Sunday, 19 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish author, educator and scholar who has become well-known through his exposition and analysis of the success of the Finnish education system as measured by the OECD's PISA tests. Prior to 2000, there had been no viable way to gauge the relative merits of national education systems, but the results of the PISA assessments are now used to form league tables that are being used as the foundation for comparison, policy formulation and educational reform. Finland's sustained strong performance in these assessments has led to a great deal of interest in their educational system.

Sahlberg's premise that there are two very different approaches to educational reform evident in national policies at the moment. One, which he terms the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) is outlined below on the right; this has tended to characterise the USA, the UK and Australia. As defined by Sahlberg, the other is 'The Finnish Way.' (For those with the time and interest, a TEDx talk expounding his ideas can be found here.)

Prior to expounding the Finnish way, Sahlberg does note that the education system exists in a context and that there are myriad 'invisible' factors that contribute to Finland's eminence. Finland can be characterised as a 'successful society', ranking highly in other international comparisons in areas such as innovation, economic competititeness, governance, child health and wellbeing, political empowerment of women, and the state and standing of mothers. All these factors have recursive relationship with a good education system, mutually reinforcing and strengthening one another. 

Most of Sahlberg's reflections on the Finnish way speak to systemic issues and social policies, rather than direct application to individual schools. Nonetheless, it was fascinating hear how Finnish educationalists are continuing to seek further improvement in the education that they are offering to their young people. For example, in their schools it is mandated that there is a 3 to 1 ratio of lessons to break time; that is, for every 45 minutes of class, there is 15 minutes of recess. Another example is the new requirement that each student experience at least one 'extended integrated study period per year'; this initiative seeks to break down the silos of specialised knowledge, advance authentic student-driven learning and make learning more engaging, interesting and real.

Ultimately there were four big messages in Sahlberg's presentations:

  • We must aim for equity as well as excellence. In the graphy below, the flags designate how individual nations/jurisdictions are progressing with reference to these two goals.

  • We should celebrate failure! Since 2011 Finland has held a National Day of Failure on 13 October, which is intended to help a risk-averse culture reframe failure. Failure is an invaluable element in the learning process and it needs to be understood as such.
  • Play is vital. Not just physical movement and activity, but also unstructured self-directed play for its own sake. Longer and longer hours of demanding and focussed learning is counter-productive and unhelpful. This is one of the key points where the distinction between the Finnish way and GERM is most clearly seen; most of the top-scoring jurisdictions in the PISA tests have massively extended school hours and demand for external study.
  • Learning languages is a very good thing, having cognitive benefit, preparing young people to be global citizens, developing empathy and engaging with alternative worldviews.

One of the disappointing aspects of Australian education policies of recent years has been the way that we have followed the lead of the USA and the UK in a number of areas, such as the introduction of high-stakes tests (ie NAPLAN), focussed on homogenisation of curriculum (ie the National Curriculum) and allowed PISA results to reframe our estimation of what makes for good educational outcomes for our children. Recognising that the Finnish way cannot simply be transplanted into a foreign context, I am firmly of the opinion that we ought be looking more to the Finnish way than to the GERM!

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