Reflections on Finland….On to Singapore!

By Sara Hallermann, EdLeader21 Projects and Editorial Manager

Finland’s achievements in education and the transformation of the country’s education system have captured the attention of countries around the world. Despite their recent successes, they are making significant changes to better align their system to prepare students for the 21st century. Ken Kay, Valerie Greenhill, and Alyson Nielson recently returned from an international trip with EdLeader21 members to learn about education and innovation in Finland. I spoke with Ken and Valerie about their reflections about the trip and their perspectives about Finnish educational reforms

What was your ah-ha moment on the trip?

Ken: Given that this was my second trip to Finland, I really enjoyed hearing about their new strategy called Phenomenon Based Learning. I explained to them that the term did not translate well into English...I thought it was PBL about ghosts and apparitions. Phenomenon Based Learning has actually taken our notion of PBL and made it explicitly interdisciplinary. In the United States, we need to approach PBL in a more interdisciplinary fashion. I was happy to see that teams in Helsinki are incorporating inquiry experiences that consciously merge concepts and ideas from different fields.

Valerie: I was surprised to find that when highly progressive leaders in Finland are asked to describe the challenges they face, their list of challenges mirrors what is reported by EdLeader21 district and school leaders. Both Finnish and EdLeader21 members are working to build consensus for change, often in cases when stakeholders think the status quo is fine. The Finns are striving to implement innovative instructional practices like phenomenon based learning, but are experiencing major challenges orchestrating change in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. They are struggling to identify ways to ensure that initiatives like phenomenon based learning are sustainable and that the professional development offered is having an impact on students. Interestingly, the Finns are attempting many of the same things as EdLeader21 members and are facing similar obstacles and challenges.

What did you notice about the treatment of the profession of teaching in Finland?

Ken: Finland should receive major kuddos for the work that they have done to restructure the teaching profession. Admittance into teacher education programs is highly competitive and high quality teachers are the hallmark of their education system. This was a major lift for Finland and took them decades to implement because it involved eliminating 80% of their teacher colleges. As a result today, teaching is a more attractive profession because the profession is well-respected and teachers enjoy high levels of autonomy in positions that encourage creativity and innovation.

7/13/15 @val_green Tweet from Finland

“Unlike Finland, in U.S. Ed system we "trust" educators by measuring their compliance.”

What are your greatest take-aways from the trip?

Ken: The Finns have agreed to keep education in a political safe spot and this allows them to avoid politicizing education. For the past 40 years, Finland has been determined to dramatically improve their educational system and have been able to do so in part because of an ethos that education requires a societal consensus. As a result, Finland, a country with a population of approximately 5.5 million, can serve as a model for what cities or small states in the United States can emulate.

Valerie: My first big take-away is that Finland’s social safety net  for families with children from birth to age 7 is remarkable and contributes greatly to the success of education. Their concept of “the well child” is similar to ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative. However, this initiative is being implemented systematically across the nation in Finland, which is something to which we should aspire in America.

This photo captures an illustration that seems to appear on nearly every street in Helsinki. It represents the safety net provided for all children - hold their hands, provide support, and move as one.

My second big takeaway is that the Finns’ professionalization of the teaching profession has clearly made a difference. Seeing this up close was very powerful, refreshing, and inspirational.

How far along do you think Finland is in their effort to move to a 21st century education model?

Valerie: Finland has a much stronger base from which to work in comparison to the U.S., but they are in the very beginning stages of articulating 21st century outcomes. This was apparent during a visit to the headquarters of the Finnish company that created Angry Birds. I attended the session with Ken Kay and Kathy Welling, a P21 board member. We previously collaborated with a team to craft the P21 framework more than 10 years ago and chuckled when an introductory slide was shown with the P21 skills listed, almost verbatim. We thought, “Here we are, on an educational tour in Finland, ten years after the development of the P21 framework..and they’re beginning to promoting it here!” We found humor in the situation, but it also made us realize that the Finns are in beginning stages of their effort to move to a 21st century model. I observed interesting similarities between where EdLeader21 members are in comparison to schools in Finland. In many ways, our members are more advanced. However, the infrastructure in Finland likely will enable their schools to move forward at warp speed compared to the U.S.

Ken: Education leaders have started to build consensus around a vision and model for 21st century education that they have agreed to implement in the next 10-20 years. Individual schools and districts within the EdLeader21 network are farther along in their journeys in comparison to Finland. However, as a country, Finland is much further down the path towards gaining consensus about a 21st century model. The separation of politics and pedagogy paired with Finnish education leaders’ ability to build consensus around a vision really sets the Finns up to be successful in implementing a dynamic 21st century education system.

For those of us who missed this trip, does EdLeader21 plan to host any additional leadership travel outside the United States?

As a result of the success of this most recent trip, we are in the final stages of planning another trip for July, 2016. We hope that you will consider joining us for a leadership tour in Singapore next summer! Chip Kimball, the Headmaster of the Singapore American School, a member of EdLeader21, has agreed to host us for a week for the last week in July. Over the course of that week, we will learn about the 4Cs work of the Singapore American School, other 4Cs schools in Singapore, and Asia. We hope that you will be able to join us. The annual EdLeader21 international trips are fantastic opportunities for global collaboration and exchange.

Recommended Reading: Blogs about Finland by EdLeader21 Members

Lessons from Finland: A Play in Two Acts by Jennie Snyder

Finland and Switzerland - Global Learning at its Peak! by Steve Laatsch


EdLeader21 is a national network of school and district leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) into 21st Century education. For more information, contact Sara Mobley at