Trust, Flexibility & Learning during Covid-19 in Finland
Today we explore the response of the Finnish education system to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike many countries with children out of school, the narrative of “learning loss” never emerged. In fact, as Pasi Sahlberg tells me, the opposite happened.
Pasi Sahlberg is a professor of education policy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He’s been a regular on FreshEd for the past five years. His latest books include Finnish Lessons 3.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland (2021), and In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish way to world-class schools, which was co-authored with Tim Walker (2021). Today we discuss these books in relation to the pandemic.
Citation: Sahlberg, Pasi, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 235, podcast audio, April 5, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/sahlberg-2/
Will Brehm 1:15
Pasi Sahlberg, welcome back to FreshEd.
Pasi Sahlberg 1:18
Thank you, Will. Good to be with you.
Will Brehm 1:20
So, can you tell me a little bit about what happened in Finland when the Coronavirus hit?
Pasi Sahlberg 1:27
Yes, of course. This was in the mid-March when the government in Finland decided to close all the public buildings. And it’s important because there was no decision to close the schools, particularly, but all public buildings were closed, which practically meant that schools were closed as well. So, the kids couldn’t go to school. I think what is interesting here is that this happened on mid-March on Monday, I think it was the 18th of March. And everything became in effect on Wednesday. So, basically, 36 hours later. So, schools are really basically had that Tuesday, one day to figure out what to do. And I am saying that this is important because this also shows how quickly the locally governed schools that have fair amount of autonomy to decide how to figure out easier things. And now these harder things, how do they operate. So, on Wednesday morning, everything was in a remote mode except the early childhood, the kindergartens were working. And some schools remained open for children with these special needs -those who really couldn’t stay at home. So, that was how quickly it happened. And the first period was for four weeks, and it was immediately then extended for another four weeks. So, it was about two months of closure. And that’s what happened. There was a debate in mid-May, whether the kids should return to school at all, whether they should just stay home and then come to school in August. Many of the medical experts were using the argument that children actually need to see one another, and they need to see the teachers, and they need to have this kind of idea that they have this place called school in a difficult time like this. So, the kids returned to school for couple of weeks and then went to summer holidays in the first of June. So, that was how technically this thing happened. And I think it really shows also, not necessarily how ready the Finnish system was to cope with the crisis and catastrophe, like this one, but what it means to be a flexible and creative system run by professional educators.
Will Brehm 3:49
I want to get into some of the specifics here. So, did the Minister of Education make the decision to close the schools?
Pasi Sahlberg 3:56
The government, as a whole, decided to close the public buildings. So, there was not really a decision to close the schools themselves, but because the public buildings were closed, so the schools couldn’t remain open. But the Ministry of Education and the governments made a decision regarding the younger children -the kindergartens and early childhood schools. But there has been a debate whether the schools were actually closed or not because the buildings were closed, but the schools continued working remotely for most of the kids.
Will Brehm 4:31
So, okay, and that would be my next question. So, when the children weren’t going into the physical building, they were at home, and did they transition mostly to online learning on Zoom? Or was it sort of asynchronous? What happened with the actual learning from home?
Pasi Sahlberg 4:47
Yes. Again, because the Finnish system is decentralized, so we have 310 municipalities and 3,000 schools, and these municipalities can have a very different ways of running the schools and dealing with the teachers. So, there was a quite a bit of differences in terms of what actually happened. The interesting thing was that the note from the central authorities to local governments -those municipalities that run the schools and the principals themselves- basically was to say that this is a framework and keep everybody safe and figure out what is the best way to do it, how you want to organize this remote learning. And therefore, if you went to see schools in different parts of the country, you probably would see a little bit different practices. In some places, schools were more ready for digital remote online learning. And some of the places, they were using some other means and organizing students’ work and teaching in different ways. But overall, I think it was considered as a fairly successful way of doing that. And since then, there has not been kind of a nation system-wide closure of schools or remote learning thing. Until now, when there’s a difficult situation with a third wave, it may lead to shifting all the upper secondary schools to remote learning.
