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School, society jointly to improve educational equality

Author  :  YANG XUE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-09-27

Pasi Sahlberg is a renowned Finnish educator, author and scholar. He is the former Director-General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. He currently advises governments in Finland, Sweden and Scotland on education policies and reforms.

He has published several books and his Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? He won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award and he received the 2012 Education Award in Finland, the 2014 Robert Owen Award in Scotland, and the 2016 Lego Award in Denmark.

American educator Horace Mann once called education the “great equalizer” of the human condition— the balance-wheel of the social machinery. According to OECD’s PISA reports, the gap between the weakest and strongest students in Finland is the smallest in the world. By looking to the example of Finnish pedagogy, China can learn how to improve the quality and the equality of its education system. Our CSST reporter sat down with Finnish education specialist Pasi Sahlberg to find out more.

CSST: What’s the goal of education? How would you define a successful education? 

Sahlberg: On the individual level, the goal of education is to help people learn about the world around them and to discover the world within them. This is an idea from Sir Ken Robinson, and it resonates very closely with my own view of education. Naturally, there are more specific goals that good education tries to accomplish socially, culturally and economically, such as becoming an active and compassionate citizen, understanding one’s own culture and respecting the diversity of others, and acquiring knowledge and skills to become an economically responsible and independent citizen. A successful education is one that is able to cultivate and advance these different aspects of learning in fair and socially sustainable ways.

CSST: Is educational equality possible? Is it associated with national wealth? China is a developing country with imbalanced regional development and an increasingly large wealth gap. How do you propose we achieve educational equality? 

Sahlberg: Educational equality, or should I say equity, can be accomplished by purposeful education and other social policies, as the examples of Finland and Canada show. Eliminating the impact of family background is impossible but both school and other public services, such as healthcare, dental care and targeted youth policies, could get those children who have fewer opportunities due to home conditions to engage in different activities. However, it is a delusion to think that schools alone—no matter how great the teachers are—could remove all inequalities that children bring to school with them every day.

The larger the wealth gaps, or income inequalities, the more important education equity measures and other social policy sectors become in a country. As far as I know, in China, it is common for parents to purchase additional private tutoring for their child. It will continue to pose a challenge to educational equity as long as students’ success in school depends on parents’ ability to buy high-quality private tutors for the kids. 

The best way forward in China would be to make sure that schools are funded based on their real needs and that exam results would not be determined by the quality and quantity of private classes that children attend after school.

CSST: What is the relationship between education and economic performance? Does education create a wealthy country or does a wealthy country create good education? 

Sahlberg: This question is one of those that is very difficult to answer for sure. Obviously the causality, to some extent, works both ways. Quality of education positively affects the national economy, and strong national wealth allows governments to spend more money in education.

But some studies have shown that if you look at countries in the wealthier part of the world, there is only a weak association between economic and educational performances when traditional metrics are used. In the less-developed part of the world, quality of education seems to correlate more strongly with economic performance.

We should, however, keep in mind that in our highly globalized economic structure today, a particular country’s economy may be severely affected by changes in the surrounding political or economic systems. 

CSST: What are some trends in global educational reform?

Sahlberg: I think some of the most visible trends include: First, there is more market-like competition between schools, assuming that when schools compete against one another over enrollments they somehow are forced to improve teaching and learning. Second, tougher accountability for schools and teachers could deliver higher student achievement. Third, there has been an increasing reliance on standardized tests and examinations to facilitate tougher accountability and determine the success of students, teachers and schools. Fourth, there is a tendency toward de-professionalization of teaching and leadership positions in schools wherein people without proper qualifications and education are being allowed to teach in classrooms and lead schools. Finally, privatization of public schools is on the rise based on the premise that private or non-public providers are more geared toward innovation and will figure out more efficient ways to deliver better results. 

CSST: It is said that the Finnish education system has been developed based on the needs and culture of Finland back in the 1950s, so it is strong and professional, but Finnish-style pedagogy is not easy for other countries to copy. Can you elaborate on this?

