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Pasi Sahlberg and the Finnish “Truth about Finnish Schools”

February 23, 2015

On February 23, 2015, I read a post on Facebook attributed to The People LLC, entitled, The Truth about Finnish Schools.

The authors’ analysis is scathing.

I have saved the entire post here.

Here are some excerpts:

Finnish schools only demand the most basic of educational levels to be met (about 4th grade level). After that, you are on your own to finance any real education. It is on the basis of this very basic level that they are scoring so well. Finland’s high scores, then, would not be because they are stretching minds and increasing breadth of knowledge. It is more based on: 

(1) Has the population being tested met the low educational levels that have been set by UNESCO for Education for All?; (link here)

and, (2) does the information collected on students demonstrate that the students’ values and beliefs are reflective of the standards for the UN’s Education for Sustainable Development? (link here)

Finland began their Common Core type standardization in the 60’s. Given that it is a completely socialist country in which everyone’s “needs” as determined by the government elite are provided through unbelievable levels of taxation; and, which was the perfect experimental environment for all of this due to its relative geographic isolation and extremely homogeneous population, it is no wonder that this country has surpassed every other in meeting the UN’s and UNESCO’s goals.  …

As for being freer, that only happened there once the testing showed that teachers were effectively being trained to produce the kind of citizen designed by the state. 

There was no need for the test or the accountability measures after that point. This is also the point at which teachers were given autonomy in the classroom as there was no longer a need for “observations”. 

Finland accomplished the loss of free thinking/free will designed by the architects of the Prussian system in terms of the product (type of citizen) that teachers were expected to produce:

“…you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.” 


Incidentally, the above quote about “fashioning the will” can be found in the publication, Address to the German Nation, by German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). The same criticism of adopting the Prussian model is also levied against American “founder of the common school movement” Horace Mann.

Apparently, America has its own issues of roots tied to “loss of free thinking/free will.”

But back to mindless Finland, with its “very basic education” that somehow leads to high international test scores even as it completely dodges those pesky standardized tests with which also-Prussian-linked America is plagued.

I decided to ask Finnish educator and author, Pasi Sahlberg, for his thoughts on the previously-noted, supposed “truth” about Finland and its education system.

But first, some information on Sahlberg:

Pasi Sahlberg is Finnish educator, author and scholar. He has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. His expertise includes school improvement,  international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership. His best-seller book “Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland” (Teachers College Press, 2011) won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award. He is a former Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) in Helsinki and currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA, USA. More on his website: and Twitter: @pasi_sahlberg.

Pasi Sahlberg is a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA, USA. He is experienced in classroom teaching, training teachers and leaders, coaching schools and advising education policy-makers around the world. Pasi is an international speaker and author who has given more than 300 keynote speeches and published over 100 articles, chapters and books on education.

Pasi has lived and worked in England (King’s College), the United States (World Bank in Washington, DC) and Italy (European Training Foundation in Torino) and worked with 50 education systems around the world. He earned his PhD from the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) in 1996 and has been invited speaker in Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, George Washington University, University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University in the U.S. and Parliament Houses in England, Scotland, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.

I figured he was qualified to offer a word on the “truth” about Finnish schools. (Understatement, of course.)

Image result for pasi sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg

Here is his initial reaction:


Thanks for passing me these texts. I have read all sorts of things about Finnish education but this one goes beyond all of them. It makes me wonder if that is written by a serious person?

I assured Sahlberg that the text was serious and asked that he please respond. He replied that “the entire piece of writing is so far off” and was not sure addressing it would help. However, I noted that my concern was that others would read the above skewed version of Finnish “truth” and take it for reality.

At that, I am pleased to note, Finnish Sahlberg offers the following response to the narrow, American version of “socialist” life in his country:

When I ask people almost anywhere I go what do they think when they think about Finland they see similar things: Snow, cold, trees, lakes and … It is true that only a few people have visited Finland, home of 5.5 million people. Therefore lack of knowledge of my home country is understandable. 

