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Summer 2014

Lecture Hall: Visiting Professor Pasi Sahlberg

He's become the go-to guy for comments about "the Finnish miracle," as The Atlantic recently called it. As director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation under the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, Pasi Sahlberg is constantly contacted by media outlets and education experts across the world wanting to know how Finland, with an unremarkable education system just a few decades ago, has surged ahead to become one of the international leaders in education, scoring at the top or near the top on the ever-important PISA survey for nearly 15 years. Conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA compares 15-year-olds around the world in reading, math, and science. In January, after arriving at the Ed School to teach International Lessons from Successful Education Systems as a visiting professor, Sahlberg spoke to Ed. about his country, responsibility, and Neil Young.

Do you ever tire of talking about PISA? I have become tired of talking about PISA as a league table of countries. It is almost like a global beauty contest. Frankly speaking, in many places, these international comparisons in education have gone too far. … Last December when the OECD released the fifth PISA survey, I received requests to comment on these results from 20 countries and more than 40 different news agencies. But I still feel that as an international public intellectual, it is my duty to comment.

What is the most important thing the world can learn from Finland? Finland is perhaps the best example of a system that has systematically improved its performance by investing in equity in education. Equity in our school system has been the leading principle since the 1970s.

What can't we learn? Finland has a very peculiar support system for all children far before they start to go to school at age seven. This support — health, counseling, wellbeing — continues throughout schooling. Finland has a very strong emphasis on whole child development as part of its equity-focused school system. Many of these ideas don't fit very well in school systems in other countries.

Finnish academic scores have declined in recent years. How are fellow Finns reacting? Most people, educators included, give very little attention to international comparisons like PISA. We are mostly concerned that our children are happy and feel well in their schools.

Is it true that Finland doesn't have the term "accountability," at least when it comes to education? True. If you come to Finland and try to have a conversation with educators about accountability, most teachers won't know what you're talking about. Accountability in Finnish is a word, tilivelvollisuus, used only in business administration. With education, we talk about responsibility, vastuullisuus.

Responsibility in what way? Responsibility is both the means and the ends in Finnish schools. One of the first things that our children learn in elementary school is to become a responsible girl or boy. This includes learning to take responsibility of your own learning and behavior. In places like the United States, teachers and principals are taking responsibility for the learning. That's very different.

You once taught, correct? I was actually born and raised in school. My parents were schoolteachers in a small rural primary school in northern Finland. Since I remember, I have wanted to be a teacher. I love mathematics, and therefore becoming a math teacher was a natural choice. I taught my first seven years in a wonderful old school in Helsinki — math, physics, and chemistry to junior high school and high school students.

You use Twitter a lot with your Ed School students. Why? Twitter is the best social media tool I know to share information and knowledge. Also influence. My assumption is that many of the students will go on to work in education policy areas, so learning to use it in a proper way is important. The influence of education policy is happening in personal blogs, on places like Twitter.

You're a Neil Young fan. How many albums and what is your favorite song? Sixty. Something that always talks to me is After the Gold Rush.

On Twitter, follow @pasi_sahlberg

Watch his Askwith Forum and his education "sauna" talks, held live after each class.