6 Low-Cost School Improvement Strategies You Can Learn From Finland


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Key takeaways

  1. Increase respect for teachers: Every interaction with a member of your school community is a chance for you to emphasise the significant and important work that teachers do. 
  2. Promote teachers as researchers: teachers need to be engaged with research and researching themselves.
  3. Promote quality professional development: PD delivered by members of your school community is an important element of a high-quality school culture.
  4. School leaders need to be instructional leaders: leaders should be able to model excellence in teaching and learning, a simple way of doing so is ensuring all school leaders are in the classroom teaching.
  5. Make time for physical activity, downtime and ‘play’: consider how much and how often students are given downtime, physical activity and ‘play’. Remember kids need to have time to ‘sharpen the saw’.
  6. Don’t forget the importance of school communities: success lies in engaging your school community.



6 Low-Cost School Improvement Strategies You Can Learn From Finland

Finland surprised the world in 2001 when they topped the first PISA results as the highest performing nation in all three domains of the testing (reading, mathematics, and science). Many educators made the trip to Finland to try to pull apart the ‘Finnish miracle’

However more recently, the same PISA data that brought Finland to the world’s attention have also been a source of critique, as Finland has slid down the PISA rankings in subsequent years. Greg Ashman is one of many to critique the Finnish system pointing out that many of the factors people celebrated in the Finnish system, may be the cause of its recent decline. Indeed, School leaders need to be careful not to make wholesale changes without considering the social, cultural and financial context respectively. Further, schools need to remain wary of a ‘silver bullet’ solution from Finland or anywhere else.

However, there is a danger with throwing ‘the baby out with the bathwater’ when considering critiques of the Finnish system.  There are some gems in the Finnish system that school leaders should consider. Finnish educational leader and now Professor of Educational Policy at UNSW Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons 2.0 captures some fantastic lessons that school leaders can take from the successes and challenges of schooling in Finland

Much of Finnish Lessons 2.0 covers things outside the control of school leaders, such as increased equity in funding or rigorous teacher training, but here are six things within the grasp of school leaders that we can learn from Finland:

1.Increase respect for teachers

Teaching in Finland is a highly sought after profession, that is given social status and respect within the Finnish society.

From Finnish Lessons 2.0:

‘Primarily due to their high social standing, teachers enjoyed great respect and also uncontested trust in Finland’ Indeed, Finns continue to regard teaching as a noble prestigious profession – akin to medicine, law or economics – driven mainly by moral purpose, rather than material interest, careers or rewards… Finland’s public recognises the value of its teachers and implicitly trusts their professional insights and judgements regarding schooling. Stated quite plainly, without excellent teachers and a modern teacher education system, Finland’s current international educational achievement would have been impossible.’ 

School leaders cannot singlehandedly change national views on schools and teachers; however, every interaction that leaders have with a student, staff member or a member of the school community, is a chance to emphasise the professional ethos, hardworking nature and caring attitude that underpins the school. This is a chance to set the high bar for staff in terms of the professional expectations that your school has for teachers. But, more importantly, it is a chance to illustrate to your school community the important role of teachers have in shaping the lives of young people. In depicting the hard work, countless hours of unpaid overtime, commitment, and dedication of your staff, it is a chance to publicly show respect for the teaching profession and give teachers a pat on the back – something our profession does not receive often enough.

2. Promote teachers as researchers

Sahlberg contends that an advantage of the Finnish system is the emphasis that its university sector places on research during teacher preparation

From Finnish Lessons 2.0

‘Research-based teacher education means that the integration of educational theories, research methodologies, and practice all play important roles in Finnish teacher education programs. Teacher education curricula are designed so that they constitute a systematic continuum from the foundations of educational thinking, to educational research methodologies, and then on to more advanced fields of educational sciences.’

According to Sahlberg, Finland also supports research beyond teachers’ initial University training incorporating ongoing research by teachers within the school system. School leaders can use this insight by empowering staff to participate in research as a part of their role in the school. Whether this is using internal processes, ‘action research’ or leveraging external agencies like Universities or professional associations, this idea of teachers being researchers in their own school supports schools and the system in promoting ‘Respect for Teachers’ as active agents in shaping the future of the school and their own ‘Professional Development’.

3. Promote quality professional development

Sahlberg himself critiques the consistency of professional development undertaking in Finnish schools, in suggesting that there is a lack of consistency of financing.

