Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg: treat primary school teachers like doctors

Finnish education leader Pasi Sahlberg discusses what works and what doesn’t in education.

The Finnish education system is one of the best performing and most equitable in the OECD.

With Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s promise to make Australia one of the best five performing countries for education in the world, what can we learn from the Scandinavians?

One answer might be more simple than we think: elevate teachers to the same social and professional status we hold doctors and other people with whom we trust with vital aspects of our health and well-being.

Today The Conversation presents a discussion between two of the world’s leading education experts on how Australia can learn from others and improve its educational outcomes.

Pasi Sahlberg is Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) in the Ministry of Education in Finland. He has worked as a teacher, teacher-educator, policy advisor and director, and for the World Bank and European Commission.

Professor John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. His influential 2008 book Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement is believed to be the world’s largest evidence-based study into the factors which improve student learning.

Read the full transcript here.

John Hattie: In terms of teacher quality…. The message that often comes through 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.

… 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.

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 degrees 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: 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: …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.


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: And that’s the other question, I want to ask you: equity. Australia is reasonably high-performing but not so high on equity. … [What are the] 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. … [But] with the equity issue we have to look at many 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.

… 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….

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.

You can read the full transcript of this interview here.