“Differential education is a competitive factor”

Pasi Sahlberg, Photo Matt Luciuk
Pasi Sahlberg, Photo Matt Luciuk

Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg predicts a backlash against global standardization and says teachers need different training and skills to succeed.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: The Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) sets a goal of turning out individuals primed for economic success. You have doubts about this approach. Why?

Pasi Sahlberg: While economic success is important, it’s a very narrow view. Everyone needs to find their place in life. More than half of the OECD countries have adjusted their educational priorities in order to score better on the PISA tests. OECD strategies are more about skills than knowledge. That’s not inclusive enough. My concern is that art, music, and social studies now have less of a role in education.

CSG: Does it make sense to globalize education?

PS: Education is no longer a national issue. Ideas and people are moving. There are similar expectations of an educated person across the world, and this has led to the dominant role of international assessments.

The thinking behind the OECD’s PISA assessments is that education in general should prepare young people for the same type of world and to be active in a global labor market. Curricula across the world are getting more and more similar and they focus less on preparing people for labor markets. That’s the offspring of the global economic movement.

But I think there will be a backlash. Differential education is a competitive factor! Recognizing this will be a way to boost innovation, enhance tolerance, and so on.

CSG: How do we get away from standardization?

PS: That’s hard: once you’ve let the genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to get back in.

In the US, for example, the move toward tougher “accountability” in the 1980s is still underpinning education policy. That’s the wrong approach—teachers and schools need more professional responsibility.

Public schooling in the US has become only about standards, not about the curriculum. The “Common Core” is only a curriculum framework and not a curriculum. The US has a deep and rich history of education for all as the path to a better life, and this has practically disappeared.

“Curricula across the world are getting more and more similar and they focus less on preparing people for labor markets. That’s the offspring of the global economic movement.”

My concern with PISA is that educators start to measure success in education by looking at the test scores. That’s a very dangerous trend. I’m against over-reliance on mechanistic, multiple-choice tests that only measure memory and knowledge reproduction. This is where collective human judgment, or small data, becomes valuable.

CSG: If PISA and standardized tests are the “big data”, what is “small data” in education?

PS: We need information that helps us to understand the aspects of teaching and learning that are invisible or not easily measurable: it’s about small clues that can reveal big trends. Standardized tests or opinion surveys may help identify some general trends, but observing human behavior, trying to understand what works best in schools and why can lead to meaningful change. Big data and small data leads to good data. It’s a wise and smart combination. With only one or the other, you don’t get a broad picture.

“I’m against over-reliance on mechanistic, multiple-choice tests that only measure memory and knowledge reproduction. This is where collective human judgment, or small data, becomes valuable.”

CSG: Is working with small data expecting too much from today’s overworked teachers?

PS: Experienced teachers, doctors, social workers and psychologists have always been sensitive to these small clues in their work. They should remind big data advocates that small data is a necessary complement to the findings of data teams. However, teacher quality is in many places completely inappropriate for this kind of analysis. And yes, for small data to benefit teachers requires time.

CSG: When did the teaching profession change?

PS: Politicians accuse teachers of not preparing students properly; there’s just too much unfair criticism in many countries. That doesn’t help make the profession attractive. To look at one example, teachers in US public schools are underpaid. I recently spoke to an audience of 200 high school students there and asked how many were thinking about becoming a teacher. Only one hand went up. The career counselors in school steer students away from teaching towards “better” jobs, as they call them.

When I asked why, the answer: it’s not enough to live on. It’s true! Most teachers in US urban areas have a second job to make ends meet.

We need to change the image of what teaching is. Some countries are adding a Master’s degree requirement for teaching, but that’s not helpful if the image of teaching doesn’t change.

“Teaching needs to become a profession that is attractive and admired by young people everywhere.”

Teaching needs to become a profession that is attractive and admired by young people everywhere. Modern teaching is about planning, implementation and evaluation. Suppose we look at the teaching profession like this: you need to be able to look ahead and plan, similar to a medical doctor or an architect.

If you only get a script and some books and a bit of freedom to decide how you want to teach, but can’t judge the outcome – well, that’s a very different profession.

CSG: How would you describe the teaching profession in Finland? There’s a lot of talk about project-based learning (PBL) being the next big thing, which has put Finland in the headlines lately.

PS: In Finnish schools, the planning is done collectively by the teachers. They have access to decide on the curriculum, decide how to organize the classes and subjects, and which methods to use. And, most importantly, Finnish teachers have the full responsibility AND authority to judge how well kids are learning.

When teaching is standardized, it narrows the creativity. Teachers want to be able to take responsibility. PBL as a policy reform is very complex in practice. It can’t be done with the skills you’ve had from the last 25 years of teaching. It’s quite another thing to have schools full of teachers who can make it work. Most Finnish teachers are not sufficiently prepared pedagogically for this shift.

“When teaching is standardized, it narrows the creativity. Teachers want to be able to take responsibility.”

CSG: What does a reform like PBL need to be successful?

PS: PBL requires a whole new approach to teaching and an investment in resources. Without this, we’ll be looking at another failed reform.

In the 1970s, “group work” instead of frontal teaching was the new trend, but it was a big failure. Why? No change in teachers’ knowledge or methods. I’m a little bit concerned that this can happen again.

It’s not enough to have a “reform”. We need to change several things simultaneously and it starts with teacher training. Make teaching a real profession practiced by professionals: it’s about trust, teamwork, and leadership. These changes don’t just happen, but need a longer-term plan.

Looking again at the US, there is no social psychology knowledge required for teachers. And it’s also parents who resist reform. With interdisciplinary PBL, they think their kids aren’t learning. They want to see math scores. There’s a lot of pushback when parents can’t understand how their kids are learning. It is a huge advocacy job—for which teachers and administrators just aren’t prepared.

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator, author and scholar. He is known as an “international school improvement activist” because of his direct links to practitioners and their communities. He has lived and worked in Finland, the UK, the US and Italy. As an international speaker and author, Sahlberg has given more than 500 keynote speeches and published over 120 articles, chapters and books on education. His best-seller book “Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland” (Teachers College Press, 2015) has been translated into 26 languages.