Will Brehm 6:11
What would you say is the reason behind sort of the success of the Finnish education system handling COVID, at least for the first one or two waves? And maybe let’s not talk about what’s happening now, since it’s a bit unknown. But what would you point to say, this is why the schools responded so well?
Pasi Sahlberg 6:32
Yeah, I think there are a couple of things. Two or three things. One, of course, is the flexibility. How the system is designed in a flexible way. And honestly, Will, I think that when we are putting together lessons, after this pandemic is one day over, that this will be one of the system-level lessons that we learned. That if the education system has flexibility in terms of decide how it’s going to run itself and have a kind of a more flexible assessment and curriculum systems that they are likely to find it easier to navigate through the difficult times. So, this is certainly one of the things that Finnish colleagues and people recognize. Then the other one is definitely to have a highly professional staff in schools. Finland is known as one of those places where teachers and principals are fairly high educated, they’re trained, and in this crisis situation, they could be easily compared to medical doctors and kind of health experts in a country that the authorities and parents or many others could trust and rely on their professional judgment in terms of what is the best way to keep everybody safe. And this was really an important and interesting reaction by the system that the primary concern among educators was not, how do we teach all the stuff that is in a curriculum? Or how do we prepare kids for exams? But it was, how do we make sure that everybody’s safe? And what is the role of school to keep everybody safe? And then thirdly, as I described in the ‘In Teachers We Trust’ book that was just published is the trust by basically, by the whole society, in teachers and schools, and certainly the level of trust that the authorities and politicians have in schools ability to find better solutions in difficult situations, and in normal situations regarding what to do in a school. So, those are some of the aspects that have been widely acknowledged in Finland as the ways that have made things a little bit easier to handle.
Will Brehm 8:44
I find it interesting that there wasn’t a discourse around the students losing out on curriculum time because of online learning or because schools were closed for all most respects. So, there wasn’t the narrative of learning loss. It seems strange to me because the World Bank talks about it, you hear it in the US, in the UK. I mean, it seems like it’s such a big topic right now when it comes to COVID and education.
Pasi Sahlberg 9:15
Yeah, but you know, it’s interesting, this whole learning loss narrative is mostly created, initiated, and maintained by those standardized testing enthusiasts. You know, those people who are really seeing education as something that will prepare kids for tests, and then we know whether education is good or bad by looking at these test results. And most people by now should know that Finland is not one of those countries that is driven by these mandatory standardized tests for everyone or census-based tests, as we call them. And the absence of these census-based assessments in Finland, of course, creates an environment in the country where nobody needs to be worried about learning losses or test score drops because there are no tests available. And again, another lesson that I mentioned this flexibility thing before. This will be another big conversation -and it is actually already in many parts- that do we really need that type of system of heavy standardized tests and examinations that -when the times go difficult, like with this pandemic- will lead to completely unnecessary conversations like this learning loss thing, that doesn’t really mean anything. If you think about this whole learning loss thing, what are people talking about when they’re talking about learning loss? Is it about that the kids would kind of forget something? Or they would lose something? Or how do we measure these things? We can never reliably measure anything like learning loss. You know, the other thing here is that in the Finnish system, unlike with these standardized testing enthusiasts, who have been creating and maintain this narrative of learning losses, in the Finnish system, and many other education systems as well, you know, people are equally interested in students learning that goes beyond literacy and numeracy. This is something that, I think, if there, if there have been any conversations in Finland, about children losing something, it’s mostly about issues about their mental health or social relationships in the school, or those children who need school more than others that they may have been losing a kind of a more holistic thing for themselves. But this narrative of losing something in reading and mathematics is completely absent in Finland.
Will Brehm 11:42
It’s interesting. In Finland, has there been a conversation about anything that students might have learned during the pandemic? Not simply a loss, but actually a gain. You know, learning gained during this really strange moment in our lives?
