Monday, May 27, 2013

My Interview with Pasi Sahlberg: "Speaking as a Father"

"I think public schools should be a place for each and every child to have equal opportunity to become what they want to be."
- Pasi Sahlberg -  

Over the past two days I have had the pleasure of getting to know the warm, reflective Pasi Sahlberg. On Tuesday, Pasi, Anjali Vyas and I drove the few hours to and from the Nordic Comparative and International Education Society (NOCIES) conference in Turku, Finland and during the ride Pasi spoke about being a father to his sons, the life and educational work of his "grandfather's grandfather's father," the lineage of educators in his family tree, and what drives his passion to improve children’s education. These conversations helped me learn about Pasi's depth and authenticity, and it helped me understand how to talk with him the next day when we sat down for a formal interview.

Our interview did not start smoothly. We decided to conduct the interview in his office and as he worked at his computer I set up my equipment: I took out the camera, lights and audio equipment and they worked fine. I was ready. I invited Pasi to come sit down, he attached the microphone to his tie and tucked away the black wire; I turned on the lights. 

"Please say, 'one, two, three,'" I said.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven," he replied with a small grin.

When I checked the audio, the playback came back with static. (What?) Only static. 

I checked the settings on the audio recorder and the microphone and tried again.

"Please say, "Yksi, kaksi, kolme." 

He responded just as enthusiastically in Finnish, "Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljã, viisi, kuusi, seitsemãn, kahdeksan."

Three more adjustments.  Three more tests.  Only static.  (This was my 45th interview in 5 months and this has never happened.)

Pasi decided he would check with the South Korean reporters who were waiting in the next room for their interview. While he was talking with the South Koreans I made another adjustment to the audio recorder and thankfully the adjustments worked; the audio was clear. 

Game on!

Pasi returned to his office and we began.  I told him I would like him to think about responding from the perspective of a father - as if we were talking in the Finnish tradition - over a cup of coffee; it was a discussion of warmth, friendship and interesting conversation.  Even now, I wish I had more time to talk with him.

I recalled last evening when we were driving back from Turku; it was pouring rain and Pasi was hurrying home to spend time with his son before his son went to bed. Pasi’s wife had called to tell him his son was looking forward to seeing him – and Pasi was enthusiastic about getting home.  When he got out of the car to head home it’s as though he couldn’t move fast enough – sure it was raining, but it was clear that he didn’t want anything to stand in his way of having his evening time with his family.

I decided the best way to begin the interview was to ask Pasi to describe the schooling he would like for his little boy. He smiled, reflected, and said, “I wish the school would help my son become a passionate learner so that when my son leaves school he would say, 'I want to learn more about the world, I want to learn more about the people who live here, I want to learn more about nature and (I want) to learn more about the countries.'  If my own child would like to continue learning and if the school can help him to understand who he is then I can say that school has been successful."

He continued by talking not only about his son, but every son and every daughter – because schooling is not just about “my child” or “your child” - it’s about every child and their right to be educated. "I think public schools should be a place for each and every child to have equal opportunity to become what they want to be,” Pasi continued. “We should not have different expectations and hopes for our own children than (we have) for the others. I think the problem in education oftentimes is that we speak about other children’s schools and other children’s education and we think about schooling and education for our own children as a very different thing. I couldn’t say anything about anyone else’s children that I wouldn't say for my own."

I thought about our culture in the United States and wondered if we, as a people, could ever consider the rights of other people’s children as the same as our “own.” Unfortunately, the idea of “equality” has become more “survival of the fittest” for our children, not a system that's striving to provide equality and opportunity for all.

Some people are trying to make substantial changes in American education – or should I say, many people are trying – and some are looking at the education-for-profit model. Pasi addressed this potential change in the American system: “I see the value of public education system as a fundamental element of our democracies: a free world, a free mind - and I see clearly enough the dangers and risks that come with seeing a school education as a private good and something you can purchase - if you think of it as something you buy for your kids - if you can afford it. I think public schools should be a place for each and every child to have equal opportunity to become what they want to be and the older I get the more I see my own view/ideal of school education at risk.”

Ouch.  Isn’t that what is happening in America? The affluent areas have more financial resources for their schools and the underserved areas have less.  We send money to these impoverished areas and it helps, or it doesn’t, and then we move on to other issues and hope everything will work out.  This is not a sustainable and meaningful solution. (3,000,000 American students dropped out of high school this year.) We need to look to other systems that are achieving equity for their students and learn from them.  We can learn from others.

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned while in Finland came at a price – in fact, I was a bit offended – but it was a valuable lesson.  I returned from a school visit and was asked about what I had experienced.  I said something to the effect of, “It was wonderful.  The teacher engaged her students, etc., etc.”  This person stopped me and said, “Quit it - not everything is good.  Americans have the tendency to say everything is ‘Good!’ but that’s not true. Finns want to hear what’s not working, too.”

I thought about what he said, and I thought about it some more, and I came to the conclusion that he was right.  In asking other Finns about this same conversation I was told, “It’s boring to hear that things are always good; it’s much more interesting if you tell us the other side, too.


