Lessons from Finland and Shanghai – The Internationally Aware Principal

by Chris Nash

One of the biggest limitations of my experiences as a developing school leader in the UK in the 1990s and 2000s was the utter lack of opportunities to learn from the rest of the world. The models and examples we were exhorted to follow were almost always looking inward at other schools in the UK, with occasional glances at English-speaking countries such as Canada or Australia.  The rest of the education world remained a blank map.

Having now lived inside Chinese educational ideas for ten years and as an international Principal having lifted my horizons to research world-class educational ideas from across the globe, I can now see how painfully limited my toolkit of educational ideas was back then.  A Chinese idiom expresses it perfectly, I was ‘jing di zhi wa’ – a frog at the bottom of the well, looking up and thinking the restricted range of education strategies I had access to were my world.

Lessons to be Learned

Luckily as international principals, we aren’t responsible for improving national education systems.  However what we do have is a duty to survey educational practices from any corner of the globe to identify the ideas that could benefit our students, our teachers and our communities.  One of the evolving functions of ‘Leading Your International School’ might be to act as a giant noticeboard where we signpost each other to interesting educational strategies from across the globe.

Has the Finland bubble burst?

In the recent past, there has been a lot of international focus on the Finnish education system, first the hailing of the ‘Finnish miracle’, followed by the inevitable backlash and scepticism.  Luckily as school leaders, we don’t have to involve ourselves in any of the messy politics.  We can look under the lid of the system and ‘cherry-pick’ the practices that we believe to be compatible with our own local context.  I would suggest that if you haven’t come across his writings before, the books of Pasi Sahlberg, director general at  Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture (CIMO), and visiting professor of Practice at Harvard University. I’ve chosen to focus in on the 2021 publication, ‘In Teachers We Trust’ because here, Pasi, with co-author Timothy Walker, examines pedagogy itself.  Below I summarise three key take-aways I found.

  • Teaching in Finnish schools is a collaborative enterprise.  

Looking back on my years as a teacher in classrooms in schools, I remember teaching as a very solitary activity.  The classroom door closed and it was just you and the students!  Except of course, it was never as simple as that because what happened in your classroom was influenced by countless contextual factors, not least the expectations of senior leaders, your headteacher or inspectors arriving at your door. The key lesson for international school leaders to come out of this book is that we can transform teaching and learning by investing in a school culture and organisation which enables teacher collaboration.

Let me share a recent example from my school.  In our annual self-review, a process to which all teachers contribute, we reached a shared concern about increasing the amount of English spoken by students across the curriculum. We decided to look for solutions collectively, using a collaborative professional inquiry process. Colleagues will work together on designing and improving strategies, by trialling them in their lessons, while being observed by peers who will offer critical feedback.  While describing the process, one of my Chinese teachers said, ‘That’s ‘jiaoyanzu’ ‘and explained that ‘jiaoyanzu’ is a teacher research practice quite well known in Chinese schools.

  • In schools in Finland (and Shanghai) time is factored in as a critical teacher resource.

A second memory of my time teaching in the UK is driving home and suffering physical and mental exhaustion.  Once I was so exhausted I actually was involved in a minor traffic accident.  And every day I convinced myself this was how it should be, ‘tired but happy’, happy that I’d given my all in the day’s endless succession of lessons. 

But seen from an international perspective it doesn’t have to be like this at all. Teachers in Finland spend an average of 18 hours per week in front of a class. In Singapore, the figure is 17 hours. In Shanghai, this can be as low as 12 hours per week. I can see the looks of horror on the faces of the ‘bean counter’ administrators, ‘what do they do with all that extra time, sit around the staff room drinking coffee’. Doesn’t that just reveal our machine-age systems thinking?  Teaching is reduced to the time spent at the machine.  It turns out that in these high-performing systems, teachers are trusted to use their time professionally in a variety of ways that lead to higher outcomes.  

One example of this might be collaborative lesson planning.  This was unheard of in any school I taught in the UK, but it makes perfect sense doesn’t it? During the process of instructional design a critical friend can ask, ‘Why are you including that?’, or ‘Why don’t you try…’  Another example might be to use the time to observe the lessons of other teachers. If you are trying to improve the engagement of a particular group of students what better than to watch how a colleague goes about that challenge and then discuss what worked and what didn’t work with her afterwards?  A more flexible approach to time allows more time for teachers to offer one-to-one or small-group teaching sessions to help struggling students catch up.  

Teachers free from the damaging effects of stress are more likely to give up time during the day or after school to teach additional hours.  And what a joy to work as a team together in a culture not driven by the anxiety of just getting things done in time.  And a final point.  The authors claim there is no word for ‘teacher retention’ in Finland because there is no problem of losing teachers to burnout or despair, the end result of ‘high pressure, low support’ education systems.

  •  ‘No Child Left Behind’ 

This phrase has become a cliche in education circles. I experienced genuine sincerity about this goal as a school leader in the UK. However, all too often I concluded that educational organisation willed the ends, but not the means.  Here’s an example.  Before 2010 I was able to appoint a number of Teaching Assistants and other para-professionals and in 2010 the enhanced teaching this empowered enabled the school to receive an award for outstanding achievement.  Economic changes after 2010 gave me no choice but to shed these posts and led inevitably to greater inequality in outcomes.  

Finland avoids these problems by using a much wider definition of ‘special needs’ than the quasi-medical definitions used in the UK,  In the Finnish system much larger cohorts of students are designated as having barriers to learning.  Relying on assessment for learning, rather than examinations and standard assessments, teachers are responsible for assigning students to three groups – 1/ general support, 2/intensified support, and 3/special support. This then leads to differentiated provision, which ensures appropriate teaching for students in each category.  Teachers are accountable for the first level of support. For the second level, the teacher in the classroom will be supported by a special education teacher.  As someone who spent much of his early career as a special needs teacher working collaboratively with colleagues in the classroom ensuring inclusive practice, I find this to be an excellent strategy for ensuring achievement for all. Learners in the third category receive specialised support. 

The benefit of this approach is that it leads teachers to think in terms of the key strategy of removing barriers to learning as one to be applied to the majority of students in their classes, rather than singling out a minority.  As a Special Needs teacher, I long suspected that the very act of ‘labelling’ a student as ‘SEN’ ( Special Educational Needs) and then separating her or him from the rest of the class by sitting with a Teaching Assistant next to them, actually contributed to lowering rather than improving achievement, because of the consequent damage to self-confidence and self-esteem.  The Finnish system asks all teachers to make much better use of differentiation and personalisation.  Of course, we know that these are challenging and time-consuming strategies, but we can go back to the context of lower teaching loads and greater opportunities for collaboration.  We can see that teachers might use the greater time for planning and tutoring to offer much better inclusive practice.  We can see that teachers might use collaborative approaches to lesson design to share differentiation strategies and expertise in meeting individual needs. 


Let’s finish with some professional reflection questions:

  • How would you describe the level of collaboration between teachers in your school currently?
  • How well do you think you as a leader foster an ethos of trust across your school and across your school community?
  • To what extent do teachers successfully personalise the learning experience across their classes?

Use the LYIS platform to share your thoughts and interesting practices that you have found from your international experience. Email: leadingyourinternationalschool@gmail.com


Walker, T and Sahlbeg, P, ‘In Teachers We Trust’, 2021, Norton & Company Inc.

National Centre on Education & the Economy, ‘Shanghai, Culture, Policy and Practice’, 2016, Centre on International Benchmarking.

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