The Sitka Historical Society, Sitka Lutheran Church and Sitka School District will host events Sunday and Monday for Dr. Pasi Sahlberg and his cousin Juha Ignatius, great-great-grandsons of a Finnish doctor who lived in Sitka from 1840 to 1841.
The ancestor, Reinhold Sahlberg, arrived in Sitka in 1840 on the S/V Nikolai along with the new governor of Russian America, Adolf Etolin and his wife, and Uno Cygnaeus, the Lutheran pastor who founded the first Lutheran Church in Sitka. Cygnaeus later became the father of public education in Finland.
During their two days in Sitka the visitors will be sharing information about those long-ago Finns and donating items related to their great-great-grandfather to the Sitka Historical Museum and the Sitka Lutheran Church.
Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world’s leading experts on education and director general for the Finnish Ministry of Education, will give a talk 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Sitka Performing Arts Center on why the Finnish public education system is so successful. The talk is sponsored by the Sitka School District.
A reception is planned 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Centennial Hall, with Mayor Mim McConnell welcoming the guests.
Sahlberg is in Alaska this week as one of the invited speakers at the Great Teacher Colloquium Thursday and today in Anchorage. He has won international awards for his work and for his best-selling book, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland.”
Local history buffs are looking forward to meeting the cousins and in learning more about the time when Sitka was capital of Russian America.
Education buffs are eager to speak with a renowned authority on public education and the insights he may offer that will be helpful to Sitka.
Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka School Board, said he has been interested in the Finnish education system, and what Alaskans and Americans can learn from it to improve our school systems.
“It should be a very interesting conversation,” Garrison said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.”
Garrison said he became fascinated with the Finnish education system a few years ago when he watched a documentary about the Finnish schools, and how the system was able to produce students who consistently score the highest or near the top on international standardized tests.
“You can’t transpose the entire system into ours, but there are a lot of things we can come away with,” Garrison said.
The film described how teachers are supported, how teachers are trained and the prestige the teaching profession holds in Finland. Kids are not assessed through regular high-stakes testing – as they are in the U.S. – although there is a major test when they are around age 16.
“We do have very many excellent teachers, but our system is not set up to support the profession,” Garrison said. “I’m interested in what (Sahlberg) has to say about accountability through assessment.”
Garrison said in the U.S. and Alaska the emphasis is on making sure students are “competitive” but the way that is judged is by standardized testing, and high-stakes testing.
“We feel if the student doesn’t pass, we’ve failed. In Finland they focus on educating the kid,” Garrison said. “They focus on education instead of assessment. We’re so worried about teaching to the test and that everyone looks and feels the same, and that we have kids that meet criteria we come up with … that we lose the focus.”
Roger Schmidt, director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and parent of two kids in the school system, said he is also looking forward to the talk on Monday. He said he has been looking at education systems since he was in high school, when he wrote papers about education reform.
He said he tries to look critically at education systems.
“I had really positive and really negative experiences,” Schmidt said. “At the fine arts camp, it’s about using the arts as a way to engage their minds and give them confidence to love learning. … At a certain point, I became discouraged by the terms ‘Race to the Top,’ and ‘No Child Left Behind,’ where high performing schools would get more money.”
He said turning education into a competition seemed to be the wrong way to go. Schmidt noted the strong contrast in the Finns’ philosophy, where the education system does not appear to be focused on “being the best,” and yet that’s where they’ve landed, at the top or near the top in international tests.
Schmidt said the Finnish system appeals to him as well for its goals of being “accessible” and “equal.”
“There is more freedom in the classroom, a real emphasis on creativity and a real emphasis on social aspects of learning,” he said. Teachers are valued to the point that becoming a teacher is one of the most competitive and prestigious jobs in Finland, despite the modest pay. He pointed out that 100 job openings for elementary teaching jobs in Helsinki recently drew 2,300 applicants.
“I think we should all be looking toward what we can learn, and what can we do,” Schmidt said of Monday’s talk by Sahlberg. “This is an incredible opportunity for Sitka.”
Schmidt also marveled at the historical connection, that Pasi Sahlberg’s great-great-grandfather – son of a prominent entomologist – had traveled to Sitka as a young man with pastor Uno Cygnaeus, who would become important in Finnish education.
Education advocate and history buff Rebecca Poulson, who attended school in Finland as an exchange student, said she is interested in the historical connection to Cygnaeus as well as learning more about the Finnish school system, which is focused on equity.
She said she was inspired reading Sahlberg’s website.
“I didn’t know who he was until I went to his website, and it just about made me cry,” she said. “Our education system is not the best it could be. … We’re not focused on the quality of teaching. We’re sidetracked by gimmicks. We really need to focus on the quality of teaching and supporting teachers. There is also the idea of equity. Our system of competition, and ‘school choice’ hasn’t worked. He talks about why it doesn’t work.”
One of Sahlberg’s quotes that caught her attention was “Real winners don’t compete,” and Sahlberg’s comments that the demand for accountability leads to students learning less.
- By SHANNON HAUGLAND
Sistka Sentinel Staff Writer
Published on Friday, 26 April 2013 22:44