Kevin: In the latest rankings from PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks outside the top 20 in science, reading, and in math. What are the countries in the top 10 doing to outpace our student performance? What can we learn from their approaches to teaching, curriculum, and assessment? And what other innovations should we be adopting to make American education the best in the world? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today I'm joined by international education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, to find out. Pasi Sahlberg is an educator, researcher, and author who helped build the Finnish education system into a powerhouse that consistently scores at the top of the PISA rankings. He has studied systems, analyzed policies, and advised reforms in more than 60 countries around the world. He's also held leadership posts at Harvard University, the World Bank, and the European Commission along the way.
Today, Pasi is a professor of education policy and research director at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. And he is with us today to discuss the leading international approaches to education and what we in America can learn from our counterparts overseas. Pasi, welcome to the show.
Pasi: Yeah. First of all, Kevin, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate your show and everything you do for education and public education in the States.
Kevin: I really appreciate you joining. I always like to talk a little bit about how people got to where they are. And as I was reading about you, it seems like you always were fascinated with this idea of being a teacher.
Pasi: So both of my parents were teachers, and at that time it was in a very northern part of Finland in a small village. And that time, if you were a teacher in a village school, you normally had housing attached to the school. I often say that I was born in a primary school. What else can you expect? Where other people's playgrounds maybe a farm, or barn, or something like this, you know, my playground was a classroom. As soon as the classes were over, I occupied, I took over the classroom and pretend, you know, kinds of things that kids do. But often I found myself, like, pretending to be a teacher.
Kevin: Describe Finland for folks in the States who know that it's in Northern Europe, they know there's Norway, there's Amsterdam. But, you know, describe the country, the people, and some of the demographics. And then I wanna unpack sort of the Finland experience.
Pasi: Yeah. Kevin, I think it's extremely important question before saying anything about Finland's education, anything that people need to really know the basic things. What most people probably know is a fairly small country between Sweden and the great Russian empire in the east. And it's a very important factor because we are often considered to be part of east and sometimes part of west.
We speak a language that nobody else in the world speaks. About 6 million people, the northern-most part of the European Union. And, you know, the education has always been important. I would argue that education for the Finnish people have always been more important than it has for our Western neighbors, like people in Sweden, or Norway, or Denmark. And certainly more important than the Russian people in the east, because, you know, historically, we have been squeezed between these two powers in the west and east.
And, you know, if you ever been, you know, having this feeling that you're small, if you really want to become something and to maintain your identity and freedom and independence, you need to be smart. You need to be actually smarter than the others. And that's where this kind of the fact that education and this idea of, you know, educating people to be smart and doing good things is part of the Finnish DNA.
Kevin: So, let's talk about the Finnish education experience. I guess it came into prominence when the first PISA ratings came out, or rankings came out. And for folks who don't know, PISA is the international assessment. Means by which countries are evaluated and actually ranked in their educational outputs for children. And when the rankings first came out, and it's been almost 20 years, they first came out, Finland was at the top.
Pasi: Yeah. I think, Kevin, the first thing I wanna say here is that Finland has never had a goal or aim to be number one in this OECD's PISA that you mentioned. The Finnish idea was just to, just like you said, you know, build a different kind of system and have education system that is able to give good education, excellent education for each and every child, not just some of them.
And that's why, you know, this idea of reducing bureaucracy and try to build a system that is lean, and simple, and also cheap. If you compare the cost of running the Finnish education system in terms of the administration in Finland, it's a fraction proportionally what it is in the United States. I understand that in America, about half of the money, the $700 billion that goes to education goes to bureaucracy, administration, these offices and officers, and all these other things.
In Finland, we are talking about fraction of that. And that was the main aim in the 1990s to, you know, redesign the system in a way that decisions regarding what to teach, and how to teach, and how to organize schooling would be done by those people who are actually the frontline workers. You spoke about teachers before. So that's when Finland really shifted to the phase where the schools and teachers collectively were given freedom to, you know, decide what the school would look like.
