Pasi Sahlberg on more play, more equity and more trust in teacher judgement

Interview by Myke Bartlett

Pasi Sahlberg is an educator and author who has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher, and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems, analysed education policies, and advised education reforms around the world. He has written and spoken widely about these topics. His book Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for an idea that has the potential to change the world. He is a former senior education specialist at the World Bank, a lead education expert at the European Training Foundation, a director general at the Finland's Ministry of Education, and a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University. He is now the Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute at the University of NSW. 

MB Why did you want to leave one of the world’s best education systems to come to Australia?

PS It was many lucky things coming together at the same time. I’d been here many times before and I’d known Adrian Piccoli [Director of the Gonski Institute at the University of NSW] since he took up his office. I knew there was a need in Australia to work harder on equity, inclusion and fairness. I thought: ‘Why not?’

MB What are some of the main differences you’ve noticed between Australian schools and Finnish schools?

PS I think the biggest difference with Australian primary schools is the workload. The school days are much longer, the backpacks are much heavier and the whole system is expecting more, not in terms of quality of work, but quantity of work. Kids are required to be engaged in school work much more here. The whole orientation is much more academic at this early age. In Finland we have much shorter school days and children have much more time to play. As a parent, I see many more parents here concerned about their kid’s academic progress and performance. In the first grade, you hear them talking about NAPLAN, which I find strange. At home it’s much more about happiness and wellbeing and making friends. 

The equally important and kind of painful thing for us has been the lack of universal early childhood education in the wealthiest country in the world. Australia has one of the smallest proportions of national wealth going to early childhood education in the OECD. I was expecting something similar to Finland, where we provide all children with universal high quality early childhood education and care. My wife and I found ourselves having the conversation when we came here — can we afford something that is clearly good for our children? It’s $160 a day here, which is a strange experience. I’m not a fan of making children start school early so their parents can save money.        

MB Most of society seemed to be behind the changes you made to Finnish schools. Is there a gulf behind what the current government thinks Australian schools should be like and what ordinary Australians think?

PS When I look at Australia now as a resident, I think that fairly soon there will be a change when not only parents but everybody will realise that young children aren’t doing well. Mental health and physical wellbeing are declining overall. If those things are not in good condition it doesn’t matter how high your standards are or how well trained your teachers are. I think we’ll see a shift in thinking, as soon as parents start to link the decline in wellbeing with what schools are not doing at present. 

If you look at the statistics about children’s health and wellbeing, it’s a very sad list. Anybody who sees those things and takes them seriously, should say ‘wait a minute, that’s not the right way to go’. We should really reconsider early childhood education and the early years of primary, especially with regard to homework and how long the school days are and how much time the kids have to play and be active. My hope and expectation are the time will come when we realise if we want our children to learn better and be better prepared for the future we’re asking them to do too much too early.

MB Do you think the education system in Australia would be improved if, like Finland, we had a greater trust in teacher judgement and we did not have NAPLAN? 

PS I certainly think NAPLAN needs to be rethought or redesigned, although I’m probably not one of those who would say it has to go altogether. There has to be some kind of information for the system. But I was part of leading the Gonski Institute submission for the ongoing review into NAPLAN. In a country with an advanced and mature education system like Australia, we would be OK with a sample-based national assessment supported by school-based assessments. Other countries are doing that. The sample-based program would help us understand how our systems are doing in many areas, not just literacy and numeracy. Parents would be primarily informed by the assessments schools are doing. I think there’s a need in Australia to trust much more in a teacher’s 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.

We need to trust teachers more. And that means understanding what professionalism in a teacher’s world really means. There are three critical elements that make teaching an autonomous, independent profession. One is planning, the decisions regarding the curriculum — what teachers teach and in what order. The other is pedagogy, the freedom to choose the best way to teach. The third is assessment, the progress of learning. Something like NAPLAN works against all three of these critical elements. It dumbs down the freedom and autonomy to decide on curriculum and choose the appropriate pedagogical approach and silences the teacher’s voice on how their students are learning. Standardised testing works against a teacher’s professional identity and ethos.

MB Finland requires its teachers to have masters degrees. Is that level of qualification necessary for people to have more trust in teachers?

PS It’s a complicated question. What we’ve found in Finland is that if the level of entry to teaching isn’t a masters degree, then there will be a lot of young people who will opt out, simply because they want to have a masters degree. There are those who would love to go into teaching, but they want a more advanced degree. A basic degree isn’t that valuable anymore. The important thing is we make teaching more attractive to as many people as possible. Nobody should walk away from teaching because they want a higher degree.

The other thing is that it’s important for a teacher’s sense of identity. One nice part of the Finnish system is that when you’re a primary school teacher with a masters degree in your pocket, you have the feeling that you are like a lawyer or doctor or anyone else holding the same type of degree. Most teachers don’t need everything they’ll learn in order to get a masters degree, but when we require a more rigorous degree, it will attract higher quality candidates to consider teaching. That’s what we need.

