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URI Honors Colloquium features Finnish educator Sahlberg

December 16, 2013

(URI Photo by Michael Salerno Photography) Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg talks with students in Audrey Shaw’s fourth grade class at Wakefield Elementary School during his visit Tuesday.

KINGSTON – Competition, standardization, test-based accountability, school choice, and viewing education as industry, these are the five symptoms of the Global Education Reform Movement or “GERMs” according to Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator, scholar and author who spoke Tuesday at the University of Rhode Island.

Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki, Finland, said these “GERMs” behave like a virus and spread around the world influencing education systems in different countries.

However, Finland, one of the world’s leading countries in education, has remained uninfected or immune to the “GERM.”

Sahlberg described “the Finnish way” of education and how it differs from the “GERM.”

He said instead of competition in and among Finnish schools, schools focus on collaboration.

“We try to keep unhealthy competition away by networking, sharing and helping one another,” Sahlberg said. “We try to prevent teachers, pupils, schools and principals from competing against one another when it’s not helping.”

He said grading isn’t allowed in Finland before the fifth grade.

Sahlberg also said that standardization isn’t something that’s used in the Finnish school system, as they believe it stifles creativity. He said instead they focus on personalization.

“Standardization is the worst enemy of creativity,” Sahlberg said.

Instead of test-based accountability Finnish schools emphasize trust-based responsibility.
He said this involves trusting teachers and schools and everything they do.

“We’re trying to build trust from the beginning on, on teachers and on students,” Sahlberg said. “’Accountability’ doesn’t exist in the Finnish lexicon, it’s something that is left when responsibility is taken away from teachers or learners.”

Sahlberg said instead of giving parents an option of school choice they focus on equity in and among schools for all learners. He said Finnish schools are focused on building a more equitable system.

Finally, instead of viewing education as an industry, Sahlberg said in Finland education is viewed as a human right.

“Education is a public service for everyone,” he said. “Finland is walking a very different pathway in its educational thinking than the rest of the world.”

While Finland is one of the leading countries in the world in elementary and secondary education, Sahlberg said it was never the country’s goal to be the best in education.

“We never wanted to be the best, we never planned to be number one in education,” he said. “We’ve never really had this type of plan. Since the early 1970s, our goal was to have a great school for each and every child and it’s still our dream and goal. It takes time, if you’re serious about this, it takes time to work on this.”

Sahlberg said Finland borrowed the majority of its educational philosophy from the United States regarding the equality of education.

He provided evidence of Finland’s success in education and additional evidence regarding U.S. performance in education, noting that the United States is not performing as poorly as is often believed.
Sahlberg showed a graph, based on the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation standards, indicating that as equity in education improves or increases, excellence in education, or student performance, improves.

“Anybody who is claiming American education is doing badly is wrong,” Sahlberg said. “It’s doing better today than it ever has done.”

He noted that the U.S. educational system is close to the OECD average performance of schools around the world.

“With a lot of child poverty, you’re able to do this well, and I congratulate the work that the public school system in this country has been doing,” Sahlberg said.

He said countries with successful educational systems, as identified by the OECD and based on high student achievement and high equity, are South Korea, Japan, Canada and Estonia.

Sahlberg said 40 years ago, Finland had an educational system that was fairly unequal, but since 1972, Finland has become one of the five successful high performing school systems according to the OECD.
“It’s really a story of building equity,” he said.

He said in the Finnish system, schools are funded fairly, but there are also additional resources like universal early childhood education, health counseling and school meals for all students, and a national fully-funded special education system, that contribute to the quality and success of Finland’s schools.
“Equity is a very serious thing for us,” he said. “If you want to get there then the lessons are very clear here – you need to pay more attention to equity in your education system and forget this fact that equity and politics are alternatives.”

He noted that while Finland has the least variation between schools in the world, according to the OECD, the United States had less than the OECD average of variation between schools.

“It’s a strength of your school system that in a very diverse and complex environment you keep schools performing and with little variation between schools,” he said.

Sahlberg relayed some key messages from the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA 2012).

The first is that school choice and competition are not related to improved performance.
“Enhancing competition between students, teachers and schools is not working,” he said. “It doesn’t improve performance or the quality of education.”

The second is that greater equity and autonomy over curricula and assessment seem to improve performance.

Sahlberg noted that Finnish students only take one standardized assessment at the end of high school.
He concluded his lecture with three Finnish lessons.

The first is that equity is excellence.

“Equity is not an alternative to quality or excellence,” he said. “To build a successful school system to Finland’s experience, you have to take equity more seriously.”

The second is that school is team play.

“You can have educational systems that are able to exceed the quality of its teachers if they do things together,” he said.

And finally, Sahlberg noted that in a fourth grade class in Finland each 45 minute lesson is broken up by a 15 minute break or recess, with a 30 minute lunch in the middle of the day.

“Children must play,” he said. “We think play is very important and it helps children realize that they have imagination and to create ideas.”

For more on Pasi Sahlberg, visit

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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