Prof Pasi Sahlberg: In Teachers We Trust

My guest this week is Professor Pasi Sahlberg. Pasi is a Finnish educator and author who has worked in the Finnish education system as both a teacher and a policymaker. In this episode, we discuss the differences between the Australian and Nordic education system, NAPLAN tests, the idea of “play theory” and so much more.

Health Podcast Highlights

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: In Teachers We Trust Introduction

Well, today we’re going to be exploring education, but we are not just going to be talking about any education, we’re going to be talking to one of the leaders in education in the world. And he comes from Finland. His name is Professor Pasi Sahlberg.

Pasi is a Finnish educator and an author. He’s worked as a school teacher, a teacher-educator, a researcher, a policymaker in Finland, and advised schools and education systems around the world. He served as a senior education specialist at the World Bank (Washington, D.C.), as a lead education expert at the European Training Foundation (Torino, Italy), as director-general at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture (CIMO), and was also a visiting professor of Practise at Harvard University. 

He is the recipient of several awards for his lifelong service to education. Some of his writings include in 2013, his book “Finnish Lessons: What the World Can Learn from Education Change in Finland” won the Grawemeyer Award (USA) for an idea that has the potential to change the world. 

His more recent books include “Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive” (2019, with William Doyle) – we talk a lot about play theory, “Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can The World Learn from Educational Change in Finland” (2021) – we cover that in some detail, and we also discuss issues that he has raised in his more recent book “In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World-Class Schools” (2021, with Tim Walker). 

He is currently a Professor of Education Policy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I was so pleased and so excited to have the opportunity to talk to him. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Professor Pasi Sahlberg.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:00] I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

Hello and welcome to Unstress, my name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today we’re going to be exploring education, but we are not just going to be talking about any education, we’re going to be talking to one of the leaders in education in the world. And he comes from Finland. His name is Professor Pasi Sahlberg.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:00:41] Pasi is a Finnish educator and an author. He’s worked as a schoolteacher, a teacher-educator, a researcher, a policymaker in Finland, and advised schools and education systems around the world. He served as a senior education specialist at the World Bank (Washington, D.C.), as a lead education expert at the European Training Foundation (Torino, Italy), as director-general at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture (CIMO), and was also a visiting professor of Practise at Harvard University

He is the recipient of several awards for his lifelong service to education. Some of his writings include in 2013, his book “Finnish Lessons: What the World Can Learn from Education Change in Finland” won the Grawemeyer Award (USA) for an idea that has the potential to change the world. 

His more recent books include “Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive” (2019, with William Doyle) – we talk a lot about play theory, “Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can The World Learn from Educational Change in Finland” (2021) – we cover that in some detail, and we also discuss issues that he has raised in his more recent book “In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World-Class Schools” (2021, with Tim Walker). 

He is currently a Professor of Education Policy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I was so pleased and so excited to have the opportunity to talk to him. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Professor Pasi Sahlberg.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:30] Welcome to the show, Pasi.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:02:32] Thank you, Ron. Good to be with you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:02:34] Pasi, actually, this is a bit late. I know you’ve been in Australia for three years, but this is an official or an unofficial welcome to Australia. I was very excited when I heard you were coming. 

Finland is such a long way from Australia geographically, but when Finland was named one of the top education systems in the world, about I think, 15 or 20 years ago, I was intrigued to ask you how far I know it’s a long way geographically, but how far is the Finland education system from the Australian education system?

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:03:10] Yeah, thanks. That’s a great good first question. I think it’s also exactly as far as it is geographically. I think, you know, the systems are fundamentally different and they’re based on different traditions, of course. 

You know, everybody, you know the Australian history and kind of a legacy of this current education system much better than I do. But we need to understand that you know this, the whole starting point for building education systems initially has been very different. 

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:03:39] You know, Finland is a fairly young country. It’s been, you know, the Finnish people speak the language that nobody else understands. And we have always been kind of squeezed between the powers of the East and the West. And those things, they kind of create the very different conditions for education. I think in Finland, ultimately the education has been all about mostly survival. It’s about keeping the country independent and safe and competitive. 

Now, more recently, amongst the other overseas, the countries. Whereas here in Australia, you know, the whole pump effort has been different. I think that the Finnish system is also much more collective in the sense that, you know, the purpose of education is to build common good for everyone. So it’s a very typical way in Finland and the other Nordic countries to think that education should be for everyone. 

And, you know, educating your neighbours’ children should be of the same, similar importance as your own. That is not always the thing here. I think here in Australia, people seem to care so much more as a kind of individual good. And, you know, as soon as you find a good school for your own kid, that’s fine. And you know, as soon as your own child gets to the university, then you’re basically done. But in a Nordic country is a very different way. 

I think people are much more concerned about the community and the whole nation because of these different, different ways we see education, you know, they are, of course, many similarities. But I think the kind of fundamental rules is very different up there.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:05:15] I’m shunning the idea that survival, because Finland is perched between I, think Russian border now and Scandinavia below. So you have this social democracy below you or next to you on one hand and this very authoritarian. What a wonderful idea that education should prepare you for survival. That sounds like a very, very important concept in this day and age.