Pasi Sahlberg 11:58
At the level of Finnish educators, teachers, and principals, this is definitely kind of a main narrative. Of course, there are some people who are concerned about older students, final examination scores, and if they have been locked down in their homes, or the schools have been closed, that they may have been losing something. But most teachers in schools, rather than asking about this learning loss, what the kids may have lost, while they have not been able to study properly with them, is what, what the kids have learned. And that’s a much more positive conversation. I think most Finnish educators also understand that children compared to what they were one year ago when we went into this pandemic, and what they are now, that they are completely different kids. You look at the same children now, compared to what they were one year ago, you know, they have learned a lot of things about this horrible pandemic. But they have also learned a lot of things about themselves, their parents, the importance of social human relationships, many of them have built empathy and resilience. And unless we make those things visible in the schools by wise and smart teachers who are able to create these conversations, we will never get to the level of really having a good conversation about these important things that children have been learning and gaining. But on the other hand, it’s a complicated issue, because those things are very hard to measure. So, if you happen to be a kind of a measurement-oriented individual, then, of course, your question is that how do we measure these things that kids have learned. And as everybody knows, children are very different. They come from different circumstances, and what one child may have learned during this pandemic at home with a family and friends can be completely different than somebody else who is coming from different circumstances. So, that’s why again, this requires a much more kind of a professional approach and attitude to education and teaching and learning that I think Finland is fairly well prepared to do.
Will Brehm 14:13
It’s an interesting insight into the Finnish system, which you have obviously looked at for quite some time. You’ve taught in the system; you’ve written extensively about the system. And when you first wrote your book, ‘Finnish Lessons’ in 2011, I think was the first edition that came out, Finland was at the top of these league tables, even if they didn’t necessarily really take on the idea of standardized tests and promoting them. They were actually at the top of PISA, for instance. But what has happened since?
Pasi Sahlberg 14:48
Yeah, it’s about ten years now since the first edition was written, and I remember when the ‘Finnish Lessons’ came out ten years ago. I think we had this conversation right after the book in your podcast as well. And still, when people ask me now that what is the main takeaway from that kind of the first ten years of Finland being recognized internationally as a kind of a serious education nation, my kind of a one-liner was that there is another way to build a successful education system than the one that was by then dominated the Anglo-Saxon model if you wish. But sometimes, I call it the global education reform movement idea that is built on competition and testing and standardization and all those things. And so that was the situation ten years ago. Then the second edition, that’s ‘Finnish Lessons 2.0’ came out in 2015. And there, my kind of intention and focus was to try to bust some of the common myths about Finnish education system, like there’s no homework in Finland, or that Finland is recruiting the best and the brightest into teaching, or the Finnish schools are abolishing all the subjects. And so, there’s a lot of that type of misunderstandings going on. So, there have been these kinds of narratives and stories behind this. So, what is this Finnish Lessons 3.0 doing now? And this comes back to your question is that in this edition, basically, I’m answering this question that: What went wrong? Or, if anything, is there anything that went wrong? Because you can take a look at, for example, the OECD PISA results, and it doesn’t which way you turn them around or look at them, there’s only one conclusion is that Finland is not what it used to be ten years ago when the first edition came out. So, the Finnish students test scores are down, the equity or equality of the society and the system is going backwards, and the young people in Finland are not the same that they were ten years ago. So, I’m talking about all these things and trying to kind of speculate and build an argument that would explain why this inconvenient development has happened. So, I invite people to take a look at the book and read and let me know how you find this. The only thing I want to say here is that when people were asking me ten years ago with the first edition that why Finland has been successful and what explains the Finnish secret formula to being the best education system in the world, my response was that it’s a very difficult and hard thing to explain. And it’s equally difficult now to give a kind of full answer to the question that what is going wrong, or why the development has turned negative?
Will Brehm 17:43
What are some factors? I mean, if you want to give us a little sneak peek.
Pasi Sahlberg 17:46
One of those things that -and again, I must stress that, if you ask different people in Finland the same question, you’re going to probably hear a little bit different things. But one thing that has definitely played a role is the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis that had a particularly negative effect on the Finnish economy, and the governments actually had to make or made very significant cuts in education budgets that was often translated in practice into reducing the numbers of support staff particularly in remote and rural schools in kind of less wealthy municipalities and local governments.