What is surprising, however, is that there are those who– despite all the news, documentaries, journalism, research and literature today openly available to anyone interested to learn more– believe that Finland is a ‘completely socialist country’ where its children are educated by the State rather than parents, that the vast majority of children don’t get enough school education their parents (if they can afford it) have to buy proper education for their children, that resources are not distributed equitably to all, and that all schools are unionized. It wouldn’t take too much time or effort to read about or talk to someone experienced with what Finland once was and what it has become as a nation. 

This is what one would find: Today Finland is one of the most competitive market economies, leads the world in innovation and technological advancement, and has one of the least frequent incidences of corruption anywhere. Further inquiry would reveal that this Scandinavian country, together with its Western neighbors, also is a leader in empowering women in politics and perhaps therefore has only a few children who live in poverty, has one of the smallest income inequalities in society, gives every child a right to high-quality early education, offers universal healthcare and free higher education to all, and has – probably for these reasons – one of the happiest people on the planet. And, on top of all this, Finland also tops the international league table in freedom of press. Call it socialism if you wish, most Finns (and many Americans living in Finland) find this type of lifestyle worth of their taxes (that I pay here just as much as I did back home without any of these benefits).

Oh, yes, and Common Core? Well, since teachers are highly educated professionals there is no need for tight central government control of what or how teachers teach in Finland. Teaching and learning are highly individualized in schools and customized to the needs of children and communities. Teaching is such a popular profession in Finland that only the lucky ones are selected to teach. 90 percent of teachers and happy with their work and most of them continue teaching until the end of their working life. Sounds too good to be true? Propaganda, perhaps? Welcome and take a look.

Good further readings about Finland: 

– Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0. What can the world learn from educational change in Finland. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

– Halme, K., Lindy, I., Piirainen, K., Salminen, V., & White, J. (2014). Finland as a knowledge economy 2.0: Lessons on policies and governance. Washington, DC: World Bank.

– Chaker, A. N. (2014). The Finnish miracle. Helsinki, Finland: Talentum.

I can’t get past the irony of a supposed Finnish “socialist” coming to America, where he is “free” to be taxed and receive less for it.

But let’s close shop for now.

The People, LLC, post ends as follows:

Do we want the end of assessments? Absolutely! We have to go one better there, as well, to say that we want rid of all data-driven anything. There are still teachers around (many of whom got let-go just cuz they suddenly could be) who still remember being able to decide within their classroom what it was that each student needed and the direction that they wanted their curriculum to go for the year. No assessments necessary. Just human interaction, talent, and a dose of common sense. 

We want the things they are selling based on Finland—we just want nothing to do with the Finnish Model. America already did exactly what we are discussing and did it better than anyone else in the world as evidenced, not by tests and data, but by innovation and ingenuity and standard of living.

America “did it better than anyone else,” yet here we are, being choked by the hellish union of unfettered business/philanthropy dollars and state addiction to federal education funding.

Way to go, Amer-u-cuh.

Image result for flag half mast


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

  1. Thanks Mercedes. This was excellent. I just stepped out of a presentation here in Japan by two Nordic early childhood educators, one from Finland, the other – Johanna Einarsdottir – from Iceland. Their descriptions were fascinating, especially Einarsdottir’s…

    She put up a slide at one point of what she called the 6 Fundamental Pillars (Common Core?) of the Nordic Model of Education- Literacy, Sustainable Development, Health & Psychological well-being, Democracy, Equality & Creativity.

    She said these were themes all the way through Nordic education systems, beginning in pre-school. Have you heard of this before? I’ve been searching online and haven’t been able to find mention of such a model. Will send her an e-mail and try to get more info.

    • Hi, Christopher. I have not heard of the Six Pillars, but I would be careful not to label it as “Common Core” too quickly. Different nations have different mindsets. In the USA, Common Core was rushed and secretive; it was meant to blindside traditional public ed; to serve the interests of education business, especially via its attendant punitive assessments.

      I tried to download and read this report, but my computer was slow to download it:

      • Hi Mercedes. Thanks for responding. Oh, I agree, I did not mean to label it Common Core, I was using the term in a metaphorical and ironic sense, that every system needs some core values or pillars. The Nordic cultures understand this in a wise way, with values that serve the interests of the children. It’s a very different situation in the US, very destructive.

        I was able to download your link, 336 pages, no wonder it’s taking so long!!

        Thank you.

