Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg In Conversation: full transcript

John Hattie: Welcome to The Conversation. My name is John Hattie from the University of Melbourne and I have here today, Pasi Sahlberg from the Department of Education in Finland.

It’s certainly exciting to have you here and we look to your country all the time. What’s it like to be in the top five education league tables?

Pasi Sahlberg: You know, most Finnish people don’t think like this, unless you remind us that we are there but most people don’t really care about where we are. But I think it’s like always when you’re on the top of the hill, it’s windy, it’s busy and in a way, it’s not a comfortable place to be.

In Finland, we say it’s easier to ski behind somebody else, you have the track and you know where to go. But if you’re the first one, you don’t see anything, it’s just snow and white.

We have been a little bit in this type of situation where we have to choose which direction where to go and people are asking these questions – so I would much rather be number five than number one.

John Hattie: In terms of what we want to do here in Australia, our Prime Minister has aspirations to be in the top five [internationally]. Any sense of what we need to do here? That’s a horrifically large question but given your experience of what you’ve done in Finland, and we want to get there soon, we’re not going to wait for 30 or 40 years, so what would you say to us?

Pasi Sahlberg: When I read the Prime Minister’s goal, which is a kind of ambitious goal to have, [I don’t see it] literally to be number five but it’s kind of like a metaphor that you want to improve. So it doesn’t matter if you’re number five or number eight or number three, it’s a call for improvement.

And as I see Australia… you’re doing pretty well. That you are already on the map of the world’s best education systems, so I don’t see this as a situation, like in many other countries, where you have a much longer way to go, many of the basic issues are in place here.

John Hattie: But do you get the sense though that when you go to countries that are 20th and 30th, and we’re more like 10th and 12th, often I think the mood in Australia is like we’re 20th or 30th. It sounds like there’s a crisis going on because we’re not in the top five.

Pasi Sahlberg: What I hear here is much more of very pessimistic, critical views on what you’re doing. And as an external observer, and I’ve seen most of the OECD countries up close, I can say that things are much better here – here and in New Zealand – when I meet with principals and teachers.

But I think, of course, there are things that you need to do and I think you’re in a much better situation here in Australia today than in most countries ten years ago when you didn’t have this experience and evidence from the [Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)] and other things. So if you take a close look at what the well-performing countries have done, and what the countries who have been able to climb up this education performance pyramid, you have much more choices to make.

Some of the things you are already considering here include: how do you spend the money? How do you fund your education system? I think a very important question is: what do you do with the teachers? How should you prepare them? How can you provide them with more professional development? [There’s] the leadership issue.

And then finally one of the critical issues here is, if you compare Australia to the other high-performing education systems, is the question of equity.

John Hattie: Let’s just go back through those, on funding we actually spend more funding per student than you do in Finland by a long way.

Pasi Sahlberg: You do spend, if you use the current statistic a little bit more than Finland. But I think, this is because of your massive funding for structures…

John Hattie: The Building the Education Revolution…

Pasi Sahlberg: Yes, but if you take that away, and compare what Australia was spending three years ago, you have a significant gap between Finland and Australia, in favour of Finland, so we have been spending more.

John Hattie: Now, in terms of teacher quality – that’s the catch-all all the time. The message that often comes through from that is that the teachers need to improve, they’re not good. What have you done in Finland on teacher quality?

Pasi Sahlberg: We decided when we started to build the current education system 40 years ago, we realised that if you have a system that is aiming to be not number one, but equitable so that every child will be having opportunity and pathways to be successful, that requires teachers that are better educated and better education not just for some teachers but for everybody, all of them.

John Hattie: And certainly at the beginning they have to be at least a masters to get in?

Pasi Sahlberg: Many other countries have probably done a different way. But in Finland, we decided that early childhood development and primary teachers, pre-school teachers and primary teachers are the key. And that’s why we require they will have an academic higher degree before they can teach.

John Hattie: But once they’re in, how do you keep their education, their professional development going, because we spend an enormous amount of money on that.

Pasi Sahlberg: On professional development?

John Hattie: Oh, yes.

Pasi Sahlberg: Well, education is very decentralised in Finland, so it’s very much up to the school, individual teachers, municipalities who are running the schools to make sure that teachers who are in service there have access to professional development. But I would say that this kind of systematic way of focusing on highly trained teachers and building a profession during the course of the last 30-35 years has created a system where becoming a primary school teacher is in very high demand in Finland.

