Schools The perfect Finnish: Pasi Sahlberg interviewed

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 5 years ago.
  • 12 May 2019
Photo: Michael Harsanyi

In education terms, Finland is so hot right now. The small Nordic country surprised the rest of the world when the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in 2000 revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. This was all the more surprising considering Finland was taking an approach to education that went against the prevailing trends for weightier curriculum in favour of shorter days, lighter backpacks and a much greater focus on play.

In other words, it seemed they had topped the charts without even trying.

As director general of the Ministry of Education in Finland, Pasi Sahlberg was one of those responsible for this shift in pedagogy. Having improved the lives of students and teachers alike in his home country, the author and former teacher made the somewhat surprising decision to educate his two young sons on the other side of the world, after accepting the role of professor of education policy at Sydney’s Gonski Institute. He isn’t backward when it comes to spelling out the difference between schools here and at home.

“I think the biggest difference with Australian primary schools is the workload,” Sahlberg says. “The whole system is expecting more, not in terms of quality of work, but quantity of work.”

It isn’t just the schools expecting more, he says, but rather a culture in which many Australian parents tend to judge their children’s progress in purely academic terms.

“In the first grade, you hear Australian parents talking about NAPLAN, which I find strange. At home it’s much more about happiness and wellbeing and making friends.”

Since taking up office at the Gonski Institute, Sahlberg has been very critical of the way NAPLAN is used by governments and parents alike. While he believes some form of standardised testing is essential for making good policy, he would prefer to see a sample-based model used, with results that couldn’t be abused as a de facto league table.

“Parents would be primarily informed by the assessments schools are doing. I think there’s a need in Australia to trust much more in teachers’ judgement. That trust is currently very weak, because most parents seem to think the best judgement of their child’s learning comes from NAPLAN, which is not the case.”

Trust in teachers is a key issue for Sahlberg when it comes to improving our schools.

The current Australian system too often interferes with the vital sense of autonomy teachers need to do their job to the best of their abilities – and to find satisfaction in doing it!

There are three critical elements that make teaching an autonomous, independent profession, Sahlberg says. One is the planning, the decisions regarding the curriculum: what teachers teach and in what order. The second is pedagogy: the freedom to choose the best way to teach. The third is the assessment: measuring the progress of student learning.

“Something like NAPLAN works against all three of these critical elements. The whole teacher, their professional identity and their ethos all suffer when the testing works against them.”

The solution, Sahlberg says, is to make it clear to everyone that teachers possess the same sort of professionalism as workers from careers such as law and medicine. Part of the answer to that is to make it more difficult to gain entry to the profession – an idea that runs counter to the conservative notion (one that fuels initiatives such as Teach For Australia) that we need to make it easier for anyone to become a teacher. In Finland, every teacher is required to have a master’s degree.

“The situation at present is that anybody can get into teaching. That would be lethal for the legal or medical professions. When you have the luxury of a culture where teachers are trusted as professionals, it spreads throughout the society, including children and young people. If parents think anybody can teach and the teachers in a school are nothing special, the kids will learn that from them. They will treat teachers in the same way.”

He isn’t worried that more rigorous entry standards will prevent young people applying, leading to the sort of teacher shortage that tends to panic right-wing media.

“When we require a more rigorous degree, it will attract higher quality candidates to consider teaching. Countries all around the world are currently redesigning teacher education to make entry into the profession harder. Young people don’t look for the easy way out, they look for things that very few people can do.”

Photo: Michael Harsanyi

Of course, fair funding will play a key role in making teaching more desirable. Sahlberg is concerned by the number of teachers who drop out of the profession within the first five years, leading to a dearth of experience and knowledge. If higher salaries would help stem that exodus, he would be in favour of governments spending more on wages.

But his main concern is the lack of fair funding across the Australian school system. Non-government schools often receive more public money than government schools, while government schools accommodate 85% of special needs and indigenous children who would most benefit from increased funding. Sahlberg stands by the first Gonski report, which pointed out that federal money was not being spent where it was actually needed.

“It’s going to be very difficult to move the needle towards more equitable education in Australia unless the funding somehow changes towards needs-based funding. Australia has one of the most segregated education systems in the world, with the biggest proportion of disadvantaged children going to disadvantaged schools than any other country.”

As far as he’s concerned, addressing this inequity will be essential if Australia genuinely wants to improve its education results. Instead of encouraging teachers to limit their teaching to fit the narrow demands of the NAPLAN test – essentially gaming the system – governments should commit to fair, needs-based funding and address the root causes. Sahlberg is modest about the Gonski Institute’s chances of fixing the system, but says it has a key role to play in changing the conversation around schools education in this country.

“We can try to change the conversation and the quality of public debate. Most educators don’t actually know about how the money is spent or what’s happening in other countries. What the OECD is now saying is that, when equity doesn’t improve, improving the quality of learning outcomes becomes very difficult.”

“For Australia, investing heavily in improving equity will be the best way to improve the learning outcomes for everyone in the system.”

He’s confident a change is coming. When I ask him what he hopes Australian schools will look like in five years, should he be successful, his vision is clear.

“In five years from now, if I’m successful in what I want to do, there will be many more schools in Australia who allow their children to have more time to play, more time to themselves and who are less concerned about academic achievement. I hope there will be more communities where parents and elders will realise that equity is the way forward. My hope and expectation is the time will come.”

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