Like a show stopper in a fashion show or a lead actor in a movie, every conference has a star speaker. At the 17th Global Development Network’s Annual Global Development Conference, the celebrity speaker among an array of highly qualified academics and influential policymakers was Finnish educator, author and scholar Pasi Sahlberg. The topic of the conference, which was held in Lima on March 17 and 18, was Education for Development: Quality and Inclusion for Changing Global Human Capital Needs.
“The world is talking about the Finnish school system. So I am keen to hear Sahlberg,” one of the conference attendees, a professor in Britain, told me during the lunch on the first day at the rooftop cafeteria of the conference venue, Universidad del Pacifico. “It’s a holistic system that helps both high achieving and low achieving students achieve their best,” she explained, as we went for a second helping of ceviche, a popular sea food dish.
The 57-year-old Sahlberg wears many hats: He has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher educator, researcher and policy adviser in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. His expertise includes school improvement, international education issues, classroom teaching and learning, and school leadership.
Sahlberg’s best-seller book – Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland – is an account of how the northern European nation built its world-class education system in four decades. The book traces the evolution of the country’s education policy and highlights how they differ from the US and much of the rest of the world.
“The Finnish story is a story of building a long-term improvement on commonly shared inspiring vision of the future of the school, political consensus, and professionalising the teaching profession,” Sahlberg, who is currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA, told HT Education in Lima, Peru.
He added improvement in quality will only come when policymakers and educators realise that education is seen as part of “social complex” that is surrounded by other public policy sectors”. “One lesson from the Finnish system is that educational improvement takes time, we cannot rush it. Second, enhancing equity and equality of education has turned out to be the winning strategy in improving the quality of student learning,” explained Sahlberg, who has been an adviser to many governments and international organisations.
Educational equity means early childhood education for all children, funding all schools so they can better serve those with special educational needs, access to health services for all children in all schools, and a national curriculum that insists that schools focus on the whole child rather than narrow academic achievement.
Thanks to this holistic education system that focuses on quality than quantity, Finnish students have been consistently scoring near the top in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, for reading, mathematics and science.
The Finnish system has been independent evaluated by several organisations and academics. One such evaluation was done by Janet English, an American educator who is now using the Finnish teaching methods in her high school.
In her very engaging blog she writes that extensively about how teachers function in the system: “Teachers aim to connect students emotionally and intellectually with the content. It is common for teachers to give students a choice in what they want to learn within the Core Curriculum”.
Commenting on the Indian education system, where enrollments have reached almost 100% but learning levels have been poor, Sahlberg says, “Increasing access eats resources that would be required to maintain or improve the quality of education. As it often happens the enrollment gains bring significantly more children to schools who would benefit from special education or more individualised educational approaches. When resources are scarce this will not be possible. Without investments in equity, quality of education most often suffers”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that the government is planning to overhaul the education system. Hopefully, the focus this time around would finally be on quality than quantity.