Is the Finnish Model Irrelevant to North America?


Dan Hicks


March 20, 2014

Like many professional educators, I’m a fan of the Finnish education system, especially its emphases on recognizing the autonomy of teachers as highly-trained professionals, an egalitarian distribution of educational resources, and inquiry-based learning. This system not only aligns with my view of the aims and purposes of education, but it’s also made put Finland at or near the top of many international educational comparison lists.

In a post yesterday, the conservative writer Rod Dreher discussed some of the things that he likes about the Finnish system. But he’s not so optimistic about applying this model to North America:

I suspect that a truth not too many people are eager to consider is that the Finnish education model works so well because they are teaching Finns. I’m not making a racial/genetic claim here; I’m making a cultural one. Finland is small, ethnically homogeneous and culturally uniform. Places like that tend to have a degree of social capital (e.g., trust, solidarity) that more diverse countries and polities do not have. More importantly, not knowing a thing about Finland, I am pretty sure that there are other qualities of the Finnish character that make a big difference on education policy and success — qualities that prevent the Finnish model from being successfully exported to most countries.

This actually dovetails with a point in philosophy of science that I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ll make that point first, then come back to Dreher’s objection.

The concept is called relevance, and it’s been developed by philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright (follow that link to her recent book with Jeremy Hardie, written for a broad audience). To illustrate relevance, consider a very familiar causal claim: if I turn the key in the ignition, my car will start. This causal claim will be true in many situations. But in some situations it won’t — if the battery has been disconnected, for example, or the starter is dead, or the car is totally out of gas. Cartwright calls these other requirements — a connected and charged battery, working alternator and starter, gas in the tank, and so on — support factors for the causal claim. If these support factors are missing, the causal claim will fail; but when they are present the causal claim will hold.

As a prediction, the causal claim is relevant to other situations with the support factors: we can predict with confidence that, given the support factors, if I turn the key in the ignition, the car will start. But it’s not relevant to other situations, where a totally different set of support factors is in play. Suppose we’re talking about an electric car. It has batteries, but no starter, alternator, or gas tank. The batteries need to be full, but the other things are irrelevant. And the electric car has other support factors that need to be working correctly in order for it to start when I turn the key in the ignition.

Because of the difference in support factors, we can’t take a complex causal claim (if support factors X, Y, and Z are in place, and I do C, then E will happen) and apply it directly to a very different kind of situation (where the support factors would be T, U, V instead of X, Y, Z). The causal claim is only relevant to situations with the same support factors.

Okay, back to Dreher. It’s easy to believe that the Finnish model works thanks to a set of support factors. Dreher’s speculating that at least some of these support factors are tied to the fact that “Finland is small, ethnically homogeneous and culturally uniform” and that such countries “have a [high] degree of social capital.” The US and Canada are larger than Finland (Canada about 6x, the US about 55x), and much more ethnically and culturally diverse. If these are differences that make a difference — if they mean that some crucial support factors are absent or different in Canada and the US — then the causal claim “adopting the Finnish model will improve educational outcomes” will be false or irrelevant here, even as it’s true in Finland.

But are these differences really important to whether the Finnish model would work here? More precisely, what exactly are the support factors for the Finnish model?

We should note that, despite his confidence, Dreher’s concerns are speculative and sketchy. He’s guessing that cultural differences could make a difference, and he hasn’t explained how they could make a difference.

Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg, an internationally prominent advocate of the Finnish model, has raised some concerns about exporting the model to the US. Like Dreher’s concerns, Sahlberg’s concerns can be understood as concerns about missing support factors. But Sahlberg, unlike Dreher, is more specific, and he discusses several mechanisms that connect these support factors to educational outcomes:

Let me conclude with an optimistic reading and a pessimistic reading. Assuming Sahlberg is right, then the Finnish model could work here only if it’s accompanied by a suite of structural changes — equal and universal access to education and health care, a radical overhaul to teacher training, and similar. But those things seem entirely doable. In the US, we’ve recently made a giant step towards universal healthcare, and we already have universal elementary and secondary education. We’ve taken a giant step away from universal university education in the last few decades, but in principle that could be reversed. Likewise, in principle we could overhaul our teacher training. And things look somewhat better in Canada, especially in more consistently egalitarian provinces.

Pessimistically, Sahlberg’s last point suggests a deep cultural difference between Finland, on the one hand, and the US and Canada, on the other. Sahlberg seems to be saying that Finland is coherently egalitarian-communitarian; while Anglophone North America is sharply split between egalitarian-communitarians and hierarchical-individualists. Because of this, Finns can generally agree on the nature and purpose of an educational system, and have designed and implemented a system that effectively realizes that purpose. In Anglophone North America, by contrast, egalitarian-communitarians and hierarchical-individualists will not be able to agree on the nature and purpose of an educational system, and the result is our the incoherent and middling systems.