Real Finnish Lessons - Gabriel Heller Sahlgren

View comments ▼

Foreword to 'Real Finnish Lessons' by Professor Julian Le Grand of the London School of Economics.

For the last decade or so, Finland’s education system has been a poster child for many education experts and policymakers throughout the world. This reputation stems from the country’s outstanding performance in international tests in the early part of this century. In consecutive PISA studies, Finland achieved top positions in literacy, numeracy, and science, rivalling even the East Asian tigers in overall performance. Consequently, the Finnish education model went from obscurity to world famous within only a few years.

Perhaps most remarkable was the fact that Finland was seemingly able to achieve the excellent results without resorting to the draconian education model that has been the trademark of East Asia. Similarly, it also appeared to have spurned many of the market and accountability reforms undertaken in its Scandinavian neighbours, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. All this made Finland an especially attractive model for opponents of some of the major trends in education policy worldwide.

However, the country’s performance has begun to falter in the last couple of years – in both absolute and relative terms. Proponents vi of the traditional explanations for the Finnish success appear either to ignore the on-going decline or to come up with ad hoc arguments in an attempt to save their original ones.

Yet the main problem with the traditional explanations of the Finnish education “miracle” was that they originated from the idea of “best practice”, an approach that highlights current arrangements in high-performing countries as the key determinant without adequate consideration of whether these are causally linked to performance. Consequently, the policy lessons drawn from this approach are not particularly reliable and might in fact do more harm than good.

So, while many have used Finland’s experience to support their own pet theories on the desirability of certain types of education, its rise and decline have never been systematically analysed in a rigorous fashion. In this masterly exploration of the Finnish phenomenon, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren remedies this situation. He refutes many of the standard explanations, and shows convincingly how the outcomes, both positive and negative, are better explained by a detailed examination of Finland’s history and educational culture. His research is an object lesson in how difficult it is to make international comparisons of policy without a full understanding of the politics, economics, and history of the countries concerned. It is a must read, not only for those interested in the Finnish experience, but for anybody concerned with education and school reform in general. 

Real Finnish Lessons

Real Finnish Lessons - The True story of an education superpower - Gabriel Heller Sahlgren (PDF)

Published here with the kind permission of the Centre for Policy Studies

Related materials

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.