Is this attitude toward evaluation and discussion one reason why Finns fare so well on many of the international measurements? Imagine their key stakeholders sitting in a room and saying, “Let’s talk about what’s working, what’s not working, make some compromises about what can be done and then make some decisions about how to move forward"... and then do it.

Perhaps all of us have to make compromises to “fix” our education system.

At this point I asked Pasi how he might proceed: "If you were to invite ten people into a room whose job it was to 'fix' American education, whom would you choose?"

He paused and replied, "That's an interesting question. Only ten?"

"Yes," I said, but of course there was no reason that the number be ten, only that having a limit makes one's decisions more critical.

He listed the first and second people rather quickly, he paused at the third, went more quickly through numbers four through six, and it wasn't until number seven that he included, "teacher."  I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to mention a teacher, and honestly, my heart broke every time he listed a person who was not.

All I could bear to squeak out was, "Only one teacher?"

Pasi then held up the "mirror" and I was forced to look at his reflection of me:  he asked, "Whom would you put at the table?"

I answered, "A primary teacher, a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, and one from an inner city school, a typical school, and an elite school."  My rationale was that if you want to improve education, you involve the people who are doing the work with students.

For the past four and one half months I have been visiting Finnish schools and learning how Finnish teachers teach problem solving to their students; there are no bureaucrats in the schools, no business people, no parents, no lobbyists, no textbook publishers - only the teacher and his or her students.  Of course there should be teachers at the “table” for important decisions.
"So, six out of ten people would be teachers?" he questioned.

(I sat there dumbstruck - realizing I had put myself in a corner.)

I said to him, "My big concern is that teachers (in the United States) are typically undervalued (at that level) and aren’t put at the decision-making table for educational policy. Based upon the policy decisions being made, American teachers are then told, "This is how fast you should be going (with your teaching), this is where you should be (in the curriculum), this is what you have to do (to keep your job), and these are all the things you have to teach."  The problem is, this model doesn't fit with how children learn.

Maybe this doesn't sound substantial so I offer an imperfect analogy:  imagine your job is to bake cakes in an assembly line (for our purposes the cakes represent content you're supposed to teach). You mix the batter, you pour the batter in the pans, and you put the pans in the oven. In the middle of baking your cakes you are told to take them out of the oven so you can start baking different cakes (for this example it would be more curriculum you need to teach).  You exclaim, 'But the cakes aren't done.  This isn't going to work!'  But the decisions have been handed down to you to and you must hurry up and put more cakes through (and more and more curriculum).  At the end of the day you are evaluated on how well you baked your cakes (they're not fully baked) and then you are critized for doing a poor job. Forcing students to learn too much curriculum in too short of time and with very little depth is one of the reasons many experienced and valuable teachers are quitting the profession - their cries are not heard and the students are suffering; the teachers simply cannot do it any longer.

I continued, "In Finland it's lovely because it's the pace of the learner, not the pace of the teaching that determines what happens in a classroom; that’s a substantial difference. Finnish teachers are told, 'Here's an objective; take your students on this (intellectual) journey and that's what they do." I recently asked a Finnish physics teacher how he decides when to move to the next lesson and he said with a smile, "When my students stop asking questions." Finnish teachers have the time and the freedom to work with topics that interest their students and they challenge them to solve problems.  I observed problem solving taking place in every content area in Finnish schools, and they were not only solving problems, they were doing so in an unhurried, relaxed environment.  It was a pure joy to experience. This is the freedom we need for our American teachers and students so that our students can excel. American teachers and students are just as capable but they need the permission to do their creative work.

I said to Pasi, "This disconnect (between policy and practice) is why I keep saying, 'Why aren’t the teachers at the decision-making table?' because if we don't have the teacher voice at the policy-making table we'll continue having the same problems we’re having now!"

He acknowledged my words, looked straight at me and replied, "There is a saying ... that 'war is too important to be decided by the military people' and it's the same with education. I think education is too important to be decided by teachers - and this has nothing to do with undervaluing teachers' expertise - but their view is very different to education. I think teachers should have a say to these issues - exactly what you said - how to decide the teaching, how you set the standards for your own kids, how you organize your school work - this should be left to the teachers. I think too often we intervene in the wrong areas of education - we try to control what each and every teacher is doing in the classroom. We should leave those things to the professionals.  But the broad issues, the big issues, the principles of education should be based on a more balanced view and that's why I would only have one practitioner in the room and divide this voice more equally to those who are the key stakeholders, (including) parents and the community members - not necessarily just those working or teaching in the school."

I replied, "I've seen that community-driven, cooperative approach in Finland and it works.  I agree with you." 

