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Finnish Lessons: R.W.B. Jackson Lecturer Pasi Sahlberg on what Canada can learn from educational change in Finland

Pasi SahlbergQuality of teaching and educational change are areas of major concern in Canada and around the world. After the release of the first PISA results in 2001, educators and governments looking for answers made a startling discovery: Finland’s exemplary education system. Since then education tourists have been visiting Finland to uncover the secrets behind the astounding success of the nation’s public education system.

Last week, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto welcomed to Toronto, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, one of Finland’s chief education architects to explain how the Finns do it. As a former Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Helsinki and currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, he’s in the best position to know.

OISE Dean Julia O’Sullivan introduced Dr. Sahlberg: “Pasi Sahlberg is a teacher, teacher educator and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. His expertise includes international educational change, the future of schooling, and innovation in teaching and learning. His best-selling book, Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award. We are delighted to have him here tonight”.

In this year’s April 17 lecture at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Dr. Sahlberg argued that having better teachers in schools does not automatically improve students’ learning outcomes and that teachers alone cannot overcome the societal issues affecting children’s opportunities to learn. In doing so, he posed an intriguing hypothesis: Why the quality of Finland’s education system can exceed the quality of its teachers, and exposed a couple of myths about improving the quality of teaching and education: 1) The most important single factor in improving the quality of education is teachers; and 2) The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

Dr. Sahlberg contrasted what he calls the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to the Finnish way: competition vs. collaboration, standardization vs. personalization, test-based accountability vs. trust-based responsibility, choice vs. equity, human capital vs. professional capital. He described educational change in Finland as guided by a common vision, of a great school for each and every child, equity and quality, and a commitment to having the best school system in the world by 2025. In concluding his talk, he said that the quality of an education system CAN exceed the quality of its teachers if teachers work as a team, and moral purpose, collective autonomy and shared leadership are the keys to performance beyond expectations.

Dr. Sahlberg spoke very highly of OISE and it’s contribution to teacher education and scholarship and praised Ontario and other provinces for their extremely successful public education systems.

Andy Hargreaves, former OISE professor in higher education, and currently Brennan Chair in the Boston College Lynch School of Education, reflected on OISE’s influence, “I’m proud to be a former OISE professor. It’s been hugely generative for my scholarship. I’m so pleased that OISE chose Pasi Sahlberg to be this year’s R.W.B. Jackson lecturer – he’s a great scholar.”