In Conversation with Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg

welcome to the conversation my name is John Hattie from the University of Melbourne and I have here today posi Saul Berg from the Ministry of Education in Finland and 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 5 of the educational leagues tables you know most Finnish people don't think like this we don't know unless you remind us that we are there that most people don't really care about where where we are but I think it's like always when you on the top of the hill it's windy it's busy and in a way it's not a comfortable place to be because you know it's easier in female we say that it's easier to ski behind somebody else when you have the track you know where to call but if the first one you don't see anything just know and white and we have been in this type of situation where we have we have to choose the direction where they call people asking these questions so I would much rather be number five and number one so in terms of what we want to do here in Australia and their prime ministerís it has aspirations to be in the top five so being number five is better than being number one be number five any sense of what we need to do here this is the horrific be 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 30 or 40 years yeah what would you say to us when I read the the Prime Minister's call which is a kind of a ambitious call to have a servant not literally to be number five but this is a kind of an almost like a metaphor that you want to do you want to improve so it doesn't matter whether you number five or number eight or number three it's it's a it's a kind of a call for improvement as I see Australia all the states or Australia's a federal country or other states here I think you are doing pretty well but you are already on the on the map of the the world's best education system so I I don't see this as a situation like in many other countries where you have a long much longer way to call so many of the basics basic issues are in place here but to get that since then like when you go to countries like a 20th and 30th and I we're more like 10th and 12th often I think the mood in Australia is that we like we're 20 or 430 it sounds like this crisis going on because we're not in the top five what I hear here it's much more a kind of a very pessimistic critical views on what you're doing and as a next external observer and I really see I've seen most of the OECD countries up close I can I can say that things are much better here just here in New Zealand when I when I meet with principals and teachers but I think of course there are things that you need to do and I think you are in in much better situation here in Australia today than most countries 10 years ago when we didn't have this experience and evidence from from Pisa and other things so you can you can really 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 in this educational performance pyramid you have much more choices to make I think some of the things that you're already considering here include how do you spend the money how do you fund your education system I think a very important question is also what do you do with your teachers how would you how should you prepare them how should we provide the more professional development leadership issue and then finally I think one of the critical questions here is if you compare Australia to the other high performing education systems is the question of equity what do you mean by let's go back through those on founding we actually spend more funding per student than you do and fill it by law what you do if you use the the current statistics you spend a little bit more than Lilly Mullen but this is I think this is because of the massive funding for structures the building education exactly you know if you take that away and you 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 so in terms of teacher quality now that's the catch-all all the time because 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 well we decided already when when we started to build the current education system 40 years ago exactly 40 years ago today we realized that if you have a system that is aiming at to be not number one but we be equitable so that every child will be having opportunity and and pathway to be successful that it requires teachers that are better educated and better education not only by some teachers but everybody all of them so certainly at the beginning they have to be at least two masters together and yeah you know many other countries have probably done a different way but in Finland we decided that it's a primary early childhood development and primary teachers preschool teachers and primary teachers are the key and that's why we require that they will have an academic higher Decree before they can take one star and how do you then keep their education their professional development going because we spend enormous amount of money on that on professional development yeah well you know education is very decentralized 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 they have access to professional development but I would say that this kind of a 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 become a primary school teacher is a 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's degrees that they earn in our universities they see pretty much what the medical doctors or lawyers or engineers or anybody else with the similar decree are doing with their kind of an autonomy independence respect professional kind of a collective nature of work and that's why I think they are going there not only because the university decrees and have a competitive degree but they the kind of it the image of being a primary school teacher is I think it's pretty close to what you would how you do describe a medical doctors work and so the temptation aniseh me to say that the way that we could do that and improve things and to make sure our money is spent well is tired to the performance of children and look at the whole test accountability notions to make sure we're spending the money the right way well this is your way to think about these things and the culture in this this respect is very different in Finland as a series I think we are putting much more emphasis in Finland on well-being happiness kind of a health of children so that everybody's healthy and you know ready to develop themselves and take the responsibility of their own learning I think what what I hear from foreign visitors to Finland that we have a massive number of people coming many of them they are surprised to see how much responsibility of learning in Finland Finnish course is with the pupils yeah so they they are driving the learning and development not the teachers and I think 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 are tend to rely much more on the numbers the assessments and tests that are made by teachers and schools and trusts are the numbers that they show are real and you've got a nice index of that such as Peter and so what you're telling me is that you're losing using a lot more about the student assessment capabilities of the students rather than inflicting tests as we tend to try and do absolutely and I think you know if you 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 United States in this respect but I think for example this assessment student assessment for learning is something that we have we have we have called the kind of a international idea and put it in a practice in our schools like we have done with many other innovations in Finland they have there are very few Finnish original Finnish ideas in the pedagogy and teaching and what we do so you know II through the words respect responsibility Trust certainly if come out on the Finnish yeah sure but I'm talking about the if you look at the