The special education system was kind of downgraded rather than upgraded as it was supposed to have been done at that point. So, it meant that more of those kids in Finland who needed more help were actually studying in mainstream classrooms without appropriate support and help. And I think what supports this type of theory is that if you look at Finland’s PISA data, for example, compared to 2009, what has been particularly visible change is the hugely increased number of low-performing students. And interestingly, among these low-performing students, like really low-performing students, those who performed below PISA level two basically that who don’t have a proper performance in reading, mathematics, and science increased significantly, and they were mostly boys. So, this leads me, and many other people also, to ask this question of why this has happened among boys much more than girls. The Finnish girls, by the way, are still performing like Singapore. So, if Finnish boys were like the boys in the other OECD countries on average, meaning that they would outperform girls in mathematics and science, and girls have always been better readers. But in Finland, girls outperform boys in all these three subjects. So, if Finnish boys were like boys across the OECD, Finland would still be the top performer in the OECD. So, this is the question that we need to ask as well is that what’s happening with the Finnish boys and again, my theory is that they have been particularly affected by the digital media and technologies in different forms, and they spend more time playing games and hanging in the internet, whatever they do, they sleep less, and particularly the amount of time Finnish boys spent reading for pleasure has basically disappeared. So, the boys don’t really read anymore. And anybody who knows anything about the PISA type of questions, you know if you’re not good reader, if you don’t read, you know, reading, even mathematics and science test items becomes a kind of hard thing to do.
So, these are some of those things that I’m seeing. There have been changes in the society, in the system, how education is funded or not funded properly. But then there has been also significant changes among young people -how they behave, how they spend their time, and how they perceive school, how ready they are to actually learn in school or not. But again, this is an incomplete response, but some of those things are definitely those that we need to consider.
Will Brehm 21:07
It’s an interesting insight because, with the COVID response by Finnish schools that you articulated earlier, there’s still such a level of trust in teachers, there’s still a level of flexibility and professionalism that allows the schools to sort of respond to crises. But those schools are still embedded in a larger political economy, and other sort of cultural shifts are at play that then ultimately impact on the system of education like the economic crisis, which then reduces government budgets on education, or as you’re talking about the sort of changing patterns of what it means to be a male adolescent growing up in a digitalized culture, right? And so, you can’t really separate a lot of these bigger forces from the schooling system. And that’s a really nice insight, in a sense.
Pasi Sahlberg 22:00
Yeah, absolutely. And if I look around the world, countries that have been and continue to be in the same or similar situation of Finland, often the system’s response is exactly the opposite. The governments in that type of situation where Finland has been now for a number of years -I’m referring to the PISA data, and also the domestic research- the responses are often tightening the government control, creating new standards, focusing more on numeracy and literacy, testing and collecting evidence, like what we hear in Australia, for example. But the Finnish response seems to be probably even more autonomy. Even more kind of a trust in schools and teachers ways to, first understand the problem and understand the seriousness of the problem, and then go and figure out, find the best solutions for each and every local case. And I think it’s a very smart way to respond to this because your earlier question about “what is happening in Finland and what should we do?”, there’s no one kind of a standard response. What may work in one school or one community may be completely unnecessary or counterproductive in some others. And this is what the Finnish authorities and system understands that we are looking at a very diverse system in a way, although the country is still fairly homogeneous in many ways. But people understand that the best way to turn around this inconvenient development in education is to trust schools and local communities’ ability to figure out and find the best ways to do the right thing.
Will Brehm 23:46
So, how can school systems trust teachers? And how can government and communities trust school systems? Like what are some principles that we can focus on to understand how trust actually operates in practice?
