What Can We Learn From Finland?

Several weeks ago I told you about the education symposium that I was kindly invited to, as a representative of small schools in NSW andMontessori schools in particular. At this event, I was terribly excited to hear from the foremost leader in education thinking today, Professor Pasi Sahlberg, who engineered the Finnish education system, so revered worldwide. The following is an overview of his excellent presentation.

There are three major trends in education today:

1.     Welbeing, health and happiness – This is a central part of education! We need to teach children welbeing as a group of skills. How do we do health? Did you know that 3 countries in the world (Bhutan, Venezuela and Dubai/United Arab Emirates) now have a Minister for Happiness (who, interestingly, are all women)?

2.     Equity and inclusion – We know that there is a link between the socio-economic background of children and their academic performance. We know that most Western countries have dropped in achievement over the last 6-8 years (according to PISA international testing). We don’t know why. Sahlberg does not believe that it is a reflection on teacher quality. He wants us to ask ourselves what else is going on. For example, we do know that during that period of time, there has been an enormous surge in the number of hours that children spend in front of screens. It seems as though no one is looking at the correlation between these two elements. In Finland, the average number of hours that students spend in front of screens is a shocking 8 hours a day! In Australia it is 9 hours a day! However, we need to be very careful when making conclusions. One of the studies done to try to show correlations showed that the more ice cream we eat, the more house fires there are! Clearly, however, the two are not related. So we do need to be super careful when making causative assumptions. Interesting food for thought though!

3.     Small Data - Sahlberg talked about the fallacy of what is known as “big data”. “Big data” refers to national and international testing such as NAPLAN and PISA. Big data tends to provide big numbers that then leads to reactive and restrictive policy – what is known as “high stakes testing”, such as we see in the rapidly declining American education system whereby student testing is linked to school funding (attaching school funding to testing results – so the better a school performs on the tests, the more funding they get) and teacher pay. This leads to “teaching to the test” or cheating on tests, which lowers quality education. Good education systems acknowledge teachers as one of the most important employment groups of society (in Finland teachers are considered by society to be as important as doctors and lawyers and are paid as such, therefore, the most capable and intelligent students often choose to become teachers, raising the quality of education). ‘Small data” is where we are truly able to see causation. It is the data that we collect on each child, which tells us how they are progressing, individually, on their own trajectory. This is meaningful data – not big data.

Sahlberg’s advice to the NSW Minister of Education, Adrian Piccoli was as follows: 1. Increase the study of foreign languages – this has been proven to increase cognition (only 15% of current graduates in NSW schools do languages in their HSC), 2. Implement the full Gonski plan, 3. Work on small data (in other words, abolish NAPLAN and stop reacting to PISA scores).

Finally, Pahlsberg said we should be asking ourselves whether our children are being asked to do too much, too fast. Our work days have increased exponentially each century. This is no good for adults or children! He cited the book, ‘The Overworked American: the Decline of Leisure.” We spent the twentieth century so concerned that with the growth in digital technology, the job market would decline and we would have nothing to do. No one would have predicted that in fact the opposite would be true! Our work hours have increased and our leisure time has decreased. We have become slaves to technology. Here I am, madly typing this newsletter on my laptop for our online platforms and I couldn’t agree more!

Have a great week ahead!


Raquel Charet