If you haven’t heard of Professor Pasi Sahlberg then please spend a few moments looking through his resources. According to his biography Pasi is a Finnish educator and scholar. He has worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. His expertise include school improvement, international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership. Previously he was the Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) in Helsinki and currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
I first heard about him during my Masters Degree. His book Finnish Lessons has dramatically changed the way that I view education and teaching. The book is captivating and it is one of the only books that I have read in an entire day from cover to cover. I learnt that there are multiple ways to approach the teaching profession and that the profession should be reserved esteemed and admired. His book details the complexities of educational change and teacher training.
I remember, after a full day of reading his book, sending off an email to Pasi requesting an interview. To be honest, I thought that It was a long shot, and I didn’t really expect to get a response. Within hours he responded saying that he would be ‘delighted to speak with me.’ I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and reread his response. What evolved was an ongoing dialogue about teacher effectiveness, school reform, teacher training and more.
Below is a summary of our discussion.
Welcome Pasi, thank you so much for your time. Can you give me just a quick overview of your experiences in education and why you’re involved in education and what are some of the things you have done?
Well I love education. I decided to seek education as my primary profession in Finland quite a while ago now. I studied Mathematics and then became a Math Teacher. I have also worked with the Department of Teacher Education as well as moving into Education Policy and working with the curriculum development issues at the national level.
What’s so special about the Finish Education system? Why is it esteemed so highly around the world?
The whole system is so simple. We see clearly what needs to be done. We always go for what is good for kids. We build our schools asking the question to our kids, “Are you happy here? Do you have everything it takes to learn things?”
We have delegated the authority to decide what to teach and how to teach and also how to judge whether the students have learned to the level of the classroom. In most countries, critical decisions are made outside of the school, eg Ministries, but in Finland we have tried to have a system where teachers and teams of teachers, the Principal and the community can decide what is the best way to run the school. This cannot be done without trust: trust between pupils and teachers and politicians.
What can teachers learn and what can teachers do based on the Finish Education system?
Teachers need to be reminded that you can run the system where many things are done and decided within the school. Many teachers are losing this experience that schools can be a place where things are autonomously decided. The decisions need to be about letting the schools decided about the curriculum and how they should assess and test the kids. The Finish education system is a good example that you can run the system in a different way. You don’t need all this massive amounts of data. In Finland the performance of the school is about the parents walking into the school, talking to the teachers and the students and then decide about the performance as opposed to visiting the school’s website and taking a look at very complicated numbers.
In terms of assessment, how do the Finish educators get the data that they need to make decisions that benefit their school?
Personally, I’m not against testing in schools. It’s the overuse and over-reliance on standardized testing that is the issue. In Finland, most of the data is collected by the schools and by the teachers or the district municipality and it’s used for improving teaching and helping the students. Most of the centralized student level data is built on sample based assessments. We test these kids, they never know what this test is all about and the schools actually never see how they do against other schools too. They see how they do overall in the sample but they can’t identify the other schools. Most teachers in Finland would say that there are many other important things than reading, writing, Math and Science. They agree that if Finland had a standardized system of testing, that would only test the things that can be tested. What about the rest?
Does the Finland Education system only accept the best teachers. Why is that so important to the integrity of the profession?
Actually, for Primary school teachers, all the teachers start at the same level, whether or not they are very acute academically. But we also look at whether they are good at moral and ethical understanding and whether they have a commitment to spending their lives working with children. In other words, we have a system where we try to identity and find strong candidates but including those who are really sure they want to be teachers.
Do you have the same kind of attrition rate as we have in Australia?
We have few people who are likely to leave. We have very small numbers of teachers who leave the teaching profession every year. In my estimation, it’s about 5-9% in Finland.
What can we learn about how things are done in Finland in regards to retaining the best talent and really supporting the new teachers?
I think you’re preparing more teachers than you actually need – in my understanding. In Australia, UK, US, there are many trained teachers who will never be able to find jobs. We have teacher training schools attached to every research university preparing teachers just like we have teaching hospitals connected to every medical school that we have. There is a connection between the science of learning and the practice.
What advice would you give to an audience of new teachers?
Teaching is probably one of the most complex professions. There are two main dimensions of teaching. One is you need to do everything you can to make children learn well. Two, you need to understand how the community of professionals work. New teachers need to develop and learn and enhance their skills when it comes to working with other people. Successful teachers are not the ones who are successful in the classrooms. Successful teachers are those who are successful in working with other colleagues and are able to learn from them. Also, please trust your students and pupils regardless of how young they are. They are capable of doing much more than teachers give them credit for. Finally, before you become an expert teacher, you need about 10,000 hours in practice (about 7 years in practice)
Thank you so much for your time. I’m sure that many new teachers will find your responses very useful.
Thank you, anytime.
It was such a privilege to interview Pasi for I’m a New Teacher. He was an engaging conversationalist, obviously very intelligent but in no way intimidating. He answered questions gracefully and patiently with a genuine inquisitiveness. Pasi is a true teacher in every sense of the word.