10 takeaways from our event with Professor Pasi Sahlberg

On a misty December evening amongst the escarpment of Silos Estate, Berry, Green Mountain Community School hosted Professor Pasi Sahlberg for a conversation around the future of education in Australia with 35 educators and parents present. As Finland is widely acclaimed as one of the most progressive and impactful education systems in the world, we wanted to know - what can we learn from the Finnish education system and how does it compare to that of Australia?

Eminent Finnish educator Professor Pasi Sahlberg is the former Secretary-General of Education in Finland, author of two books on the Finnish educational success story, and most recently, Professor of Education at the Gonski Institute at the University of NSW. His latest book, Let the Children Play, is a powerful research-based argument for more play in Australian schools.

Here are the 10 key takeaways from our conversation with Pasi,

1. Student well-being is critical

“In Australia, there is a lack of emphasis on student wellbeing and health. In nordic countries, the well-being, happiness and health of children comes before academic learning because it is understood that unless you are well, healthy and happy, learning can not take place.”

In Finland, well-being is considered a skill that needs to be learned and high priority is placed on it from a very early age. It’s so important that it is integrated into the fabric of Scandinavian culture.

In Australia, however, health & wellbeing is often considered only when a child is not doing well and is usually addressed through a provision of services for that child.

2. Education is about helping a child realise what they want to do with their lives Imagine kids leaving school knowing what they want to do with their lives and feeling confident and inspired to pursue their curiosities and talents.

This quote from Pasi, cuts to the heart of what education is all about and what we'd love to do at Green Mountain Community School.

"Children come to school with different interests, different capabilities, potentials and talent. What a school needs to do is to try to help every single child to realise what it is for them, what they love, what they're good at, etc. Sometimes you need to try a number of times, to dig deep into the souls of these young children so they can realise ‘this is what I really want to do’, ‘this is what I am curious about’ so that children don't go through school without realising what they are good at."

3. Collaboration over competition This beautiful question was asked by a youth representative:

Young people need to be kind to each other. They need to be creative and solve the problems of the future. What can our schools do differently to make our young people kind, cooperative and hopeful about the future?

Here's what Pasi had to say:

"One way to answer this question is by asking not what to do but what to do less of. Sometimes by removing things, it can improve.

School is a place where competition is the name of the game. Competition regarding learning. The more you experience education and school as a place to compete, the less likely you are to collaborate.

One thing we can do is to remove the element of competition from the culture of the school. As soon as that happens it creates space for collaboration and that can lead to empathy and kindness. I don’t think we need to do much more than that."

4. Children have rights - one of them is to play

In Finland, there is a thorough understanding and respect towards Children’s rights - something that is completely absent in Australian Culture

“We don’t talk about Children having any rights here. In Finland and other Nordic countries, Children have rights. We treat Children as normal human beings. They have the same rights but less responsibility as adults and we focus on raising our children in families and in school to know their rights.

For example, one of the policies that exist across all primary schools is that for every 60 minutes of instruction, a child has the right to 15 minutes outdoor free play, rain, hail or shine.”

By comparison, Australia has longer school days and school years, with less outdoor/free time.

“We need to understand that it is a Child’s right to play. It's their right to follow their curiosity and interests and to go out in nature. In Scandinavian culture, no one is asking why children should play, because it is self-evident. We understand that this is how they grow and learn - it's what they are designed to do.”

5. Australia’s school system is one of the best in the world, but it is not for everyone

“Australia has probably the best education that any country can offer in the world, remembering that I’ve consulted to 62 countries, have seen thousands of schools in the US, Europe and in nordic countries, BUT the schools are not for everyone.”

Here you need to be lucky to land in a good school and not every child is lucky. In Australia, education is a competitive marketplace where money can buy you a good school experience, but not everyone has access to that.”

6. Principals and Teachers in Finland have the greatest influence over schools and education

“Another difference between Australian and Scandinavian schools is that in Australia, the community - influential parents in particular - have the greatest amount of influence over schools and education. In Australia, teachers and educators have too little agency, voice and ownership around what they do.

In Finland, Principals and Teachers are listened to more than parents and their professional expertise helps to shape the education system.”

7. Standardised testing causes unnecessary stress on students

“Finland does not have any standardized tests prior to the assessments in the final year of school. And the stress experienced by students at this time is appropriate for their level of development and maturity. But this kind of ‘test’ and the stress associated with it is not experienced by younger children in Finland.

Naplan testing in Australia generates stress and anxiety in young kids that is unnecessary. Class time is taken up preparing for the test. There are much more intelligent ways of assessing where children are at, without placing them under stress.

The only way that Naplan will change is if parents want it to. And Parents want Naplan so they understand how their Child is performing in comparison to other Children.”

8. Recognise students as unique individuals

“One thing to consider, rather than being stuck with ‘how good is this student or that student’ we should instead slightly twist the question to ask ‘how is a student good at Maths, Reading, etc.’

Asking this question completely changes your perspective and brings the focus back to the individual child’s unique attributes rather than comparing in relation to other children.”

9. Stand-out Schools in Australia

“The most advanced and interesting innovative schools I’ve seen anywhere - including Finland, and Finland has many - is here in Australia. Interestingly there are independent, catholic and public schools I include in this category.

Living School, Lismore NSW

Independent school, a completely different concept.

John Stewart is the ‘Conductor’, not Principal and was the former director at Green School in Bali.

Individualised, student-led school that treats all students as an individual and understands that kids want to do things in a different way, but still has high expectations for all of them.

Lindfield Learning Village, Lindfield NSW

Government run Public School

They have tried to create a place where children take leadership and ownership of their learning. They don’t have year levels, they group the kids together based on stage, not age and what they are interested in doing. This school has been under scrutiny from the media who have tried to undermine their approach, but it has been very successful with a waiting list of 2,500.

Templestowe College, Victoria

Public School

Student and teachers have agency

Students decide their own learning programs.

The school is open 365 days a year, 6am-6pm.

A lot of disadvantaged kids.

100% principal led change, Peter Hutton.

10. Pasi’s advice to Green Mountain Community School

One thing all these schools have in common:

+ Child-led processes - what is the function of your school and how much will the students lead their own learning so that they know ‘I have a voice and say in what I’m learning.’

+ Wellbeing should be of critical importance - don’t stop thinking about how it can be improved, integrated into what you do. What would it mean if you teach health and wellbeing as a skill to be learnt?

+ Consider play as a Children’s right - Children have a right to play and this right must be respected. Children need to have a sense that they are in control - I control my own time and deeds, every once and a while. When a child learns that they have rights, they also learn how important and precious they are for other human beings. When the school is established and has a large community, think about appointing an ombudsman who is responsible for ensuring the children’s rights are met and respected.

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