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Book Review: FinnishED Leadership


Pasi Sahlberg, renowned Finnish educator, who introduced the world to Finnish education, outlines in this compact book, four lessons of Finnish education that can be useful to all educators - making recess the right of the child, using small data, a commitment to equity, and avoiding myths about Finnish education.


Lesson 1:Making Recess the Right of the Child

Sahlberg notes that the role of recess based on the research of the benefits of unstructured outdoor play and physical activity has been prominent in Finnish education. A typical Fifth-grade school day would include 3 fifteen minute breaks and 1 forty-five minute break with a maximum of forty-five minute learning periods. This time spent outside is contradictory to the move towards more time spent at learning tasks in most countries. Sahlberg argues that children’s brains work better when they move: more time spent outdoors allows children “to concentrate better in class and assists them to be more successful at negotiating, socializing, building teams and friendships together” (Doyle, 2017).


Lesson 2: Use Small Data for Big Change

Sahlberg argues that whilst big data (i.e. PISA, Naplan) is the trend for education systems and schools on which to base their vision and goals, small data is the data on which Finnish schools base their assessment of students, leading to reflective practice of their teaching and learning. Small data is the data teachers gather on a daily, monthly and annual basis and use for purposeful teaching. Small data is timely, purposeful, formative and collective.

… ”small data is not new. Good teaching and learning in schools have always been based on teachers’ and students’ punctual and purposeful observations, assessments, and reflections of what is happening during teaching and learning processes in schools” (Sahlberg, 2017, p. 34).


Lesson 3: Enhance Equity in Education

Educators throughout the world are calling for equity in education. There are many ways that this is manifest in systems. The Finnish education system seeks to reach equity by enabling schools to receive budgets based on the kinds of students they serve. This means that special needs resources are prioritised to the schools that serve more diverse populations of children and homes. Vocational pathways are provided for students rather than having them drop out. Well-being of both staff and students is considered. Teachers and teaching teams are given the time, knowledge and resources to develop methods and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of each student and the opportunity to peer coach.


Lesson 4: Avoid Urban Legends about Finnish Schools

1. The Finnish teachers are not necessarily chosen from the top 10% of the academic pool. Sahlberg discusses how pre-service teachers are selected. The final selection of students is not based on their academic performance but particularly on other merits, such as communication, teamwork, personality, and overall fit for the teaching profession.


2. Finland is not scrapping curriculum subjects. In 2014 the new basic curriculum included all of the basic subjects and added periods during which students look at broader topics such as climate change, the European Community, or 100 years of Finland’s independence. All these topics would be multidisciplinary modules on languages, geography, sciences, economics etc. Students have a say in the development of the curriculum for these periods.


3. Keep the focus on students’ needs, rather than international testing. In the last few years Finnish PISA results have not been as high. The Finnish education authorities have not demanded a concentration on raising the PISA results. Instead their policies have focused on enhancing arts, music, and physical education, hoping that would improve student engagement in school.


‘FinnishED Leadership’ is a readable and informative book. It challenges the reader to think critically about the direction and vision of the education system within which he/she is working.  Sahlberg suggests practical ways forward in each of the areas that others can learn from the Finnish system.



Sahlsbery, P. (2017). FinnishED Leadership, Corwin Impact Leadership Series. Sage, California.

Doyle, W. (2017). How Finland’s youngest learners obey the rules-by fooling around in school. Hechinger Report, January 8.


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