Pasi Sahlberg on Equity and Education in Finland

In January 2012, Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg visited Stanford University to discuss his recent book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, and participate in a conference on the U.S. and Finnish education systems. After the lecture, he sat down with us to talk about the policies and practices behind the so-called “Finnish miracle” and the central role of equity in Finland’s school reform.

(Source: Scope – Stanford Center for opportunity Policy in Education –

Editor’s note:

This is a fine presentation in ten short minutes accomplished with great modesty and clarity. Finland’s dazzling educational reforms and the central role of creativity, modesty and equity from the very beginning have served as a major inspiration for the present project.  We know that we all have a great deal to learn from their pioneering experience, and perhaps even more from the human values that they somehow figured out and put at the center of their reforms.

Which leaves us with the following big question.  Namely, how can we best build on this  approach and accomplishment in other areas of society? And specifically when it comes to mobility in our daily lives, Equitable Mobility?

My guess that we are just getting started with this new vector. and that equity will in fairly short time make itself known as the 21st century version of The Wealth of Nations.  Equity is likely to become the critical metric of values and reforms at virtually all levels of society and the economy.

Stay tuned.


Reader comments:

Submitted on 2013/03/16 at 14:38  Where are We Going and Why? – by Hargreaves and Sahlberg | 3D Eye

This brilliant article by Hargreaves and Sahlberg of March 14, 2013 follows on Pasi’s fine presentation here, but looks at the self-blinding processes that continue to dominate policy and practice in terms of children’s education/reform in many parts of the world. (They are not kind with their remarks of reactionary policies and practices in the UK and the US, but there are valuable lessons for us in that as well.)

The full text of the article is available at

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John Niles (@JN_Seattle) Submitted on 2012/07/18 at 09:11

Thought experiment — suppose personal motor cars in a future world were smaller, lighter, safer, non-emitting, oil-free, recyclable when worn out, universally affordable (in the sense that bicycles are today), rarely crashed or hit pedestrians, got stuck in traffic rarely, still traveled on ordinary roads, and maneuvered in traffic as needed largely without driver intervention except to specify the destination. Would we still need to vigorously pursue a cars vs all-the-better-things paradigm? Suppose in this imaginary world there were still horizontal and vertical motorized people movers (trains, trams, elevators, escalators, moving sidewalks, cable cars, and water ferries) for dense environments, and ways for all those cars to park themselves very tightly. Bicycles, big buses, and big trucks have their own roads for the most part.

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Robert Stussi. Submitted on 2012/03/15 at 20:22

5 questions concerning transport and equity

difficult.. (but since y have many peers, you will get a lot of questions)

first, we have to remember that the underprivileged suffer already a lot (more than we could imagine) because in trying to obtain what for the normal (let alone the privileged) is current, they have to make a terrible effort (wheelchair is a good example: even in advanced societies, where much is done for them, they still have a much more complicated life, besides having often to get in by the backdoor of side door (take it symbolic, not figurative) , since the main door was not suitable to be adapted for them..)

so it is a sinus curve, and we might try to flatten a bit the negative curve (theirs, the unfortunate’ ones) which of course statistically only can be achieved if we flatten also the positive sinuses – that means taking from the privileged.. and since that is next to impossible, all stays at it is, usually

Therefore one question could be: do we (who is we? of course mostly “the others”) really want to change (towards an equitable transport system) ….

and looking for equity, maybe we should first look away from our navel (and group(s) / classes we belong to)… do we really see what the non equitable people/groups are going through (the poor are conveniently out of sight, except in touristic zones (and many poor are too proud to show their plight – that is why even in rural china a wedding costs a fortune), and the poor millionaires.. suffering from all that richness are out in Miami and Las Vegas..)

so another question (not really a question, but a it should be a paradigm): going towards an equitable transport system (any system) we should strat with ourselves

it seems to me that equity has nothing to do with being equal (a concept itself impossible to measure, even imagine how to “measure”)
equity can be of very different “size and quality”, all is relative….in a rural area, people might be used to do a lot of walking and a bicycle could be a big upgrading, in high density supply conditions, people might be very upset about a 2 minute delay of a metro (let alone a massing train..),
but then, there are minimums and maximums, and even they are relative (the only common minimum might be that we were born, the maximum is we will die..)

so the question (paradigm again) equity is relative

who is aware, observing equity questions? it is more and more a hype question (the elderly, the kids, the mobility reduced); many transport systems invest quite a bit; others say that a metro driver helping a wheelchair to enter a metro delays and makes the transport system (always the dammed system) less efficient.. that are the system efficiency believers, our worst enemies (they are always right, cannot be touched); I adore the NY buses, where the driver gets out of his seat, walks around the bus, opens the wheelchair ramp and wheels in a wheelchair, not preoccupied about time schedules and the honking; so they are the militants a good working “system” needs (surprisingly the unions were not against this, saying it was not included in the work agreements); I once almost lost a bus, helping to elderly alight, for which I had to step out (her the bus driver would not bother to leave his seat)…

therefore another question could be: to achieve equitable transport we have to break the system and be ourselves – each of us, first an observer/recognizer, then a militant

