Pasi Sahlberg says he is not in Australia to tell us what to do, so why is he offering advice?

Pasi Sahlberg has recently been appointed to the newly created Gonski Institute at the University of New South Wales where he will be working alongside Adrian Piccoli, a former New South Wales education minister.

It’s not clear exactly how Sahlberg will use this role and I will return to that later. But first, it is worth considering why he was appointed.

Sahlberg is a former director general of the Finnish education system. He has written and lectured extensively about the Finnish approach to education. The Finland connection is key. Reporting of his appointment has drawn heavily on the high performance of Finland on tests run by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

I think there is a problem here. Australians seem to assume that, because Finland is ranked highly on PISA, Sahlberg must be able to offer advice that will improve our system. This is flawed.

Firstly, Finland is very different to Australia. It has a far more homogeneous society. Children start school later than in Australia, but their language skills are already well developed and up to a third can already read. Those who can’t, face a much easier language to learn than English. This is because Finnish has a ‘transparent orthography’, meaning that letters map reliably to sound with little ambiguity (see Shanahan on these factors).

By contrast, English has a more complicated orthography, with many letter combinations representing more than one sound and many sounds being represented by more than one letter combination. This is why an early grasp of phonics knowledge is so important and why a phonics diagnostic screen for Australian students has been supported by many language experts.

It is worth pointing out that England have adopted such a screen and the early signs of its effectiveness are extremely positive. As measured by PIRLS, another international test, the reading performance of the most vulnerable children has improved since its introduction.

However, Sahlberg thinks we should not bother with such a check:

“I think what the government in Australia could do instead is before thinking about these sorts of things is to make sure every child has enough time to play before they come to school.”

I have never met an educator who is opposed to children playing and so setting this up in opposition to a five minute screen is a bit like saying that children should not have the polio vaccination because they should be playing instead. Presumably, Sahlberg is not simply opposed to the screen but to the phonics instruction associated with it; instruction that is often playful and that my own children rather enjoyed.

But this returns us to the issue of Sahlberg’s role. On Twitter, he suggested to me that he does not intend to tell Australia to do what Finland has done:

And yet this is exactly what he seems to be doing with the phonics check, as well as his other pronouncements.

If Sahlberg wishes to make these arguments then he should be upfront about this and expect many of us to disagree. I look forward to taking him up on his suggestion that we meet and discuss these issues.

The fact that Sahlberg draws authority from Finland presents us with a further problem. As seen in the graph at the top of this post, Finland’s performance in PISA has been dropping. New research by Altinock, Angrist and Patrinos, aggregated scores across a range of measures and this seems to show that Finland obtained most of the gains in its performance in the 1980s and 1990s:

It is worth noting that the Finnish system has changed over time and there was more control and a more traditional approach in the years when these gains took place. If we want to achieve similar gains then we might be better to look at these policies rather than the ones Finland has enacted more recently (and certainly not ones they intend to enact in the future).

Ultimately, it is evidence to which we should defer, something that has been largely missing from the reporting so far. If Sahlberg has a case to make then he should do so and present his evidence. Borrowing authority from Finland will not do. If he just wants to listen then that’s fine. But he can’t have it both ways.

John Kenny has also written a post on this topic. It’s well worth a read.

31 thoughts on “Pasi Sahlberg says he is not in Australia to tell us what to do, so why is he offering advice?

  1. It’s interesting that of all the Finland memes, the most popular (apart from the false/misleading one about a lack of standardised testing) is the “kids don’t go to school until age 7, they just get to play” one. And yet a moment’s reflection is surely enough to realise how disastrous this would be for underprivileged kids in a society as diverse as Australia.

    1. That Finnish kids start their formal schooling late is also a bit of a myth. As I understand it, they receive free care and preparatory education from infancy until the age of 7. “In Finland, high quality daycare and nursery-kindergarten are considered critical for developing the cooperation and communication skills necessary to prepare young children for lifelong education, as well as formal learning of reading and mathematics. This preparatory period lasts until the age of 7.” (Wikipedia)

      1. Had a look. Can’t tell if it is saying that the year of preschool includes reading or is preparing them for it.

        In Finland, high class daycare and nursery-kindergarten are considered critical for developing the cooperation and communication skills important to prepare young children for lifelong education, as well as formal learning of reading and mathematics. This preparatory period lasts until the age of 7.

        The key bit is “as well as formal learning of reading and mathematics”. Are they prepared for this and formal learning at school, or are they taught this alongside cooperation and communication schools.

        Can’t find much more info on the year of preschool and the five years of free (but not mandatory nursery). What little I have found does seem to only emphasis play. Hope someone else can shed light on this.

  2. From GERM to FERM

    On page 149 of Pasi Sahlberg’s Second Edition of Finnish Lessons 2.0 is a 5-point chart differentiating between GERM and FERM — Global Education Reform Movement and Finnish Education Reform Model.