Because many young people when they look at what the primary school teachers do with a high quality academic master degree that they earn in our universities, they see pretty much what the medical doctors, or lawyers or engineers or anybody else with a similar degree are doing, with their autonomy, independence, respect, professional collective nature of work.

And that’s why I think they are going there. Not only because the university degree is kind of a competitive degree but the image of being a primary school teacher is pretty close to how you would describe a medical doctor’s work.

John Hattie: So then, the temptation for me to say is for the way that we could do that and improve things and make sure our money is spent well, is tie it to the performance of children and look at the whole test accountability notions to make sure we’re spend in the money the right way.

Pasi Sahlberg: Well, this is your way to think about these things but the culture in this respect is very different in Finland. We are putting much more emphasis in Finland on well-being, happiness and health of children. So everybody is healthy and ready to develop themselves and to take the responsibility of their own learning.

What I hear from foreign visitors to Finland, and we have a massive number of people coming, many of them they are surprised to see how much responsibility for learning in Finnish schools is with the pupils. So they are driving the learning and development, not the teachers and if you have this type of system, where the responsibility of learning and development is primarily with the learners themselves. You cannot rely on numbers and testing.

Of course, we do that as well, but I think the difference between our countries is that in Finland we tend to rely much more on the numbers, the assessments and tests that are made by teachers and schools and trust the numbers that they show are real.

John Hattie: And you have a nice index of that such as PISA, and so what you’re telling me is that you’re using a lot more about student assessments, capabilities of the students rather than inflicting tests as we tend to try to do.

Pasi Sahlberg: Absolutely, and I think if you use the English terms like assessment for learning, which is not at all a Finnish invention. So we are relying on the research and ideas from Australia, from England, the United States, in this respect. But I think for example, this student assessment for learning is something that we have, we have caught the international idea and we have put it into practice in our schools.

Like we have done with many other innovations in Finland. There are very few original Finnish ideas in pedagogy and teaching.

John Hattie: Not completely true, the words “respect”, “responsibility”, “trust” certainly have come out of the Finnish system very strongly.

Pasi Sahlberg: Sure, but I’m talking about if you look at the educational literature on pedagogy, of teaching methods, or assessment ideas. Very few of them come from Finland. So what I’m saying is that our skill is not to invent, our skill is to implement and understand what ideas work.

John Hattie: If I’m listening to you now, and I’m saying, “well, how would I interpret it in Australia?” Then I come up with my magic word, the word that is used all the time, “autonomy”. We’d give the teachers autonomy, we’d give the schools autonomy, and that comes then with choice and whether parents should have choice etc.

In your high schools in Finland, do the parents get a lot of choice in terms of the kind of schools they can send them to? Do the students get a lot of choice about the kind of subjects? How early is that choice?

Pasi Sahlberg: Well, what we have done in Finland is that we have delayed the parental choice to upper-secondary school which is when our kids are about 16 years of age and when you have a 16-year-old Finn very few parents anymore have anything to say about their choice, this is the end of the compulsory education. So together with the responsibility for their own learning they also have the responsibility and freedom to choose where they want to go.

The first time when parents really can choose or students can choose between one school and another comes at the age of 16. And I think this is one of the things that I see in many other high-performing countries that they postpone and delay the parental choice as late as possible.

John Hattie: We have a big choice here, the whole debate about private and public, and choosing schools, and there’s religious schools that you can choose from. We stream the kids, is there streaming in Finnish high schools?

Pasi Sahlberg: High schools sure, yes, we have two very different types of high school, upper secondary school options – occasional school and general school they lead to very different…

John Hattie: That’s before 16?

Pasi Sahlberg: That’s at the age of 16. Not before then, there’s nothing.

John Hattie: There’s a lot of that here.

Pasi Sahlberg: This is the main idea of Finnish education system, we try to keep children in the similar school all the way until they are 16 and leave the compulsory school. And this is what many, actually, all of the high performing countries are trying to do the same. So they are not really opening education to the free market type of choice before the students sit in PISA.

John Hattie: Yes, and it’s quite different here.

Pasi Sahlberg: If you technically wanted to build a strategy to be high in the PISA rankings, this is one thing that you should consider – to manage and delay the parental choice to later stage that would improve equity and enhance the quality. But of course, it’s never simple like this.