Sahlberg: The Finnish education story is much more complicated than most people understand. But what many people fail to understand when they come and study the Finnish education system is that it is not just schools that make children learn and do well. It is a social project of the entire society that has that impact. I would strongly discourage people to try to copy Finnish educational ideas. Don’t imitate.Create your own Finland. 

CSST: Will “teaching by topic” become normal in Finland, and “teaching by subject” disappear in the future?

Sahlberg: Finnish teachers have been teaching broader topics, or projects, for a long time already. That is nothing new. What is new is the term “teaching by topic” or “phenomenon-based learning.” I think both are incorrect terms to describe what is going on in Finnish schools. The new thing is that the 2016 national core curriculum now requires that all schools must have at least one study period for all children that is designed in a holistic, integrative way rather than teaching by subject. I call this method “project-based teaching” or “problem-based learning” that are both much researched and well established terms in educational vocabulary. Teaching by subject will not disappear any time soon in Finnish schools. 

CSST: Do you think a competitive learning environment will deprive students of creativity and a spirit of innovation?

Sahlberg: Yes, especially if it is what I call unhealthy competition between schools, teachers and students. The logic is simple: Competition always comes with fear of not winning or losing. Nobody wants to lose. Fear prevents taking risks or trying something new. And without risk-taking there will be no creativity. It is simple like that. Collaboration is always better than competition when it comes to teaching and learning in schools. 

CSST: What kind of school can prepare students for the 21st-century workplace?

Sahlberg: This is a tough challenge that is often left to schools to figure out. First, education policies have to be redesigned in a way that allows flexibility, local solutions, and trust in teachers and schools to craft the best ways for children to get ready for the uncertain world. Standardization, marketization and privatization of public education have turned out to be the wrong ways to help educators prepare a curriculum for an unknown workplace. 

Second, common logic around the world is to think that the purpose of formal education is to prepare commodities for labor markets. As I see it, we must change the way we think and act about the purpose of schooling. Education systems should prepare more “creators” for labor markets. This means that when young people graduate from school or college, they will have developed a mindset that would be something like this: If I can’t find a job I love, I will create one.

CSST: How would you approach standardized testing? Does rote memorization have a role in education? 

Sahlberg: Of course, we need to learn to keep things in our minds and remember things. However, if standardized tests are meant to check how much students can recall things taught in schools or written in books, all those tests can go. I am not against standardized tests—quite the opposite. But most of the tests I have seen so far are low quality and used too often and for wrong purposes, so until I see high-quality assessments to estimate what kids learn in school I will continue to question the toxic use of bad tests in schools.

CSST: How do you propose we find passionate and dedicated teachers? 

Sahlberg: It is all about what kind of image you create about the teaching profession and how young people are selected to initial teacher certification programs. I think that admission into a certification program should be hard, not in a sense that you must have high exam results but that those who are selecting students to their teacher certification programs would really carefully find the best talent and most passionate young people to study to become teachers. Selecting students to certification programs should be equally thorough as when students are selected forperforming arts colleges or musical academies.

CSST: Without evaluation of or competition among teachers, what motivates them to improve themselves aside from just passion? 

Sahlberg: A school’s faculty is like a football team. The principal is the captain or the coach, and teachers are the players who win the games. We are heavily undermining the role of educational leadership and teamwork when it comes to schools. Ideally, in a school organization there should not be such a clear line between principals and teachers. This will encourage teachers to take initiative, try new things, learn from mistakes and be better teachers.

CSST: What do you know about the Chinese education system? How should it improve its performance? 

Sahlberg: I have visited China often and I sit on the advisory board at a public school in Beijing that offers me a window into the developments in China. I know that China has ambitious plans to democratize schools by giving teachers and students more voice, and I think it is a good idea. The key question in China is: How can we end the preoccupation of students, parents and teachers with the old examination systems? As long as the exams are the driving forces in education, it will be difficult to do all those things I spoke about earlier. China is a huge system, and I know there are some wonderful schools, great teachers and stellar leaders somewhere out there. Utilizing this Chinese knowhow is a huge opportunity for the future of education.

Editor: Yu Hui

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