Real Finnish Lessons

Real Finnish Lessons

18 November 2015

What makes a good story? A reflection on Gabriel Sahlgren’s ‘Real Finnish Lessons’.

Gabriel Sahlgren finished his presentation on Finnish education last week with a call for more experimental and quasi-experimental research into the causes of high performance in education systems, while acknowledging at the same time that his analysis hadn’t used these methods. He had told a story.

“You can’t randomise cultural traits, you can’t randomise economic development, you can’t randomise these things. So at the end of the day, I’m open and I say, ‘it’s just a story’. But I argue that it’s a better story, backed up by evidence, unlike the previous stories, so it’s better than the ones before.”

What makes a good story? Of course, in this context we don’t mean the one which is most exciting or meaningful, and backs up what we thought already, but the one which comes closest to reflecting the reality of what happens in a country, and what features of its culture or education system caused it to do well or otherwise in international tests. And how can we best approximate that? I would argue that the best stories do the following things:

• Pay attention to historical correlations by looking at when results improved or declined, and what was happening at the time.

• Take into account the interactions between different features of a system, and acknowledge that policies can have enabling and disabling conditions.

• Draw on features that are evidenced in some way, ideally through having been evaluated at the time (if they are policies), or by cross-national research into the effects of similar features.

• Give an explanation of the mechanism that could have caused A to lead to B, ideally based on theory (psychological or economic).

The most prominent of the previous stories that Gabriel spent some time challenging in his talk was that of Pasi Sahlberg, (I’ve taken the liberty of using first names to refer to the authors in this blog, as I thought the similarity of the two surnames might lead to confusion.) the most prominent spokesperson on Finland’s education system, and author of the book ‘Finnish Lessons’ which makes suggestions as to the causes of Finland’s PISA success. Gabriel’s analysis in his book ‘Real Finnish Lessons’ challenges Pasi’s interpretation, mainly on the basis of points 1 and 3 above; he doesn’t take historical correlations in account, and he doesn’t provide evidence for all of the features that he suggests lead to success.

The most significant and convincing challenge made by Gabriel concerns teacher autonomy. Pasi makes the case in his book that teachers are highly trusted in Finland, and that this lack of accountability and centralised control is one of the reasons Finland does so well. That teachers are trusted now is entirely true, and I was quite taken with this approach on my own visit to Finland, especially having come from teaching in an English school where I felt micro-managed. However, if you look at Finland’s international test scores over time, you’ll see that Finnish scores started to improve in the late 60s, continued to do so throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, and peaked in 2000 before starting to decline. It’s therefore important to look for answers in what was happening during the reforms of the 70s and 80s, and contrary to the landscape now, there were government mandated textbooks, clear guidelines on how to teach, and inspections to ensure teachers were sticking to these requirements. It’s therefore not accurate to attribute Finland’s high performance to teacher autonomy.

While I don’t agree with everything Gabriel said, he has made a really valuable contribution to the field in challenging one oft-told story and providing another, better evidenced one. I would still be cautious to use the word ‘real’ to describe any story though – all we can hope for is to get to better and better approximations to the ‘real’ through this kind of debate.

Lucy Crehan is an ‘education explorer’ who is writing a book about her time teaching and learning in the world’s ‘top performing’ education systems. You can pre-order it here:

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