Sahlberg begins, in "The Finnish Dream: A Good School for All", with a brief history of Finnish education going back to key committees in the decade following 1945, which saw a shift away from a focus on syllabuses to "describing educational objectives, process of education, and evaluation" and "the idea that school should aim at educating young people to realize themselves as holistic individuals, possessing intrinsic motivation for further education". This was followed by key decisions in the 1970s.
"The success of Finnish education reform is mainly based on institutions and institutional structures established in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than on changes and improvements implemented in the 1990s. The state-generated social capital that is created through government regulations and motivated by the responsibility to provide basic conditions of well-being for all has provided a favorable social context for educational achievement."
After taking this history down to the present, Sahlberg turns to some of the factors contributing to its improvement.
"Less is More" looks at how the Finnish system stands out in international comparisons of attainment, equity of outcomes, costs and so forth. That is background for the apparent paradox of Finland's "teach less, learn more" approach: students start later, spend less time at school and have less homework than in most OECD countries. There is less testing, and in particular no standardised national testing — there is continual student evaluation within schools, and sample-based national assessment, but nothing that could drive competition between schools.
"Teachers" explains some of the distinctive features of Finnish teachers: only doctors have as high a social status, teacher training programs are massively over-subscribed, teaching requires at a minimum five years of higher education and a master's degree and is considered a research-oriented profession, and teachers are leaders and school leaders teachers. But Sahlberg suggests that good teachers themselves are not enough and debunks some of the myths about that. He suggests that teacher training should have uniform high standards, that "toxic use of accountability" be abandoned, and that policies be designed to give teachers autonomy and trust.
"The Finnish Way" looks at how Finland responded to the economic challenges of the 1990s, developing an innovation economy as part of a competitive welfare state, emphasizing both equality and competitiveness, and adopting and adapting foreign innovations and ideas.
"Attempts to explain the success of the education system in Finland should be put in the wider context and seen as a part of the overall function of democratic civil society. Economists have been interested in finding out why Finland has been able to become the most competitive economy in the world. Educators are trying to figure out the secret of Finland's high educational performance."
Embedded in this chapter is a broad critique of what Sahlberg calls the Global Educational Reform Movement, most notably the trend towards more testing, standardised metrics, and competition between schools.
Sahlberg is open about the limitations and weakness of the Finnish education system, and concludes with a glance at its future and the challenges it faces. Here and throughout he is clearly arguing the case for his particular vision, addressing a Finnish as well as an international audience: he sees change as inevitable, but wants to maintain and build on the system's strengths while responding to new challenges.
The problems with learning from the Finnish example are not those that are most commonly suggested. Finland has as many people as most US or Australian states, for example, and is no longer monocultural ("the level of student performance has increased and student performance variance has decreased, while Finnish society has become more culturally diverse and socially complex"). The biggest problems may stem from broader attitudes to inequality and social welfare ("context makes a difference in educational achievement ... individual well-being, equitable distribution of income, and social capital can explain student learning in international comparisons"). If the Finnish system can't be transplanted whole, however, it is still possible to learn from it. The most striking ideas in Finnish pedagogy have, after all, been imported from overseas, most notably from the United States and Britain.
Finnish Lessons is clearly presented, but some of it will be dry for those uninterested in the historical and organisational background: anyone more narrowly curious about Finnish pedagogy and schooling is probably better off reading one of the long magazine essays on the topic. Sahlberg will be essential reading, however, for those curious about either the Finnish education system specifically, or international comparison.