where we get it wrong in America; test-prepping children so test scores go up does not indicate that children are taken care of, that the roots of their problems have been addressed or corrected, or that they have been educated appropriately).
  5. Market-like school choice. Private schools are illegal in Finland.  Parents can choose between public schools, but there is a great focus on equity.  Sahlberg denounced America’s school choice movement, noting that charters and competition do not solve the problems that we should be solving–and instead make those problems worse and cause segregation and inequity.

Special Education in Finland

The Finns believe in taking care of everybody, and in order to take the idea of equity more seriously, their focus on “special education” involves identifying students who need “special” help (by 9th grade, half of Finland’s students have been in “special education”) and allowing teachers time to address individual students’ needs.  Teachers have weekly meetings to sit down and talk about how to assist struggling students, and such meetings are possible because Finnish teachers spend 40% less time in front of a class each week than do their American counterparts.  (This is obviously in stark contrast to the belief that American teachers are underworked, lazy, etc.)

Also, Sahlberg noted, the money Finns spend on education goes directly to children–and not to standardized testing.  

Sahlberg concluded his discussion with an overview of “The Finnish Way,” which many believe is the ticket to educational “Heaven.” (Cue Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan sound clips, to which audience members were encouraged to sing along.)

  1. Enhance Equity. Funding must be fair, and policymakers must focus on children’s health and well-being, special education needs, and educating the whole child.  Sahlberg said, “it breaks my heart” to see American schools that have cut music, arts, and physical education–because Finns build their schools around these disciplines.
  2. Invest in Cooperation.  Teachers must be able to collaborate, and they must be respected–because “the quality of an education system CAN exceed the quality of its teachers.”
  3. Empower Teachers. Sahlberg noted that in 1995, the average tenure of America’s teachers was 17 years; today, it is 1 year. (He also criticized programs like Teach for America, which places inexperienced teachers who commit to two years in the classroom in the neediest schools around the country–and makes plenty of money in doing so.)  He acknowledged that it takes 10,000 hours (8-10 years) for a teacher to be great, but most of America’s educators “will never get there” because they’re driven out of the profession shortly after they enter it.  (The average length of time Finland’s teachers stay in the classroom is 17 years.)
  4. Children Must Play.  Sahlberg showed the schedule of a typical Finnish child–and then followed it by a map of America that showed the percentage of American children in each state receiving ADHD medication.  Though he didn’t have any medical documentation to support the correlation between a lack of play or a rigid (test prep!) schedule and ADHD diagnoses, the correlation seems obvious.
Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 11.01.18 AM

Where’s the test prep? How do they have time for all this play?!


Reformer’s Dilemma: Sahlberg ended by pointing out that education policy in America is shaped by people who are ignoring research that shows their policies to be destructive.  When will we learn? When will the misguided practices schools and teachers are being forced to engage in be identified as dangerous and damaging?

When will we learn that taking care of children–and ensuring their health, well-being, and happiness–should be our biggest concern? And, perhaps most importantly: is American education policy as it exists now what we want for our kids?  

Pasi Sahlberg just makes sense. We should all hope that, for the future of our country, more people begin to listen to him.


“We have ADHD in Finland. We call it ‘childhood.'”


*All charts came directly from Sahlberg’s NJEA Convention slide show presentation. See the whole thing here. Thanks to everyone at NJEA for giving your members this opportunity!


Mike Kaminski, Marie Corfield, and I (and future McHugh baby #2, who behaved himself sufficiently for the hour) were very excited to get our picture taken with Pasi Sahlberg at the NJEA Convention.



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4 responses to “Can we all just listen to @pasi_sahlberg?! An overview of his @NJEA Convention keynote speech

  1. Lori

    Wow! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could adopt their philosophy. Thanks for sharing Ani!

  2. An effective counter balance to every school reformer who stands up in front of a school board demanding rigor.

  3. Nothing wrong with rigor. It’s “rigor” I have a problem with. All these misguided people that equate rigor with misery could stand to read this a few times.

  4. wpchristie

    Yes, their “rigor” is more akin to rigor mortis.

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