educational literature yeah of the pedagogy of teaching methods so assessment ideas the very few of them initially come from Finland so what I'm saying is that we you know our skill is not to invent our skill is to implement and understand what what I do understands you now well how would I interpret in Australia then I come up with my magic word the way that's used all the time autonomy we give the teachers or time we give the school's all tahminae and that comes then with choice and parents should have choice etcetera 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 a tutor the students get a lot of choice about the kind of subjects – how early is that choice what we have done in Finland is that we have kind of a delayed the parent of choice – 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 because this is this is the the end of the compulsory education so you know together with this responsibility of for to be responsible for their own learning they also have responsibility and freedom to choose where they want to go so we have 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 this is one of the things that I think again I can see in many other high-performing countries that they are kind of are trying to postpone and delay the parental choice as late as possible and and all of us we have a big choice here the whole the bite of our private and public and choosing schools and the religious schools that can choose from right we stream the kids how we do there's a lot of streaming in Finland high schools high schools sure yes we have a two different very different types of high school upper secondary school options vocational school and general school they lead to very different that's before 16 at the age of 6 study I just again it's not before that there's nothing so there's a lot so you know this is the main idea of Finnish education we try to keep children in a similar school all the way until they're 16 and believe the compulsory school and and this is what many actually all of the high-performing countries are doing trying to do the same that they are not really opening education to the free market type of choice before the right this students sit in a piece quite different here yeah and you know if you if you want to be if you technically just like you would like to build a strategy to be high in appeaser Kings this is one thing that you should consider – trying to manage and delay the parental choice to later stage that will improve equity and enhance the quality but of course it's never simple like this and that's the other question I want to ask you equity hmm like Australia's reasonably high performing but not so high on equity and the notion is I'm hearing is saying here is that one way is to delight that those kind of choices – at least 16 or so on any other issues on it could you know you must have low socio-economic schools don't ya a dramatic difference like they do in this country yeah Australia's doing a little bit better than the OECD countries on average in equity so if we organise countries rank order them in terms of equity Australia's – yeah but all the Scandinavian countries are very strong in equity and that's why it's not only the school issue it's also the we have to do 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 things are doing but I think one thing that is probably standing taller than anything else in Finland in terms of this is is the how we understand an organised special education the education for children with the special needs and the police yeah that's a different system different way to do this thing than here and many other countries because we have we probably have 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 like for example do you have here so we in other words separate them out always no no is it no it's occlusive it's inclusive principal but this means that we have also many more individuals in our basic school system want to create 1 2 9 system who are receiving individualized support and help and they normally receive it early on rather than when the problems are already there so if I if I had to you know pick up one thing that Finland is doing particularly systematically and well to enhance equity it is this special educational system it's a very pricey it's very very expensive but when we cut when we do our economics of education we also calculate that the 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 that everybody can succeed so the obvious question from that is that you therefore have very low class sizes no we don't internationally if you if you if you walk into a urban classroom in primary school today you will probably see same number of kids that you will see here we are internationally very very similar in this respect so in terms of what I'm hearing that we should think about here in Australia is is worried about the giving more of the responsibility and the trust of the teachers and as a consequence looking at the equity issues of health well-being as well as academic outcomes unlike teachers responsible for that but what I'm not quite understanding is how do we know as taxpayers that we're getting our return from your school six hour yeah because we know I've been at the kids through school not every teachers perfect how are you going to make sure that we do make sure these desirable things are replaced one thing that we are doing I'm not saying that you you could do this right away or 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 is that of course the the overall idea of leadership the localized Kannamma kind of a community based education that we have Finland doesn't have a kind of a centralized system where the government is running the things it's all within our communities and parents are of course very responsible yeah 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 that 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 this probably because of this trust that we have in our system this seems to be enough to convince politicians authorities parents business community that 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 the like every country has but we don't think that just by collecting numbers of every single classroom the school you can you can the community can speak yeah yeah so I think Finland is probably a little bit different in this way that we have we have a very strong sense of kind of a collective doing things in our communities and if you typically if you have a school where there's one or two teachers who are not performing as they should I think it's the first thing to help these teachers is the kind of a collective professional community there rather than the people would wait for an authority or somebody else to come and say what what to do so I think this is the first thing we try to do and if it doesn't help them then some other misses will step into the picture as you saw me thank you very much I think we've heard a tremendous amount about the trust the cooperation the collaboration the way which the communities involved and I really love the way of what you are able to express it in the manner which you do we have a tremendous amount to learn so welcome to Australia we look forward to having you back I'll be back here the communication thank you so much

2 thoughts on “In Conversation with Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg

  1. oh, one of the key features of the high performing Finnish system is student choice or control over their learning. Yet Hattie's research says it has a very low effect size = 0.04 it is almost ranked LAST on Hattie's ranking – rank of 132 out of 138 – How can that be?

  2. Do you have any ideas on how we can do this? I am a maverick teacher who, at one time, had Hattie as one of my teachers! I hold Finland's education very high in esteem. I am a teacher.

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