Pasi Sahlberg 24:01
Yeah, with Tim Walker, we actually tell readers a book-long story about that. We also include there some of those things that you should not try to do. And those are like treat trust as a project or education reform. You know, have an education reform that aims at building trust because often these types of reforms just work against the basic principle that they tried to do. So, I think instead, if you look at the Finnish story, and we actually take our readers back to early 1990s, when this trust-building started. I think the key notion there is that trust is part of the culture. It’s not the project, it’s not the product, it’s not the law or education reform. It’s a part of the culture that you have to build. And you build the culture of trust just like you build any other elements in your own cultures. Whatever it is. People understand that it takes time, it takes kind of a significant amount of systematic work, honesty too, you know, your principles. And in Finland, it required the whole set of concrete deeds that the politicians, and political system, and the authorities did. For example, that we abolished the National Inspection System. That was very hard in England, for example, to understand that why anybody would do away such an important iconic institution as an inspectorate. But we did because we understood that how the teachers and schools kind of read that type of reform is that so when the inspectorate is gone, and nobody’s going to inspect us. So, you must kind of trust our own work and our own way of inspecting these things.
We also abolished the textbook approval -that was a huge thing in early 1990s in Finland- and we told teachers in schools that you can choose whatever you want to use in your teaching and learning that you think works for the kids. The same response came from schools that, so you trust our judgment to find out what is good for kids. Yes, we do. And then probably most importantly, the 1994 National Curriculum reform that basically shifted the national central control of the curriculum and syllabi to the schools and local governments to figure out not only how to teach, but what is the content and how this local curriculum should be structured, and which order people want to teach these things. So, that was a really important thing. But then there were parallel lines with these concrete things that the government and authorities were doing, like, systematically building the professionalism within the teaching profession itself. And this is, again, something that you cannot announce. You cannot make a speech and say that now we teachers are professionals. You have to really show that it means something.
Collaboration is another one that is a really important part of the trust. If you remove the collaboration and bring competition in the system, as it is in many other places, trusting one another becomes a really hard thing to do. And then probably I think that the kind of final chapter of this trust-building culture in Finland is something that has happened during the last five years or so. And it is engaging students even more in deciding what they want to learn, how they want to learn. Many people have heard about these problem-based projects that every school now has to do by law, basically, where the law is requiring that the students, they must have say in what they want to study and how it will be assessed. So, I think that this idea of trust seen as a culture is critically important, and then you need to do a kind of a concrete things to show and prove teachers and others that we are serious about it.
Will Brehm 28:08
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic and the sort of crisis response that Finland had to enact rather quickly and to some successes we talked about earlier -do you think that’s going to have any impact on this culture of trust that has taken so many decades to sort of buildup and sort of co-create with students and teachers and families and politicians? Is COVID-19 going to have some long-lasting impact? Or is it going to be more of an epiphenomenon?
Pasi Sahlberg 28:40
It’s a good question, Will, and we really do not know, but all the signs currently, right now in Finland, speak in favor of everybody in the country understanding the importance and the power of trust. And most people also understand that if the trust goes away, distrust will be catastrophic in a system like this. And often in Finland, we say, as we write in the book, that trust arrives on foot, but it leaves on horseback. Meaning that it takes a long time to build this trust, and this is what Finnish people understand. And they also understand the value of trust, but when you lose it, if you do wrong things, or you let the trust disappear, it’s going to go very, very quickly. And then rebuilding this becomes much more complicated. But I think that in the Finnish society overall, where the trust is kind of a hallmark value or principle of the whole society, that people understand that Finland has been able to accomplish many other things in other areas because of the fairly strong social capital and trust in the society. So, they also can value this trust when it comes to education and how the schools and teachers are treated. So, I wouldn’t be so much concerned about something happening to this particular part of the educational culture, this trust thing. Quite opposite, I would probably argue that we’re going to see even more valuing what the teachers have been doing, what they continue to do, and thereby kind of strengthening the trust in schools that there has been already.
Will Brehm 30:29
Well, Pasi Sahlberg, thank you so much for joining FreshEd again, it’s always a pleasure to talk, and I look forward to having you back on the show the next time you have a book out.
Pasi Sahlberg 30:36
Thank you very much, Will.
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