Find your own Finland

Policymakers and education leaders often look to high-achieving educational systems, like those in Finland, Canada and South Korea, for insight. They ask how foreign approaches to teaching and learning might translate into better results at home. I’ve found that most outside observers fail to grasp the most valuable lessons. Strict standards, mandatory Master’s degrees and professional development programs don’t necessarily lead to success. Culture does.

A recent study by Google and Kantar Public explored teacher status in Finland, and what we might learn from their example. The research underscores the importance of culture in establishing teaching as a respected and attractive profession. The Finnish educational system is built upon a culture of autonomy and trust. Teachers have the freedom to choose how they teach, which fosters creativity, collaboration and ownership.

You can’t borrow Finland’s culture, nor anyone else’s. You have to create your own. If you want to improve educational outcomes at a national level, you can’t simply mandate that teachers be respected by society. Cultural change doesn’t come from the top down — but from the bottom up, the middle out, and all around. For most countries, that means flipping the long-held strategy.

I think about culture in terms of “collaborative professionalism” — a commitment from professionals at all levels of the education system to work together and share knowledge, skills and experience to improve student achievement and well-being. Collaborative professionalism involves transforming culture by continuously lifting everyone involved in the ecosystem. When you’re both teaching and learning, nurturing and being nurtured, giving and receiving help, the whole system gets better.

Cultures rooted in collaborative professionalism share common traits, including autonomy and co-learning, as in the diagram below. The elements interact, feed on each other and self-correct. They operate like a flywheel— accelerating once on the move. 

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