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Interview with the Lego Foundation

10 May 2016, Billund, Denmark:

The LEGO Foundation has interviewed Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish education expert and visiting professor of practice at Harvard Graduate School of Education, about his view on quality learning, school systems and standardised tests.

Q: How do you define quality learning?

A: Quality learning for me is when you infuse curiosity, active engagement and meaning-making in the learning situation. From the teacher’s point of view understanding what the students are thinking and what they know about things to be learned are critical elements of good learning. In short, quality learning happens when students actively build links between their existing knowledge and what is to be learned. Teacher’s ability to really understand the minds of students is what constitutes good teaching and quality learning. Curiosity and genuine will to learn more about oneself, other people and the world around are the outcomes of quality learning for me.

Q: Will international aid and development organisations, including the UN, the World Bank and OECD share this viewpoint?

A: No, I think they are more into Big Data thinking, which means setting criteria for what can and should be measured as indicators of quality, standardising the test systems and gathering data that can be compared. Based on these data, success or failure will be determined on a system level and then extrapolated to individual children. Big Data is not very good at telling us details about how people learn, what their interests are and what they are passionate about. International organisations are more interested in policies and systems and statistical correlations within them rather than teaching and learning in schools. “Small Data” that is nicely coined by Danish Martin Lindstøm in his new book is essential to set right directions for global campaigns that aim to improve education for all children. Small Data captures better such important aspects of education as social and emotional wellbeing, happiness, creativity, and empathy, just to mention some of them. This is supplementary to benchmarking education systems by Big Data, in fact.

Q: Can you point to the ideal set of core competencies that student, across the world, should all have when they leave formal education?

A: I do not believe in any one global set of outcomes, but I do believe that leaving the school system confident and resilient with an inner urge to strive and learn must be a key outcome. When we talk practices and pedagogies that foster what young people need in their lives – and here I’m thinking literacy, maths and science but also collaboration, creativity, social skills, empathy, and resilience –I believe that the Finnish system is doing things right. The Finnish teachers and the school system understand that drilling, testing, going to more private lessons after school and doing more academic extracurricular activities do not produce meaningful outcomes. In Finland, all children play, sing, sew, cook, they tinker and enjoy free time together throughout their school day. If you were an economist without first-hand experience in work of the school, you would probably think: “This is a complete waste of time, time in school should be maximised to learn those things that make a good school (i.e. what is measured in tests)?” Non-educators do not always see the benefits of not having a clear measurable goal for each class as teachers do. Teachers are sensitive to the invisible “small data” mentioned earlier, the strengths the students acquire, their joy in learning and the complex process of understanding and growing up as human being. Unfortunately, economists and other non-educators lead many international development organisations, consulting firms and research institutions that shape the directions of global education reforms.

Q: What mind-set has created the current school system? Do we as parents want our children to succeed so badly that test scores seem to be the most effective way to keep track of how they are doing?

A: It depends where in the world you ask this question. If you ask it in South East Asia or in some African countries, many parents would agree that schooling, constant standardised testing and academic achievement are the pathway to better education in a top university and thereby to prosperity. But here in the USA, where I’m currently living, we see a strong revolt against the current system, with parents choosing to home school their children in order to keep them away from all that unhealthy stress caused by huge amounts of high-stakes standardised tests. Remember, it is not only about being stressed out on the day you do the test – all the preparations for the test wear many people out in school. Teachers must ensure high test scores often to be rated as “effective teachers”, so all teaching just becomes a matter of prompting for the right answers rather than learning about the wonders of physics, arts and music or being inspired by daring new teaching approaches. There is no time for floundering around. There is no room for play either in such schools anymore.

Q: You talk a lot about equity, how is equity linked to quality?

A: Our biggest failure today is that we are still unable to see that it is really the equity and equality of opportunity in school systems, which are the key attributes for quality learning for all. The real problem is that many educational systems are designed in a way so that how your parents are educated, what they do for work, how much wealth they have, how many books they read, how much time they spend with their children, is still a pretty good predictor for the educational success and future pathway for that child.

Luckily, I think this will change in the future. Thanks to the big data that the OECD has been producing through the PISA study, we are now talking more than before about the need to invest systematically in equity in education. But it means that we also need to reimagine our school systems: What is the purpose of schooling? How do children learn? What is teaching? Why is play so important in learning? This applies to Denmark, as well as the United States, and England, and many other countries, that we need to begin to think differently about what the outcomes are, and how we measure the performance of education. Using PISA test scores as the only benchmark would be the complete wrong way to think about defining quality when it is inequity and inequality that are the primary causes of the not-so-favourable educational performance in Denmark and many other countries around the world.

Q: If not PISA, how should we benchmark results and what kind of new practices should we adopt to make education more equitable?

One thing that Finland has been doing successfully is practicing equity by making sure that special education is available for everybody. It is not something that is only meant for some 10 percent of those that have learning difficulties or behavioural problems. Every child is special in the way that they learn and they need different things. Then there is healthcare and a whole child development approach with the child being the centre piece, including a strong focus on music, arts and creativity, and we are doing these things as an integrated part of teaching content in every school.

The educational system in Finland has also adopted the theory of Multiple Intelligences, developed by my good friend and colleague here at Harvard, Howard Gardner, 30 years ago. The Multiple Intelligences theory assumes that you can be acute, and talented, and successful, in a number of different ways. You do not necessarily need to be good at mathematics or any other school subject to be talented. Most classrooms will probably include many of these different intelligences, and as a teacher you need to come up with a type of frame of reference to teach a class of 25 differently talented students. If you can design and think about teaching that way, that you need to figure out where these talents are, and what these students are capable of doing, then you are teaching, and learning, as a result of this, will look very different.  This frame of reference is complex and that is why we need advanced research-based training of all teachers in every school.  In Finland, we require a five-year academic masters degree from all primary school teachers, and it is a research-based and very rigorous programme to make sure that all the teachers understand teaching and learning in a professional way. In my view the root causes for equity and higher quality learning are the theories of teaching, the theories of learning that teachers have and in particular to the minds of teachers, these are all absolutely critical components and have fundamental consequences to the classroom work.

Link to the original interview here.