  2. Laura chapman permalink

    Thanks for going to the source of accurate information, and for his excellent reply. The amazing and scary thing about the Internet is the ease of propagating false reports. This one is off the charts. I enjoyed the visibility of your expertise in German history and a few of those legacies in education here and elsewhere.

  3. I lived just above two older Finns for years. My impression was entirely consistent with Sahlberg’s rebuttal. I find everything about Finnish culture and national character most impressive.

    • I remember a nun in grade school telling us that the first and only country to repay the US after WW2 was Finland.

  4. Paige permalink

    Also, have you, by chance, read John Taylor Gatto’s ruminations of his 30+ years of teaching and what do you think of it?

  5. It’s spelled Amurika, Mercedes with the second syllable stressed.

  6. If any of that attack were true, then there would be lots and lots of private Finnish prep schools for the elite. However, there aren’t any at all. Quoting from the Atlantic:

    “Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”

    This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.”

    • It might surprise you to know that the universities in many (maybe most) European countries are public schools, that includes Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK, and Trinity College in Dublin. There are some private colleges but they are attended by a tiny minority; the prestigious schools tend to be the State-run schools. The US may be one of the least equal societies in the western world. Sadly propaganda here does a great job of keeping that secret from the majority of Americas.
      Also, while there may be issues with the common core, the idea of a national curriculum is not a bad one. Within the confines of such a curriculum there can be a lot of freedom, and there is something to be said for a “A” from a public school in a poor area being worth the very same as the “A” from a private school in an affluent area.

  7. Monica permalink

    I am first generation American, the majority of my relatives live in Finland and Sweden. What Pasi says is far more accurate. We go back to visit every 2 or 3 years and I have visited the schools in Finland. Very competitive, no discipline problems according to the teachers, who are treated more like college professors with office hours for students to come for help. The math texts are more like Saxon….less pictures, more straight math and rigorous. The seniors are reading more difficult novels -in English (their 2nd or 3rd language)- than the seniors in our high school in upstate NY. I was very impressed. The English professor that I met was Canadian. The kids also get a free hot meal for lunch….tablecloths and a vase of flowers on each table even.
    What is most different is that not everyone ends up in “high school”….those not academically inclined have an option of tech school or internships.
    Taxes are high but they get a lot provided.

  8. In 1978, I spent a summer in Europe after my first year of teaching here in NY. I visited another Scandinavian country–Denmark. At that time, they were years ahead of the United States. In 1978, most learning disabled students were either in small classes in public schools or state approved private schools within our country. However, what I observed in Denmark was a public school with what we call today an integrated class where disabled and general education students were educated together by two or more teachers.

    Countries such as Denmark and Finland are social democracies. These countries value human dignity. These countries value children and have created societies that tries to help every child reach their potential. I would take their form of socialism any day over the greed and inequality that exists in so many places in United States and have been made part of various state and federal laws within our nation. Freedom is not just political freedom, but also economic and social equality. By the way, the iron grip of the 21st century Robber Barons is making any vestige of “Political Freedom” in this country a thing of the past.

    • Amen. When I visit teacher friends in Germany, I’m amazed by their schools – attractive, well-equipped and democratic. Each class elects a student representative on issues like too much homework or bullying. Teachers consult about students all day – in a large, comfortable lounge where they also eat and have their own desk.

      I also acted as dictionary and grammarian for any English exams. Only students bound to become professionals take exams. They choose among two core topics and one elective, writing essays or preparing projects which they defend like a mini-dissertations. Their higher-order thinking are demonstrated in conversation with humans, not in front of a computer. There are no mind-numbing practice or pre-tests, and it requires only two half-days, which is less than for PARCC or SBAC.

      The only standardized test in continental Europe comes once for all students at the age of fifteen. The PISA requires only two hours and tests knowledge of math, language and science and is available to the US. The bugs have been worked out and its validity proven, because it’s been around since 1997. The price for the PISA includes scoring, reporting, help-desk and all other services, while the PARCC or SBAC fee leaves those expenses to the schools. In the end the PISA seems cheaper.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider on “The Truth about Finnish Education” | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Ed News, Tuesday, February 24, 2015 Edition | tigersteach

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