John Hattie: And that’s the other question, I want to ask you: equity. Australia is reasonably high-performing but not so high on equity. And what I’m hearing you say here is that one way is to delay parental choice until at least 16.

Any other ways to address equity? You must have low-socioeconomic schools do they have the dramatic differences like we do in this country?

Pasi Sahlberg: Australia is doing a little bit better than the OECD countries on average in equity. So if we organise countries, rank order them in term of equity, Australia is …

John Hattie: We are nowhere near Finland.

Pasi Sahlberg: You know there are countries, all the Scandinavian countries are very strong in equity and that’s why. It’s not only the school issue, particularly with the equity issue we have to look at many other things, like what the health system and social protection and early childhood development are doing.

But I think one thing that is probably standing taller than anything else in Finland in terms of this is how we understand and organise special education, the education for children with special needs.

And that’s a different way to do this thing than here and in many other countries because we have a much more sensitive lens through which we are looking at our classrooms and students. And that’s why we have many more students who are categorised as special needs students than, for example what we have here.

John Hattie: And you separate them?

Pasi Sahlberg: No, it’s inclusive, it’s an inclusive principle. But this means that we also have many more individuals in our basic school system, our grade one to nine system who are receiving individualised support and help. They normally receive it early on, rather than when the problems are already there.

So if I had to pick up one thing that Finland is doing particularly systematically and well to enhance equity, it’s the special education system. It’s very pricey, it’s very expensive. But when we do our economics of education, we also calculate that the cost of not doing that would be much higher later on.

So that’s why we want to invest early on and make sure that everybody is treated as an individual and will receive the basic support and help and then try to make sure everyone can succeed.

John Hattie: So the obvious question from that is, that you, therefore, have very low class sizes?

Pasi Sahlberg: No, we don’t, if you walk in to a urban classroom in primary school today, you would probably see the same number of kids that you would see here and in New Zealand. Internationally we are very similar in this respect.

John Hattie: So what I’m hearing about what we should think about here in Australia is worry about giving more of the responsibility and the trust to the teachers and as a consequence, looking at the equity issues of health and well-being as well as academic outcomes, and make teachers responsible for that.

But what I’m not quite understanding is how do we know that as taxpayers that we’re getting our return?

Pasi Sahlberg: From your school system?

John Hattie: Because we know, I’ve been a kid through school, not every teacher’s perfect, how are you going to make sure we do make sure these desirable things are in place?

Pasi Sahlberg: One thing that we are doing, I’m not saying that you could do this right away or that you should do this at all, is that we are relying on schools as communities to report these things back to the communities and parents. This is one thing.

Then the other thing, of course, is the overall idea of leadership, a localised, kind of community based education that we have. Finland doesn’t have a kind of centralised system where the government is running the things, it’s all within our communities and parents are, of course, very much…

John Hattie: Are responsible to the community?

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, but you know, if in Finland if we want to know how things are going we do exactly what the OECD is doing when it wants to know how the countries are doing, we are taking samples of schools and pupils and teachers and we are measuring and assessing and evaluating them just like any other research would do.

And you know, probably because of this trust that we have in our system, this seems to be enough to convince politicians, authorities, parents that things are going well. Of course, we have bad teachers or poor teachers who are not performing to the level that they should in Finland, like in every country. But we don’t think that just by collecting numbers of every single classroom or school you can…

John Hattie: The community can speak?

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, so I think Finland is probably a little bit different in that way, we have a very strong sense of kind of collective doing things in our communities. Typically if you have a school where there are one or two teachers who are not performing as they should, I think the first thing to help these teachers is the collective professional community rather than waiting for the authority of somebody else to come and say what to do.

This is the first thing we try to do and if it doesn’t help, then some other measures will step into the picture.

John Hattie: Pasi Sahlberg thank you very much, I think we’ve heard a tremendous amount about the trust, the cooperation, the collaboration, the way in which the community is involved and I really love the way in which you are able to express it in the manner in which you do. We have a tremendous amount to learn.

So welcome to Australia and we look forward to having you back.

Pasi Sahlberg: Thank you so much.

This article is an edited transcript of an interview between Pasi Sahlberg and John Hattie. You can watch the full video here.

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