All those countries that are now in the situation of redesigning teacher education think the best way forward is 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. They want to challenge themselves. The situation at present is that anybody can get into teaching. That would be lethal for the law or medical professions. If young people see that anyone can get in, it doesn’t seem special. A more selective entry means that when you become a teacher, you have accomplished something, you have professional credentials early on.

Trust is a very important part of a culture. When you have a culture where teachers are trusted as professionals, this view spreads throughout the society, including children and young people. If that culture is not there, teachers are not trusted. If parents think anybody can teach and the teachers in a school are nothing special, the kids will learn that from them. Their behaviour will treat teachers in the same way.

MB Should teacher salaries be increased to make teaching more attractive as a profession?

PS I don’t know about teacher salaries, but I’m really concerned about how public money is allocated throughout the system. In many places, when I look at the statistics around distribution of taxpayer money, non-government schools in Australia often get more than government schools. At the same time, public schools are taking care of 85 per cent of special needs and indigenous children who really require schools and classrooms with more funding. 

If more funding towards salaries would help teachers stay in their jobs, I think that would be good because one of the really difficult and harmful aspects of the teaching profession here is that so many teachers leave after five to seven years. This leads to a situation where there are less and less experienced teachers in our schools. That’s really harmful in any profession. But the more serious issue for me is what the first Gonski Institute report very nicely and accurately pointed out — that the money is not being spent in the right way. If education was a private company concerned about its investments, nobody would run it like education is being run. 

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. I am a product of a system that has been funded on a needs basis. We have a lot of young people who would be completely lost or left behind if we’d had a similar way of funding schools to what is practised right now in Australia. 

MB Is there evidence that using funding to improve equity in an education system will improve overall student achievement?

PS What the OECD is now saying is that when equity doesn’t improve, improving the quality of learning outcomes becomes very difficult. That’s why I say that, for Australia, investing heavily in improving equity probably will be the best way to improve the learning outcomes for everyone in the system and make the country better as an education nation.

Australia is presently one of the most segregated education systems in the world. The OECD is saying that Australia has the biggest proportion of disadvantaged children going to disadvantaged schools compared to any other country. Which really indicates that trying to improve the system as it is now with all these disparities will be very, very hard. The Gonski Institute understands that while we can’t fix the system altogether, we can try to change the conversation and the quality of public debate to influence parents and taxpayers. Based on my eight months experience, I can tell you that most educators don’t know about how the money is spent or what’s happening in other countries. I think the Gonski Institute has a place here to promote a different kind of conversation and debate.

MB How do you see students themselves taking part in the debate over the future of education?

PS One side we haven’t used much in this debate yet is young people. We’ve seen the difference young people have made in organising the climate change strikes. They’re able to help their parents and adults change the way they think. Education will be the next big thing young people will take the lead on. If you put the facts on the table here in Australia to young people, they will understand why education isn’t working for everybody. There would be a movement and activism where young people will say, ‘this is not the world we want to have’. The Gonski Institute is trying to figure out how to engage young people more in this conversation and use them as an agent for change and help their parents and others to see that education now has a very different function to the one it had 50 years ago. It’s about the future of young people, just like the climate.

MB What do you think are the most important skills teachers pass on to students?

PS One of the really important things that schools and students will have to do in the future is helping young people live happy and healthy lives. I’m really concerned about this decline in wellbeing, not only here in Australia, but everywhere. One good example of this is the challenge that smartphones and digital devices present. Schools might say, ‘oh it’s the parents who have to deal with that’ and the parents might say ‘the school should be dealing with it’. 

One of the important things in the future will be to make sure every child learns at school how to live a healthy, meaningful and happy life, and how to take care of themselves and others. Academic knowledge and skills are important, but life skills - learning to self-control your own behaviours and understanding what is bad for you - will be the next big thing in the future. In America, they say this is the first generation where parents will bury their own children, because they’re dying younger. 

MB How do we best assess those sort of skills (empathy, understanding, etc.)?

PS The good news is they are already being measured in many places. Ontario in Canada is a good example. They’re measuring and monitoring the health and wellbeing of their students. And there’s talk of expanding the PISA instrument to take wellbeing into account. So it’s already happening in the same way that 30 years ago we were talking about how to measure literacy and numeracy.

MB If you had your way, what would the average Australian school look like by the end of your stay at the Gonski Institute?

PS In five years from now, if I’m successful in what I want to do, there will be many more schools in Australia which allow their children to have more time to play, more time for themselves and who are less concerned about academic achievement. I hope there will be more communities where parents and others will realise that equity is the way forward. My dream is that Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, will be offering a free, healthy, three course warm lunch every day to every child at 11.30 in the morning — not 1pm in the afternoon. Physical activity and healthy eating is key to a happier and more prosperous life.


Myke Bartlett is a journalist in the publications section of AEU (Vic). He has written for some of Australia's most respected cultural publications and was the arts editor at The Weekly Review for the best part of a decade. His young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the Text Prize in 2011

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.1 Mental health, reporting and education futures.

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