Of course, there's a national framework that everybody has to follow, but these key decisions that, you know, what the teaching of mathematics or English looks like, that's done by teachers, nobody else. And therefore, we still have this system that is fairly kind of cost-effective in a sense, that there's little bureaucracy, and much more is invested into implementation and, you know, trying to do things in the right way.
Kevin: This idea of teacher empowerment, this idea of meeting kids and families where they are, and not focusing in on, you know, the system needs, really it's about major empowerment for the kids that are supposed to benefit from the system. You all believe in Finland, that kids, especially at early age, need to be free to play, free to express themselves. And that in its own sort of form helps invigorate the learning process, stoke the innate curiosity in kids, and you do all these things, and when Finnish kids do take tests on math, science, and reading, they blow it away. Now, I know I've oversimplified things, but really, it's fascinating that the focus on the child's wellbeing really almost is the best incentive for good results.
Pasi: Often, these simple things that matter the most. And just like you said, that, you know, when you have children who have time to do what they are designed to do, you know, play, and do physical activity, and be by themselves, and create, and sometimes take control of their lives, they seem to do better in school as well. But this well-being aspect is absolutely critical thing.
I've been heartbroken to see now in many places, including the United States, and Canada, and many countries in Europe, how the declining wellbeing and health of young people is actually making good learning in schools impossible. All the Finnish schools do something that my American sisters and brothers often find kind of surprising and difficult to understand that it is that if we talk about 160 minutes of time for instruction that schools have in Finland, 15 minutes of that 60 minutes have to be given to children to do their own things outdoors.
And it's a very important thing. You don't see this only in one school or a couple of schools in Finland. You don't see this only in the spring or summer when it's warm. You see it right now. If you go there and look around the Finnish primary schools, or kindergartens, or even high schools, you see kids, you know, going out, it can be -0 °F, and they still have to go out and, you know, do the plays and games and other things. And that's something that is a kind of a magic that turns the kind of classrooms into magic when you've been playing outdoors for 15 minutes, having fresh air with your friends and moving around and climbing the trees, then you come to the classroom, sit down and learn mathematics. I can tell you that the learning happens much faster and better that way.
Kevin: In your role now, you're in Australia, and you're at the University of New South Wales, and you're advising folks in that country about their educational system. What are some of the challenges you happen to see in this new role?
Pasi: People often, when they see me, or have conversation with me, or meetings, they kind of assume that I'm selling the Finnish education model. That my thinking would be that you have to, here in Australia, you have to have a Finnish education. And, you know, I'm the first one to say that you can't do that. That you don't try to imitate Finland.
When I published my Finnish lessons book that is published by the Columbia University there in the United States, I asked the publisher to put this big yellow sticker in the back cover of the book that you often see there, that "Don't try this at home." Just to avoid this thing that, you know, don't believe that you have to copy something.
But, you know, again, this burden of tradition is very difficult and very hard here. People often lack courage to see what the future would be in terms of the schooling. That's one of those huge things that I'm trying to kind of work against. Then, you know, there's interesting, there's many similar things between Australia and the United States when it comes to education. One of them is something that I think we definitely need to rethink. I'm not saying that we need to do it away, but we need to radically rethink, is this kind of need to measure everything.
And I understand that, you know, you've been asking this in your podcast that how do we know that it works? We have to ask this question, how do we know that the education model, whatever it is, that it works? But we also need to understand that they are much more sophisticated ways of answering that question than what you are doing now in the U.S., or what we are doing here, that we are measuring all the kids all the time, using the tests and instruments that are actually only measuring a fairly narrow area of, you know, what the kids were supposed to learn in the school.
And that, you know, as long as we keep these very narrow external, often high-stakes measurements, deciding whether the school or school program or system works, I don't think that we're gonna make too much progress.