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is a public entrepreneur specializing in the field of sustainability and social justice. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest work focuses on the subject of equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions and in the process, find practical solutions to urgent climate, mobility, life quality and job creation issues. Currently working on an open collaborative project, “BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transportation to Smaller Asian Cities” . More at:

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4 thoughts on “Pasi Sahlberg on Equity and Education in Finland

  1. Finnish miracle: fata morgana?
    Finnish students’ achievement (15 y) declined significantly: study of University Helsinki
    University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki e.a. Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001
    S.: The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably: under the mean of the scale used in the questions. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    Since 1996, educational effectiveness has been understood in Finland to include not only subject specific knowledge and skills but also the more general competences which are not the exclusive domain of any single subject but develop through good teaching along a student’s educational career. Many of these, including the object of the present assessment, learning to learn, have been named in the education policy documents of the European Union as key competences which each member state should provide their citizens as part of general education (EU 2006).
    In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.
    The results of the Vantaa study could be compared against the results of a similar assessment implemented in 2004. As the decline in students’ cognitive competence and in their learning related attitudes was especially strong in the two Vantaa studies, with only 6 years apart, a decision was made to direct the national assessment of spring 2012 to the same schools which had participated in a respective study in 2001.
    The goal of the assessment was to find out whether the decline in results, observed in the Helsinki region, were the same for the whole country. The assessment also offered a possibility to look at the readiness of schools to implement a computer-based assessment, and how this has changed during the 11 years between the two assessments. After all, the 2001 assessment was the first in Finland where large scale student assessment data was collected in schools using the Internet.
    The main focus of the assessment was on students’ competence and their learning-related attitudes at the end of the comprehensive school education, but the assessment also relates to educational equity: to regional, between-school, and between- class differences and to the relation of students’ gender and home background to their competence and attitudes.
    The assessment reached about 7 800 ninth grade students in 82 schools in 65 municipalities. Of the students, 49% were girls and 51% boys. The share of students in Swedish speaking schools was 3.4%. As in 2001, the assessment was implemented in about half of the schools using a printed test booklet and in the other half via the Internet. The results of the 2001 and 2012 assessments were uniformed through IRT modelling to secure the comparability of the results. Hence, the results can be interpreted to represent the full Finnish ninth grade population.
    Girls performed better than boys in all three fields of competence measured in the assessment: reasoning, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension. The difference was especially noticeable in reading comprehension even if in this task girls’ attainment had declined more than boys’ attainment. Differences between the AVI-districts were small. The impact of students’ home-background was, instead, obvious: the higher the education of the parents, the better the student performed in the assessment tasks. There was no difference in the impact of mother’s education on boys’ and girls’ attainment. The between-school-differences were very small (explaining under 2% of the variance) while the between-class differences were relatively large (9 % – 20 %).
    The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.
    The mean level of attitudes detrimental to learning has risen but the rise is more modest. Girls’ attainment has declined more than boys’ in three of the five tasks. There was no gender difference in the change of students’ attitudes, however. Between-school differences were un-changed but differences between classes and between individual students had grown. The change in attitudes—unlike the change in attainment—was related to students’ home background: The decline in learning-supporting attitudes and the growth in attitudes detrimental to school work were weaker the better educated the mother. Home background was not related to the change in students’ attainment, however. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.
    The results of the assessment point to a deeper, on-going cultural change which seems to affect the young generation especially hard. Formal education seems to be losing its former power and the accepting of the societal expectations which the school represents seems to be related more strongly than before to students’ home background. The school has to compete with students’ self-elected pastime activities, the social media, and the boundless world of information and entertainment open to all through the Internet. The school is to a growing number of youngpeople just one, often critically reviewed, developmental environment among many.
    The change is not a surprise, however. A similar decline in student attainment has been registered in the other Nordic countries already earlier. It is time to concede that the signals of change have been discernible already for a while and to open up a national discussion regarding the state and future of the Finnish comprehensive school that rose to international acclaim due to our students’success in the PISA studies.

  2. View of Finnish teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg
    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).

    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen) as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM) believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent students: “I think my only concern is that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we don’t give that much to the brightest pupils. I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “

    Pia (EL) feels that the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically talented students. In fact, she thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody. That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on the ones who need the most help, of course. Those who are really good, they get lazy. “

    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float through school with no study skills. Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their best.