He continued, "I think in general, particularly in the United States, you like to standardize - and in some ways I appreciate that you set standards - you set expectations for something - but I think if you look at the entire education system in the United States you seem to be standardizing things you should not standardize and you are not standardizing things that you should standardize. This is a kind of interesting thing. I think that me or somebody else should not be seen as somebody who is against setting standards in education.  I think we should be seen as people who probably think that standardization should focus on different things than it does now and that's why I say that teaching and learning and teachers' work should be left more to be decided by the professionals there (in the classroom and schools). The thing you do not standardize at all in the United States is school funding - you don't have a national standard for how the money should be allocated to schools because it varies from one community to another; you have 15,000 different ways of doing these things. In Finland and in other countries we have just one way and we're careful we standardize how the resources are allocated to our schools."
I asked him, “Would you agree with the phrase, ‘America is trying so hard to be great that they’re forgetting how to be their best?’ (Leena Semi, Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching, Finland, 2012)

(Laugh) "Yeah, probably.  This is another thing. I’m often comparing countries like the United States and Finland and it seems to be the American way to say that if you say anything about setting your goals for (your) school system in 2030 that almost automatically this phrase comes out that you want to be the best in the world. And that is something that would never come out in Finland - Finland would keep repeating this same mantra that we want to have a good, a great school for all our children - although we are now in the situation where most kids in Finland already have a great school - but we still keep repeating that we want to guarantee that each child has a great school and teacher.  These are very different goals and people don’t often realize how different the implementation of these two goals looks like (in a school) 1) if you want to be the best in the world, or 2) if you want to have a good school for your children. If you go and see what the teachers and the districts and the leaders are doing when they are trying to help the government achieve these goals they are very different. I would encourage the U.S. to rethink if they can find a smarter way to reset the target for education - (rather) than being the best or trying to beat the Asian countries or Finland - I think that’s the wrong goal.”

"If you are American and listening to this conversation,” he said, “I always want to say that there are so many powerful things in your country that you can rely on as a way forward. Too often I see people who say everything is bad and nothing is working and that we have to reinvent the whole thing; I think that’s not a good way to think about it.  For example, when you think about math and science education in the United States, you have some of the best examples and models to teach science and to teach mathematics - not only to one class or one school, but several of them. (I would wish) that people would not go into this business of blaming teachers and blaming schools by saying, 'if only you were a better teacher things would be in a different way.' It takes much more than that. I think your challenge is more than getting stuck in this debate of bad teachers and good teachers; it should be how you can help the entire system share what they are doing now and how you can make sure schools cooperate rather than compete and that the districts in the United States would share what they have learned rather than try to hide it because they are competing over resources and funding. That’s the kind of hope there is and I think there is always hope as long as things are as they are right now.”

"It’s more typical in the United States to think (in terms of) 'my children' and 'my school' and 'my classroom' rather than 'our children' and 'our school' and 'our classroom'” he said. “Like in many, or probably most, places in Finland, people think about children in their communities as everybody’s responsibility."

"We should not have different expectations and hopes for other (people’s) children than we have for our own."
- Pasi Sahlberg -


  1. What a fascinating interview and what a pleasure to "hear" both of you share your thoughts. This is the type of dialogue we should be having here in the United States. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, we first need to change our focus from "my" to "our".

  2. Finnisch miracle: fata morgana?
    Finnish students’ achievement (15 y) declined significantly: study of University Helsinki
    University of Helsinki - Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen
    Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001
    S.: The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has declined considerably: under the mean of the scale used in the questions. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. The mean level of students’ learning-supporting attitudes still falls above the mean of the scale used in the questions but also that mean has declined from 2001.

  3. View of Finnish teachers versus view of Pasi Sahlberg
    Oxford- Prof. Jennifer Chung ( AN INVESTIGATION OF REASONS FOR FINLAND’S SUCCESS IN PISA (University of Oxford 2008).
    “Many of the teachers mentioned the converse of the great strength of Finnish education (= de grote aandacht voor kinderen met leerproblemen) as the great weakness. Jukka S. (BM) believes that school does not provide enough challenges for intelligent students: “I think my only concern is that we give lots of support to those pupils who are underachievers, and we don’t give that much to the brightest pupils. I find it a problem, since I think, for the future of a whole nation, those pupils who are really the stars should be supported, given some more challenges, given some more difficulty in their exercises and so on. To not just spend their time here but to make some effort and have the idea to become something, no matter what field you are choosing, you must not only be talented like they are, but work hard. That is needed. “
    Pia (EL) feels that the schools do not motivate very intelligent students to work. She thinks the schools should provide more challenges for the academically talented students. In fact, she thinks the current school system in Finland does not provide well for its students. Mixed-ability classrooms, she feels, are worse than the previous selective system: “ I think this school is for nobody. That is my private opinion. Actually I think so, because when you have all these people at mixed levels in your class, then you have to concentrate on the ones who need the most help, of course. Those who are really good, they get lazy. “
    Pia believes these students become bored and lazy, and float through school with no study skills. Jonny (EM) describes how comprehensive education places the academically gifted at a disadvantage: “We have lost a great possibility when we don’t have the segregated levels of math and natural sciences… That should be once again taken back and started with. The good talents are now torturing themselves with not very interesting education and teaching in classes that aren’t for their best.
    Pia (EL) finds the PISA frenzy about Finland amusing, since she believes the schools have declined in recent years: “I think [the attention] is quite funny because school isn’t as good as it used to be … I used to be proud of being a teacher and proud of this school, but I can’t say I ’m proud any more.”