Real Finnish Lessons - Extracting policy learning from the debate about Finnish educational improvement

Tim Oates (Cambridge Assessment)
Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren (Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education) 

Date: 09 Nov 2015 Venue: Faculty of Education,
University of Cambridge
184 Hills Road Cambridge CB2 8PQ
Time: 16:30 - 18:30
Type: Seminar Fee: Free to attend

In 2000, even Finnish educators were surprised at the nation's emergence at the top of the OECD's PISA league tables. Unsurprisingly, Finland became the focus of extraordinary attention. For educational researchers and policy makers, Finland was a pre-eminent destination on the 'educational tourism' circuit. Newspaper articles ballooned in number and the word 'Finland' began to appear in speeches around the world, either as something to emulate, or simply to frighten people into action on improvement of education. But at heart of many of the 'lessons' from Finland, there lurked a profound error.

People looked at Finnish schools and asked about the system as it was in the year they visited (2000 – 2002 being the peak years). No-one appeared to ask a set of key questions - exactly when did the Finnish system start to improve, what conditions prevailed at the time of improvement, and what actions were taken, when. After all, the children in PISA 2000 were 15 years' of age; and their teachers had been trained years before 2000. It's not that this 'time lag' issue was new in transnational comparisons, it was simply odd that everyone had seemed to forget its importance.

It's not that this 'time lag' issue was new in transnational comparisons, it was simply odd that everyone had seemed to forget its importance."

Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment

Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment asked these questions of Finnish educators when he supported the UK 2010 National Curriculum Review, and then worked his way through the research literature on the last 120 years of the emergence of modern education in Finland. You can read Tim's findings in his paper 'Finnish fairy stories'.

Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren of Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education took this further with his forensic examination of Finnish and Swedish education, through an extensive tour of Finland, a series of penetrating in-country interviews, and a further delve into the literature. Gabriel then put together 'Real Finnish Lessons', an extended monograph which has been widely quoted around the world.

Some have read these works as a strident criticism of the Finnish system. They are no such thing. Far from that, they attempt authentic analysis of the conditions and actions which gave rise to the undoubted rise in education standards in Finland from 1980 to 2000. But they are very critical of the misleading messages which some have given - messages which have been broadcast around the world as unequivocal recommendations for those systems anxious to improve.

This event will outline Gabriel and Tim's work and give participants an opportunity not only to gain an insight into the history and sequence of developments in Finland, but also to pose questions as to the implications of the new perspective on the transformation of education.

Continue the debate on Twitter with @Cam_Assessment using #FinnishCam

Speaker biographies

Tim-Oates-PortraitTim Oates is Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, focusing on national and international research on assessment and measurement. In 2010 he published 'Could do better' which laid down the principles for the review of the National Curriculum in England.

He was chair of the Expert Panel for Review of the National Curriculum. He has published widely on assessment and is a member of Ofqual's Standards Advisory Group. Tim routinely provides briefings and advice to UK and other governments. He is a visiting professor at the University of Leeds and a Fellow of Churchill College Cambridge.

Gabriel-Sahlgren-PortraitGabriel Heller Sahlgren is Director of Research at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, Affiliated Researcher at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm, Sweden, and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

He is the author of 'Incentivising excellence: school choice and education quality', which discusses the conditions that need to prevail for choice to produce higher achievement and analyses a vast amount of research on this topic. He is also the author of the paper 'Schooling for money: Swedish education reform and the role of the profit motive', for which he was awarded the Arthur Seldon Award for Excellence.

184 Hills Road Cambridge CB2 8PQ

These larger seminars organised by Cambridge Assessment could become a significant focus of interest for the education and wider community dealing with the most urgent and deep rooted concerns."

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