Kevin: This idea of measuring what works, I've come a long way on this, and I'd like to get your thoughts. I tend to believe that it's not so much the academics that we're teaching, it's the humans we're developing. And I think that if you have kids, no matter what background they come from, who feel like they're being seen and heard, and that someone cares about them, and they can work more at their own pace, they'll eventually get there.
And so, I don't think we should hold schools or teachers, and I know some of my academic friends are gonna give me a hard time about this. I don't think we should hold them to these immediate year-by-year standard. Because, depending on the circumstances, it may take a little longer. But I totally believe, passionately now, after all these years, that if kids feel valued, they will respond.
Pasi: I think it's critically important we do that. But I also want to underline that people often, when they listen to me or read my stuff, they kind of think that I'm anti-standardized testing, or that I'm one of those who wants to see all the testing go away and, you know, the kids and teachers can just do whatever they want to do. No. I'm actually all in for, you know, having high-quality, good, reliable, reasonable tests that will inform us and parents and kids, you know, what they're learning.
But just like you said, that, you know, many, actually most of those questions that we would love to see in our children, we kind of test that we have to ask those things from teachers who spend so many hours a day with our children. What do they see? And, you know, develop those forms of assessment as well, that teachers and schools would inform us exactly what you were asking, Kevin, that, you know, how kids feel in the school. Do they feel prepared and ready for this world? And not just, you know, what their scores or test points are in mathematics and reading.
Kevin: If there was one aspect of the Finnish approach to education that should be adopted in the United States, what would that be?
Pasi: Something that people often don't know is that, if you really take a closer look at what Finland has done and how Finland has been able to build fairly quickly this type of education system that everybody admires. I often say that, you know, the Finnish education system, particularly when it comes to classroom and schoolwork, this practical work that you see, is based on American innovation and idea.
And often people tell me that, "Wait a minute, come again?" And I say, "You heard me right." If you ask Finnish teachers, if you go and take a good look at the Finnish schools, and you ask about these practices, these teaching methods, or assessment ideas, or leadership principles, or theories, where do they come from? The only thing you hear is that my estimate is that probably 80% of those things are initially designed and developed in the United States of America.
And at the same time, as I said, I spent 10 years there and I saw tens, hundreds of schools across the...almost in every state in America. And I really saw those things that the Finnish schools are using, these American innovation and ideas practiced or at least used as kind of driving ideas of making schools better. Many countries, not just Finland, but Finland is a good example, that we have been able to grow and become great in education.
We have been able to climb in these charts, if you wish, that compare education systems around the world because of the ideas developed and designed initially in the United States. So, your ideas work, you have more than enough to make your schools and school systems perform much better than they do now. You just have to take your own ideas more seriously and to the heart rather than look for the next innovation all the time.
I think that there's a lot of things, and this is what I tell to my American colleagues as well, that a lot of things in the past, in the history of education innovation, you know, these different models that are very relevant to what the schools are trying to do now. So we don't always need to innovate the new thing, the next thing.
So, that's my lesson, is that, you know, take a good look at what you have created and designed in terms of educational ideas, and theories, and models, and solutions to your schools, and have more faith in your own work that you do. Because, you know, one fact is that these American innovations and ideas in education are much more used overseas in other countries.
Kevin: And what you're saying makes so much sense and is so true. You can easily lose your way but you can also easily get back on path. We need to think about going back to the future on this one. Pasi Sahlberg, certainly appreciate your work on behalf of children, not just in your native land of Finland, in Australia, and other countries around the world, but I also appreciate your passion for the world's children. So, thanks for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Pasi: Thank you, Kevin. I wish you all the best and keep on doing good things.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Pasi Sahlberg is an educator, researcher, and author who helped build the Finnish education system into a powerhouse that consistently scores at the top of the PISA rankings. He has studied systems, analyzed policies, and advised reforms in more than 60 countries around the world. Pasi has held leadership posts at Harvard University, the World Bank, and the European Commission along the way. Today, he is a professor of education policy and research director at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales.
Join The Email List
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.