This is an interview by Fábio Takahashi in Folha de Sao Paulo (in Portuguese) on 23 April 2018
Fábio: You mention in your book that Finland learned a lot with other countries in order to build its educational system. How Finland could inspire Brazil, even with so many differences (such as income, area, and population)?
Pasi: First of all, I think you ask the right question when you use the word ‘inspire’. This is exactly what Finland can be to Brazil and others: Inspiration rather than a model to be copied and imported. Second, I often suggest big, inexpensive ideas that Finland has been particular good at to be considered by others. I believe Brazil could benefit from the following three big Finnish ideas. One, make sure that education policies and school funding practices follow the principle of ‘positive discrimination’ that means that those schools and student who need more resources and support to succeed will be given them throughout the education system. Two, make sure that all schools and every teacher works in the spirit of collaboration and collective responsibility and not in competition against one another being held only individually accountable for student learning. Three, make sure that all children especially in early childhood education and primary schools have regular breaks during schooldays to play and do physical activity in order to stay engaged, healthy and happy in school. All these three things can be found in every district and every school in Finland.
Fábio: You mention autonomy for teachers as a key factor for the success in education in Finland (combined with competitive wages and good training). Do you think autonomy can work in any educational system? And what about specifically in Brazil?
Pasi: We need to be careful with autonomy that is not about allowing teachers do whatever they want in school. In Finland and in many other advanced education systems teachers’ professional freedom is called collective autonomy that means that teachers have more freedom from authorities and bureaucracy to do what their professional expertise guides them to do, but at the same time they have less autonomy from one another. This is often a condition for collaborative professionalism that requires seamless cooperation and teamwork in schools and also between different schools. Therefore, autonomy per se won’t work anywhere, including Brazil, but when it is don under purposeful leadership and supported by education policies professional autonomy can work in Brazil. But it requires, perhaps, more external supervision, guidance and support than in Finland where all teachers have advanced academic degrees.
Fábio: How Finland engaged society and policy makers in order to underline the importance of a high level public educational system?
Pasi: This is a historical tradition dating back to 19th century years when Finnish education system was initiated. Finland has been a small, relatively poor nation between the superpowers in the East and the West with a peculiar language only spoken by the Finns, as I describe in my book. This geo-political realism means that educating the entire nation well has been the bets survival strategy throughout turbulent moments in history. Therefore, we still believe – across the various political circles – that high quality public education is the best way to pursuit national prosperity, freedom, and happiness. Our Constitution stipulates these principles that education is a basic human right and should provide all children equal opportunities to educate themselves well. There is very little different opinions about these basic premises of education in Finland among the MPs or citizens at large.
Fábio: Brazil is spending big efforts to implement national standards, from early childhood level up to high schools. The document is wide and restrictive, with 450 pages (regarding only for levels for ages 0-10). How effective such policy can be? How is it works in Finland?
Pasi: It depends how those standards are structures and presented, especially how much flexibility they leave for schools to design teaching and learning for themselves. Very prescribed standards often make teachers just delivery agents in schools without much room to find the best ways to teach. On the other hand, with considerable challenges related to the consistent quality of teaching that Brazil and many other countries currently have, a certain degree of common curriculum standards are required. If teachers and schools have had an opportunity to have their perspectives and experiences in these national standards in Brazil, you are probably in better situation than if these standards are set and written by authorities or academic subject experts alone.
Fábio: Finland started in 2016 a curriculum reform. How is it running so far?
Pasi: Finland has had regular national curriculum revisions in about every ten years. This most recent one that wen to implementation in August 2016 is not going to bring any radical changes to schools. This new national curriculum framework tries to enhance student engagement in schools and bring more teacher collaboration to every school. All schools are required to offer one period of teaching and learning that is organized by integrating school subjects into broader themes. Many schools have traditionally used project-based teaching methods as part of their normal workplans but this new curriculum now makes this a requirement for all. Today all schools in Finland also must make room for one additional hour of physical activity during each school day. It remains to be researched and seen how the 2016 reform overall succeeds.
Fábio: Finland has been slipping in Pisa result in the recent years. Do you think Finland will keep this way? Are you concerned about that?
Pasi: Finland’s decline is PISA has been more visible than in other countries because its initial high scores in early years of PISA. Nothing dramatical has happened in Finnish schools in terms of teaching, curriculum or learning. Therefore, my explanation to these declining PISA scores in Finland and elsewhere in the OECD is related to youngsters’ changed behavior in and out of school. The key driver behind this change is linked to smartphones and other digital technologies that since around 2012 most young people in Finland and in other countries have had in their pockets all the time. Due to heavy use of these devices most teenagers spend 8 to 10 hours a day with screens that is away from reading, doing homework and is also affecting they abilities to concentrate on learning, especially reading, mathematics and science that require good attention and persistence to be learned well. I am afraid we will continue to see more challenges in student learning in reading, mathematics and science around the world unless parents and schools together quickly find ways how to put limits to how much children spend time with social media and technology, and also hoe much parents themselves use time at home with these gadgets.
Fábio: What strengths and weaknesses you see in Finnish students, comparing with students from other places, with different approaches, such as U.S. or South Korea?
Pasi: Finnish students are, compared to many others, more capable to think outside the box, take risks in their learning and life, and use what they have learned to solve wicked problems. Finnish education system is designed in a way that puts high value on these things early on. My experience during my time as a visiting professor at Harvard was that my students who came from East Asian school systems almost always were weaker in these areas than students from Nordic countries. I think this is one strength of the Finnish school – these skills are the ones that are necessary in the unknown future these children will be living in.