From Finnish Lessons 2.0

‘A significant disparity exists amongst municipalities’ and schools’ ability to finance professional development for teachers…[with] the central government only having a limited influence on budgetary decisions made by municipalities or schools. Therefore some schools receive significantly more allocation for professional development and school improvement than others.’

Nevertheless, Sahlberg considers that ongoing professional development, as well as the sharing of educational ideas and research, is an important aspect to the success of the Finnish education system.

 So, no matter what your school’s budgetary situation, one thing that is in control of school leaders is the professional development that occurs within a school during allocated meeting time. A meeting schedule that focuses on a combination of teacher pedagogical development, collaborative time to plan and improve curriculum, as well as a time for teachers to be involved with research and researching themselves is likely to increase teacher efficacy.   

4. School leaders need to be instructional leaders

Sahlberg suggests that effective school leadership is a vital element of the Finnish education system. All school leaders including Principals and Municipal Educational Leaders have to be professional educators with a strong history of working effectively in schools. This is similar to many effective systems (but not all) around the world, however, Sahlberg contends that it is the instructional leadership and being ‘in touch’ with the classroom that is key to this success.   

From Finnish Lessons 2.0

‘According to TALIS (2013), three out of four lower-secondary school principals in Finland have teaching duties in school compared to just one-third of principals… in TALIS countries on average.’ Teachers’ rely on their leaders’ vision and the principal understands and trusts teachers’ work. Therefore, leadership and management in Finnish school are informal but effective.

As a school leader, being able to ‘walk the walk’ in the classroom and not just ‘talk the talk’ gives validity and reliability to decision making and professional development in a school. Indeed, school leaders who can lead demonstration lessons, be instructional coaches and not lose touch with the challenges of the classroom are likely to drive a school culture based in excellence in teaching and learning.

5. Make time for physical activity, downtime and ‘play’

Finnish education emphasises that importance of play-based learning and unstructured learning during early years education. However, although the play might change even at high school Finnish students are generally entitled to a 15 minutes break for every 45 minutes spent in the classroom. This might also be a welcome break for teachers! In addition to this, there is an emphasis on the student being physically active as a part of their curriculum. Giving kids time to ‘sharpen the saw’ is congruent with much of the cognitive science work on memory and attention. Pasi Sahlberg summarises elements of effective play-based learning here

6. Don’t forget the importance of school communities

Sahlberg acknowledges that many factors that impact on student achievement are not in a school’s control. Indeed, Sahlberg elsewhere has noted one of the largest contributors to the success of the Finnish education system is the Finns borrow more books per capita from public libraries than any other country on earth. Sahlberg argues it is how a range of sociocultural factor and other public policy that underpinned Finnish success.

From Finnish Lessons 2.0

Sociocultural factors. These include a reliance on the social value of literacy and education, strong professional ethics, trust in public institutions (including schools), and state-driven social capital created by a welfare state.

Links to other public policy sectors. The success of one sector is dependent on the success of all others. Therefore, good educational performance may only be explained through larger, policy principles, including public policies, such as health, youth, and employment services.

Again, many drivers of educational achievement sit outside of the school. Large-scale social and cultural factors and genetic factors cannot be controlled by school leaders. However, school leaders do have the ability to influence and shape their school community. The emphasis that school leaders place on things, from at home reading practice to school uniform or even homework, can set the tone and cultural expectations for a school. Whilst school culture and teacher effectiveness might be smaller parts of the pie in terms what supports student achievement, they are the ones that can be influenced by school leaders and teachers. So work with your school community on what is in the control of your school and bring parents, carers, and friends along as part of your school’s learning journey.    

Key takeaways

  1. Increase respect for teachers: Every interaction with a member of your school community is a chance for you to emphasise the significant and important work that teachers do.
  2. Promote teachers as researchers: teachers need to be engaged with research and researching themselves.
  3. Promote quality professional development: PD delivered by members of your school community is an important element of high-quality school culture.
  4. School leaders need to be instructional leaders: leaders should be able to model excellence in teaching and learning, a simple way of doing so is ensuring all school leaders are in the classroom teaching.
  5. Make time for physical activity, downtime and ‘play’: consider how much and how often students are given downtime, physical activity and ‘play’. Remember kids need to have time to ‘sharpen the saw’.
  6. Don’t forget the importance of school communities: success lies in engaging your school community.

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