    Since the Gonski Institute, in its hire of Sahlberg, seems dedicated to education equity then this chart will be a handy road-map to follow if this shift is indeed part of the reason for the hire:

    – From competition between schools to collaboration among schools
    – From standardized learning to personalized learning
    – From focus on literacy and numeracy to focus on the whole child
    – From test-based accountability to trust-based responsibility
    – From school choice to equity of outcomes

    Now, when we talk about equity of outcomes, let’s remember that that is not equality of opportunity. Equity could very well result in reducing levels of accomplishment (the Finnish slides in international test scores) while student achievement gaps are narrowed.

    The book is extremely interesting in that a lot of content deals with the conscious political development of Finland toward a high level welfare state.

    About education we learn how teaching has become a hallowed profession under “pedagogical conservatism . . . learning from the past and teaching for the future”. This does not mean that research and evidence-based knowledge leads education development but rather socialization policies and practices prevail. Thus, we already see Sahlberg downplaying the phonics check, a highly research endorsed move to improve student reading capacity.

    And, let’s not forget, Sahlberg’s visit coincides with New South Wales recent axing of Reading Recovery, a 30-year program now shown to be ineffective and, in the eyes of at least one reading expert, as “harmful” and not holding up to “scientific scrutiny”.

    Will the rising interest of Australia’s educators in evidence-based reform be in collision with Sahlberg/Gonski equity drive? Certainly bears watching. I’m from Canada and am very intrigued with this move.

    1. There was an interesting story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/open-up-selective-schools-for-more-inclusive-education-says-rob-stokes-20180109-h0fk94.html) about some proposed changes to the selective system, which one of its supporters defends on the grounds of “improving equity”. I think it’s quickly going to become the No.1 buzzword in NSW education. The proposal in question (comprehensive streams for selective schools) is an utter nonsense, by the way.

      1. “The proposal in question (comprehensive streams for selective schools) is an utter nonsense, by the way.”

        Why?

      2. ‘“The proposal in question (comprehensive streams for selective schools) is an utter nonsense, by the way.”

        Why?’

        Whole raft of reasons, the most important of which are:

        (1) How would you determine *which* local kids get in and which don’t? If this “comprehensive stream” were oversubscribed (which is a stone-cold certainty), there would have to be some sort of discriminating factor, BUT the whole idea is for it to be non-academically-selective. So how do you do it? Proximity to the school? Cue an insane skewing of the property market, which would merely ensure that it becomes selection by wealth – exactly what the proponents of this silly idea profess to want to avoid.

        (2) The selective schools (far more so than the comprehensives) have their curricula and programs specifically designed around their intake. With a comprehensive stream, if it were to be integrated in some subjects, the entire curriculum and programs would have to be rewritten and everyone would be dragged down, or if it weren’t integrated, the whole exercise would be a complete waste.

        (3) Oddly enough, no-one makes the same complaint about the Narrabeens or Dulwich Hills of this world. Is there a move to let in kids with no sporting talent into the sporting high schools, or those with no artistic talent into the Dullys and Newtowns? Of course not.

        The whole idea is daft, and a distraction from the real issue: the fact that the de-regionalising of the selectives (which was begun by Nick Greiner’s government, and his idiot education minister Terry Metherell) has created the sort of bidding war and hierarchy that exists now. If the government simply re-instated the regional boundaries for the selectives, a system which worked perfectly well for decades, 80% of the current problems would be solved.

      1. Oh come on. Would you actually expect anyone involved in education to *state* that as a goal? Ultimately it’s about results, not intentions. And plenty of policies enacted with the aims that are outlined in that document you’ve linked to HAVE ended up lowering standards.

      2. “And plenty of policies enacted with the aims that are outlined in that document you’ve linked to HAVE ended up lowering standards.”

        “Plenty of …” – such as?

  3. I must say I’ve always found Sahlberg puzzling much like Schleicher. He is obviously a data type of person but then ignores it when it doesn’t suit. I thought he made a very good explanation of the Finnish system and how it works in Finnish Lessons (although I hate the strawman GERM). It was much more thorough and fairly honest than many of the anglosphere educationalists that visited it later and just claimed Finland did whatever they were advocating.
    Unfortunately I feel he spent too much time with Ken Robinson et al. on the conference circuit.

    I thought it was interesting that there wasn’t a single mention of reducing the prevalence of private schools in the article. Do his backers think they won’t get anywhere with that? Unfortunate, as that is one area where the data is on his side.

    1. Ironic, isn’t it? Because it’s exactly the sort of policies that he seems to be championing (in the pedagogical area) that have helped to precipitate the rush to private schools in NSW. Although I have concerns (to put it mildly) about the absurd level of federal funding that goes towards the privates, it irritates me that so many people assume that the move towards private schools is solely down to funding issues. That’s about 10% of the story.

