Real Finnish Lessons: The true story of an education superpower

After the release of the first PISA scores in December 2001, Finland became the centre of worldwide educational attention. “PISA tourism” began and teachers, heads, politicians and policymakers made pilgrimages to Finland to uncover the educational “secret”.

Soon after, academic literature, policy documents and articles in the press addressed the reasons behind Finland’s educational assets and Finnish “best practice” began to influence policy worldwide as politicians used the country’s educational model to justify educational change and reform.

The model has been used to justify reform here, for example in the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching. However, in 2009, and more so in 2012, Finnish results in PISA began to decline. Politicians’ interest started to sway towards East Asia, with MPs recently travelling to Shanghai for new inspiration.

I am an educational researcher specialising in Finnish education. My doctoral dissertation focused on the reasons for Finland’s success in PISA, and my current research focuses on Finland’s influence on current UK education policy. Therefore, I was eager to review Sahlgren’s book as it provides an important, alternative perspective.

Along with addressing the factors pertaining to Finland’s impressive performances in the early PISAs, it also documents the recent decline in scores. As an economist, Sahlgren stresses the importance of causality. He also makes the astute point that many of the reasons credited for Finland’s top outcomes are superficial conclusions, rather than carefully exploring the deeper, underlying causes.

Real Finnish Lessons argues that little evidence exists to back the previous beliefs for Finland’s success, and confronts the notion of “best practice” as something to be emulated.

This lack of causality, Sahlgren asserts, is problematic. Thus, Real Finnish Lessons provides a counterpoint to the literature of the ubiquitous Pasi Sahlberg, whose books Finnish Lessons and Finnish Lessons 2.0, plus various publications in academia and the media, has inundated the world with his particular views of Finnish educational success.

In general, the book provides an excellent synthesis of relevant literature, including academic sources, publications in the mass media, and policy documents.

Real Finnish Lessons takes the salient reasons behind Finland’s success in PISA, but uncovers the historical roots underpinning such values within Finnish society. The common explanations are too superficially presented, it is argued, and therefore seen to be too policy malleable and easily applicable to other contexts and societies.

Real Finnish Lessons rightfully suggests the “fashionable” reasons behind Finland’s success are cursory, and therefore alluring for policymakers to borrow.

Thus, the book implies, more political, social, cultural, and historical investigation is needed before forming policy.

This book, while not as accessibly written for a wide audience as Dr Sahlberg’s work (the style is a cross between academic writing and a policy paper), is of immense value to those in education.

It provides a critical analysis of Finland’s educational success, for example, challenging the value of “best practice”. Teachers and heads may find it contradicts their educational philosophies and values; politicians and policymakers may find their education policies “based” on Finland’s successes needed much more investigation.

However, it provides a critical perspective on the “glorious” Finnish success story, and the subsequent “PISAster”. It also adds to the criticality of the literature available regarding the Finnish education system.

Sahlgren makes some refreshingly bold claims, some of which I would love to discuss with him. Again, while this book was not written for a wide, general audience, it provides substantial warning against haphazard and quick-fix educational solutions.

These warnings have been raised by comparative educationists for centuries, but seem to fall on deaf (policy) ears. Real Finnish Lessons further stresses the importance of synthesising education research, policy and practice.