Avoiding the GERM in Education Reform

I had the chance to join a large education conference in Bangkok last week during our semester break. The main speaker was Pasi Sahlberg who is a scholar and educator from Finland. For the last 10 years or so, Finland has ranked at the top in the world according to international assessments and his talk centered around the work Finland has done to get there. While I heard great things from the other speakers such as Linda Darling-Hammond who has done amazing work in California, Pasi’s talk turned out to be nothing short of paradigm-shifting.

Ozzie with Pasi

He juxtaposed the largely American way of doing education reform, what he called the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, with the Finnish Way of doing education reform. He framed it very well and even included a map of the world with red blotches where this GERM had infected. (The US was one giant red blotch.)

In summary, he had four main points:

1. Where the GERM values competition (between students, teachers, and schools), the Finnish way promotes cooperation, collaboration, and community, i.e. everyone working together, including universities, to make education better.

2. Where the GERM lifts up standardization as the way forward (standardization of students, teachers, subjects, material, etc.) the Finnish Way centers around personalization and customization. The Finnish way recognizes that standardization negatively affects creativity and mostly rejects the differences of students. One interesting result of this is that it is estimated that up to half of Finnish students spend at least some time in special education programs that seek to help students in any specific areas they need it. This also drastically reduces the stigma around such programs.

3. Where GERM is all about test-based accountability (where everyone must “show evidence” of improvements), the Finnish Way is all about building Trust-Based Responsibility. As I sat in my chair, this point struck me as in opposition to the worldview I had internalized over my life. Accountability was supposed to be good thing but here was a man showing a more effective way.

4. Lastly, GERM has a core belief that choice in schools is a good thing. Choice in where your kids go to school will increase competition, which will create higher quality schools. Contrast that with the Finnish Way of fiercely promoting equity: all kids deserve high quality education, end of story. This has resulted in almost no private schools and all education is free, including university.

The Finnish way isn’t a one-size fits all cure-all, but there are important lessons that we would be wise in America to consider. It is notable that Finland has about 5.5 million people, which isn’t too disparate from the size of most states in the US (where most educational policy is made.)

He had a slew of fascinating points, far too many for me to rewrite here but I’ll give you some helpful resources, if you’re interested.

A. Here’s a great talk he gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last spring. I talked with him afterwards and I was glad to hear he’ll be joining the faculty there in January. A wise move, HGSE.

B. He has a book: Finnish Lessons. I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it. I highly recommend it to any and all educators (and other people in general.)

This talk really began to connect the dots for me. I have another blog post brewing as I’m beginning to see how what Pasi is talking about is so interconnected with a lot of things I’ve been thinking and reading about over the last six months, far beyond the scope of education.

Keep it GERM-less, friends.

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