      1. It seems like inquiry, project-based learning and personalised learning are all the rage in private schools as well. The other 90% is parents trying to keep their child away from riff raff and wanting to entrench some privilege

    2. Pasi Sahlberg’s Second Edition of his book, Finnish Lessons, is much more instructive, even prescriptive, about their education system and how it builds, supports and embeds the modern welfare state. He is a great fan of John Dewey. In his latest book, 2015, Forewords are by Diane Ravitch and Andy Hargreaves of GELP (Global Education Leaders Partnership) and with an Afterword by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson emphasizes that Finnish education “is embedded in the numerous economic, social, and cultural changes that are effecting Finland’s overall way of life.”

      1. … He is a great fan of John Dewey…
        …Forewords are by Diane Ravitch…
        …Afterword by Sir Ken Robinson…

        DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!!!

    3. The problem with Sahlberg’s book, for me, is that he seems to have discussed everything under the sun that might have contributed to Finland’s ‘education miracle’ EXCEPT teaching methods. I suspect this is because teaching methods during the time of Finland’s improvement were generally very traditional, to the extent that one set of progressive visitors called it a ‘pedagogical wasteland’.

      This is important because Finland’s success is largely based on raising the attainment of the lower-performing pupils, and we know from cognitive psychology and DI research that traditional teaching methods involving explicit instruction and plenty of practice are likely to be the most effective way of achieving this.

      Sahlberg himself is on record as advocating progressive teaching methods. I find it difficult to believe that it was an accident that he ignored the whole issue in his book, which leaves me questioning its ‘honesty’, I’m afraid.

      1. True. In the edition I read he does state that Finland was very traditional in its teaching style but went on to say that it must innovate to stay near the top. I was left thinking, why drastically change when you have a method that works?

      2. “This is important because Finland’s success is largely based on raising the attainment of the lower-performing pupils, and we know from cognitive psychology and DI research that traditional teaching methods involving explicit instruction and plenty of practice are likely to be the most effective way of achieving this.”

        The biggest growth in their results came in the first few decades of decisively moving away from a highly stratified system to a deliberately comprehensive system. Set against such a significant restructure of educational policy, the effectiveness of one teaching method against another is really very minimal. It mirrors the dramatic change in test results of black students in the USA in the relatively short period that busing was implemented there in the 70s and 80s – enforced comprehensive education, if you will.

  4. Another thing I find a bit contradictory in his messaging is that students are both encouraged to play more AND have more early intervention. I know you could have both but surely these run counter to each other at some point.

    1. “I know you could have both but surely these run counter to each other at some point.”

      You can have both and they don’t need to run “counter” to each other.

      1. What a great reply! We can have both!
        Big caveat I’m not an early childhood or primary educator, I know there are play-based interventions for young students particularly around language and speech. This sounds perfectly reasonable to me and may work with some students lacking in these skills. We do know however that speech is a little different to reading though. With literacy and numeracy I can see a real conflict.

  5. “New research… seems to show that Finland obtained most of the gains in its performance in the 1980s and 1990s. … It is worth noting that the Finnish system has changed over time and there was more control and a more traditional approach in the years when these gains took place.”

    It is also worth noting that well before the 80s, Finland made a very decisive move towards comprehensive schooling, away from the grammars and private schools:

    “Over the next decade [the 1950s] there was explosive growth in grammar school enrolments, which grew from 34 000 to 270 000. Most of this growth took place in the private schools, which in the 1950s began to receive government subsidies and come more under public control. This growth reflected the aspirations of ordinary Finns for greater educational opportunity for their children, a message that the country’s political leaders heard as well.”

    From: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/46581035.pdf

    Interesting, eh? Sounds like the malaise Australia is currently in (outrageous subsidies for private schools, growing educational inequality) and is looking for a way out of!

    Can I please ask, Greg, that you consider this fact whenever you discuss Finland and your feelings about it? It seems to me to be a VERY important fact that is not mentioned in your many posts on the subject.

    1. I know you have asked Greg but I think it is a factor in their success. There does seem to be consistent evidence that the more you stratify students (particularly by parental wealth) the worse outcomes overall for the system.

  6. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/07/ministers-are-reading-too-much-into-this-test

    Plus, the Patrinos study that Greg linked to shows that Finland’s growth has been steady since the 1980s and earlier, on a number of measures. A fairly spectacular rise from the 1970s to 2000, and then what might be described as a “regression to the mean”, rather than the exaggerated term “decline” that seems to be bandied about. If Finland’s results plummet to what they were in the 1980s, or even the 1990s, then there might be something to talk about, but I suspect that the next PISA results will show an improvement on that front.

  7. Do you really not distinguish between “telling someone what to do” and “offering someone advice?” Educators spend a good amount of time making this very distinction when working with their students. One of many examples would come when giving a student advice on a college app essay:

    “It is your essay and you will need to decide for yourself, but I would avoid referring to your extensive drug use in elementary school if I were you. Here is why…”

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