Interview in the DELPHI for the Great Conference of Ideas, 1 February 2018, Vilnius
“What can Lithuania learn from Finland’s education system?”
- What, in your opinion, contributes the most to the quality of the primary, secondary and higher education?
Pasi: It depends what do you mean by ‘quality’ of education. In daily conversations about the quality of education we often mix ‘the quality of a school or a university’ and ‘the quality of the system of education’. The difference of these two is that more often than before educational institutions (schools and universities) can select the people with whom they operate, i.e. students and teachers. Therefore, the quality in these situations is often associated to successful recruitment and the purpose of these institutions is to serve individuals or the community they live in, not the entire nation. The quality of an education system is very different because most education systems are committed to serve inclusively all students equally. This said, in my own definition of “quality of education” I look at multiple aspects of education system whether it is primary, secondary, or higher education.
One is, of course, quality and relevance of learning outcomes to students themselves and the society or world as a whole. There are various ways to determine these outcomes, my interest is to emphasize diverse methods of assessment rather than rely on one time standardized test or examination alone. Second aspect of quality is the equity of outcomes within the education system. Equity of outcomes means that variation in student achievement in school is not primarily an outcome of her parents’ education, profession, possession or power. Third aspect is the efficiency of the system that indicates enrolment and graduation rates. In other words, efficiency measures how many children get into education and how many of them actually complete the education they start. Finally, fourth aspect of quality is the cost of education. When determining the cost of education, it is important to look at the total spending, how education investments are allocated across the system, and where does the money come from. In higher quality education systems funding is almost totally from public sources and allocated to schools and communities based on their needs.
- What, in your opinion, is the difference between Finnish teaching methods or work ethics, in comparison with other countries?
Pasi: I don’t think that there are significant differences in how teachers teach in Finland and in many other countries. There is no such thing as “Finnish pedagogy”. In Finland schools and classrooms vary greatly regarding teaching and learning methods that they regularly employ. This notion is also often confirmed by visitors who observe teaching in Finnish schools and compare what they see to their own practices. What is probably different in Finnish schools compared to many other countries is what I would call a trust-based culture in schools. This means that adults among themselves, including parents and the community, trust one another. School principals trust their teachers and teachers trust their and others’ students. The culture of trust in Finnish schools manifests itself in friendly, peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. A particular part of that culture is that children in most schools feel safe and comfortable to try new things or ways to do old things without a fear of failure. I see myself when visiting schools in Finland that there is a lot of creative thinking going on and both teachers and students are eager to experiment new things. Finally, this culture of trust and pursuit of happiness in Finnish schools have led to respecting all children’s right to play – in and out of school. Play is, many teachers say, the highest form of learning and humanity.
- This one might be a difficult one to answer, but as you may know, Lithuania has been independent from Soviet Union for only a little bit more than two decades, the education system has, of course, changed a lot, but we still talk about the quite conservative, strict teaching methods and quite official communication between students and their teachers or professors. What should be the first steps to improve that or should it remain like this?
Pasi: I think Lithuania needs to commit to reimagining its education system but be careful with that. The good news is that we know much more now what good education looks like and how to get the entire system to improve. Last 20 years has brought totally new insights about what are smart policies and strategies that make better education accessible to all children. Bad news is that there is no silver bullet to quick system-wide fixes in education. Probably more importantly, we know what the wrong drivers in reforming education look like. We have learned that market-like competition, tough accountability, top-down standardisation, and de-professionalisation of the teaching profession are bad ideas in education policies that aim at sustainable transformation of education. Therefore, the first steps to improve school education in Lithuania – if you ask my opinion – would be to be very clear of the following three things: 1) Understand what is the problem. Go further than listing obvious issues like inadequate learning outcomes, big differences between schools, lack of funding education properly, and shortage of committed teachers. These are often symptoms of something deeper. Go and find the root cause of the problem. 2) Reimagine inspiring shared vision for Lithuanian education. Make sure that the society has clear idea of what kind of education Lithuania needs in the future. Work with all stakeholders and communicate this vision so that everybody understands and accepts it. 3) Figure out your theory of change. This is where international lessons from other education systems can help you. Theory of change simply describes, in broad terms, how you plan to move from where you are and where you want to be.
- In Lithuania we have a lot of students who grow in families that have low income or face other social problems such as alcoholism, close to none leisure activities for those who live in the countryside. What could be done in order to improve the situation?
Pasi: You have two options: Try to fix the old system and the problems you listed, or design a new system by transforming the foundations of the current one. Solutions to all those three challenges you mentioned are social and political in nature. There is not much education system can do to fix them. Education can only try to make things a bit easier but that is not the solution. Therefore, as a part of the reimagining Lithuanian education it would be important to see education as part of the larger social system, not a separate part of it. Schools, for example, should be much more places where children receive other support and help than just education. Education policies could focus much more on children’s wellbeing and happiness. Curriculum should be built around principles of inclusion, empathy, and individual support rather than common standards and aligned practices.
- Many students in Lithuania who study pedagogy have lower or average grades at school and also low points when it comes graduation. How could the Ministry of Education and Science together with other institutions improve the status of the teaching profession?
Pasi: Lithuania is not alone with this challenge. Teacher shortages will have catastrophic impacts in the UK, the US, Sweden, Estonia and in many other countries around the world. Again, there is no single policy or reform that would make situation better. Fast tracks to teach in schools like Teach for All may be good for some schools but they will not be a sustainable solution to build highly respected teaching profession that would attract young people year after year. The only solution that should be part of the transformation of the entire education system in Lithuania that I see is to embed (quickly) following three elements as part of the new system: 1) Make initial teacher education a competitive and intellectually demanding field of academic study. This would in practice mean requiring all teachers (in the future) to hold research-based masters degree that would qualify its holder to work in other fields as well and provide access to doctoral studies. 2) Make teaching is school a true profession. Teachers need more professional autonomy, their work should be built more on professional collaboration, and schools should invest in higher quality leadership when hiring new principals. 3) Make teacher pay competitive vis-à-vis other professions that require similar level of qualification. Teachers rarely work in order to get rich, but they expect to be paid similar to their peers in other fields of high profession. This is what Singapore has done during the course of their major reforms. This is also the Finnish Way. These are the principles now on the planning agenda of many other countries. Critical to Lithuania is to employ systemic approaches upgrade its teaching profession, not piecemeal solutions.
Originally published in Lithuanian in DELFI, 27 Jan 2018