    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I ’m proud any more.”

    Aino (BS) states that the evenness and equality of the education system has a “dark side.” Teaching to the “middle student” in a class of heterogeneous ability bores the gifted students, who commonly do not perform well in school. Maarit (DMS) finds teaching heterogeneous classrooms very difficult. She admits that dividing the students into ability levels would make the teaching easier, but worries that it may affect the self-esteem of the weaker worse than a more egalitarian system

    Similarly, Terttu (FMS) thinks that the class size is a detriment to the students’ learning. Even though Finnish schools have relatively small class sizes, she thinks that a group of twenty is too large, since she does not have time for all of the students: “You don’t have enough time for everyone … All children have to be in the same class. That is not so nice. You have the better pupils. I can’t give them as much as I want. You have to go so slowly in the classroom.” Curiously, Jukka E. (DL) thinks that the special education students need more support and the education system needs to improve in that area.

    Miikka (FL) describes how he will give extra work to students who want to have more academic challenges, but admits that “they can get quite good grades, excellent grades, by doing nothing actually, or very little.” Miikka (FL) describes discussion in educational circles about creating schools and universities for academically talented students: 3 Everyone has the same chances…One problem is that it can be too easy for talented students. There has been now discussion in Finland if there should be schools and universities for talented students… I think it will happen, but I don’t know if it is good, but it will happen, I think so. I am also afraid there will be private schools again in Finland in the future … [There] will be more rich people and more poor people, and then will come so [many] problems in comprehensive schools that some day quite soon … parents will demand that we should have private schools again, and that is quite sad.

    Linda (AL), however, feels the love of reading has declined in the younger generation, as they tend to gravitate more to video games and television. Miikka (FL), also a teacher of mother tongue, also cites a decline in reading interest and an increase of video game and computer play. Saij a (BL) agrees. As a teacher of Finnish, she feels that she has difficulty motivating her students to learn: “I think my subject is not the … easiest one to teach. They don’t read so much, newspapers or novels.” Her students, especially the boys, do not like their assignments in Finnish language. She also thinks the respect for teachers has declined in this past generation. Miikka (FL) also thinks his students do not respect their teachers: “They don’t respect the teachers. They respect them very little … I think it has changed a lot in recent years. In Helsinki, it was actually earlier. When I came here six years ago, I thought this was heaven. I thought it was incredible, how the children were like that after Helsinki, but now I think it is the same.

    Linda (AL) notes deficiency in the amount of time available for subjects. With more time, she would implement more creative activities, such as speech and drama, into her lessons. Saij a (BL) also thinks that her students need more arts subjects like drama and art. She worries that they consider mathematics as the only important subject. Shefeels countries such as Sweden, Norway, and England have better arts programs than in Finnish schools. Arts subjects, according to Saij a, help the students get to know themselves. Maarit (DMS), a Finnish-speaker, thinks that schools need to spend more time cultivating social skills.

  3. Finnish teachers about Sahlberg-nonsense:

    *@Popo: I’m not complaining about the education system, but this article just doesn’t match with any of my experiences

    *@Alecaldi: What a bunch of crap. As a Fin with 18 years in the school system, now M.Sc Tech, I can’t recognize most of the stuff.And to remind you, there is no High school in any Scandinavian countries. It’s more like a pre-college for 3 years if you choose to go academic.

    *AM : This article is just unbelievable propaganda and it would be very interesting to know who fed you all this rubbish. Where are these so-called “facts” been taken from? Several of them are simply not true! Finnish teachers are not selected from the top 10% of graduates. All pupils take exams and have homework. All children are certainly not taught in the same classrooms. And what in the world is this “mandatory standardized test which is taken when children are 16”?! I’ve never heard of it and I work as a teacher in Finland. And excuse me…according to these “facts” I only spend four hours per day in the classroom?! That is so not true!

    *DI: This article explains why there have been so many Nobel prizes per capita in Finland, and why Finnish technology companies like Nokia are currently destroying the competition, and why Finland leads the pack on biotech.

    *PM I went through the Finnish education system so I can correct a few “facts”. 1. We start to get homework since the first grade. Of course not that much in the beginning, but there definitely is homework. 2. We definitely are measured since grade one (=eerste leerjaar) at school.3. All kids are taught in the same classroom except when a kid is having difficulties with learning, and then he/she can go to a special teacher’s little class to be taught. 4. Teachers spend way more than 4 hours a day in a classroom, except maybe when his/her class is the first or second grade and their days are shorter. But I remember being 10 and had 7-8 hour days and my teacher was there all the time.5.. Although teachers are highly regarded, they are not regarded as highly as doctors and lawyers. Especially if you teach Swedish in Junior High School.


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