Education as Survival

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:05:43] It is, and it’s a very different one. And you know, Finland is not the only country. There may be some others who feel the same way, but you know, the other one that it’s very hard for Australians to understand is that you know, the kind of daily conditions where the Finns have been living for hundreds and hundreds of years is not very easy, you know? 

As I say, half of the year, the soil is frozen. You cannot grow there anything. You rely on fruits and vegetables and many other things from other people than yourself. So it’s kind of creates this condition that you know, if you think that you’re going to get by yourself, you’re going to be dead by spring. That’s how it is. And so that’s why you need to kind of, you need to have an education to, you know, help you to crawl through these harsh conditions.

And you mentioned the kind geopolitical situation, which is another one. The Finns have had to be quite smart in a way to, you know, be able to survive under the pressure of the East for the last thousand years, really, and then not be able to get the kind of best influence from the West. And that’s where education comes into this picture in a different way.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:06:56] Mm-Hmm. Now I know that Finland was sort of propelled to the peak of education, fame if you like or attention, was it about 15, 20 years ago with this, the PISA Programme? Tell us a little bit about the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Tell us about that. How does it? What does it do? What is it assessed? 

The PISA Education System

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:07:22] Yeah. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) where Australia, New Zealand, and Finland, and thirty-five, now, thirty-seven wealthiest countries are members, decided in the mid-1990s to launch this new type of international student assessment that is, as you mentioned, called PISA. And that first time it was run was the year 2000. So it came as a kind of dawn of this new millennium. 

And, you know, the interesting, this would be a longer conversation, but you know, the interesting detail about this, this whole kind of a creation of this PISA correctly, as you said, that, you know, it made, it build this kind of Finland fame. And without Pisa, I wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t have this conversation. Many other things would have not happened.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:08:10] Finland was one of those very few countries within the OECD before the actual PISA started. That was kind of a sceptical to this. And my colleagues, I was working at the Ministry of Education at that time and some of my colleagues when they came back from Paris in these meetings where, you know, this new assessment. 

PISA was considered, were very critical and they said, you know, we should not be part of this because, you know, like, you know, how can you possibly measure so different countries like Mexico and Japan and Australia and Finland that have very different education systems in a kind of a fair way? 

And you know, until the very end Finland was the only country that was kind of voting no within the OECD when the others were saying that, OK, why not? Let’s see. Let’s see, you know how this plays out. So we were kind of all the time very critical, and Finland never had any high expectations regarding its own performance. We tend to say that, you know, as long as we are better than Sweden, anything goes in this PISA.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:09:15] That sounds like Australia and New Zealand.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:09:17] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But you know, it’s interesting and I’ve been writing about this in my books only because, you know, it’s very important that people understand that, you know, the PISA was not invented by Finns. You know, there are those who think that Finland kind of created this PISA so that they can promote themselves and become famous. 

But you know, we were the only one in the end who was saying that you know, this is not going to end well. And now we see that you know, many of these concerns that the Finns had have come true, like, you know, there’s more and more kind of manipulation of the schools and this testing in the sense that, you know, those schools and kids that have been selected into this test are receiving extra support and training. 

And, you know, you name it. So we kind of knew that. But the thing is when the first results came out, this first PISA, the year 2000, surprisingly, Finland was on the top of all the countries. And this continued in 2003 and 2006 because it’s repeated every three years.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:10:21] But, you know, it was a huge kind of a surprise in my country, to explain this because there were no explanations. You know, we had no stories. We have no narratives to say that, you know, this is why we are doing so well. You know, the common, the first reaction amongst Finns was that they always say they must have made a mistake. With Finland, do they have kind of used a different type of yardstick to measure Finland that, we cannot be that good? 

You know, it’s not possible that you know, we are better than, you know, all the others. And so this kind of a gradually clueless understanding and acceptance overseas, but also in Finland that, you know, we have probably done something in different ways and there’s probably something in the system and more importantly, in the society, the culture of Finland that’s that created this results and then the rest is the history.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:11:09] Well, I know the.. That’s something the Jesuits say, which is, “Show me the child at seven and I’ll show you the adult.” So this kind of education this early is particularly critically important and I know you’ve written about this, you’ve identified some critical elements in this, in what sets it apart. I wondered if we could just dive into a few of those and just discuss what they are. What are some of the elements of the Finnish system that did propel them to this position?

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:11:44] Yeah. You know the first one we discussed already in the beginning, I think this kind of idea of education as survival, it’s not so much survival anymore, but it still has this sense of, you know, education is important and it’s very important to be literate. And you know, historically we have had, as a Christian Lutheran nation, we have had I still have to basically condition for anybody who wants to get married, you have to prove that you’re literate. 

And of course, you know, now it doesn’t make much sense. But just think about one hundred years ago that you kind of created this sense of, you know, reading being a great thing and it’s a kind of a value thing – book – in Finland, still, is that one of the most valuable gifts for a birthday or Christmas. So, so this kind of culture has created this valuing and understanding the importance of education.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:12:34] But then the other one is that you know, Finland being a small nation and relatively poor in the sense, Finland hasn’t had any industries or wealth that the Sweden and Norway and others have had, that the education also economically has become an important thing. 

So the governments and politicians have kind of understood that you know, if Finland wants to be like, you know, the rest of the OECD, the wealthy part of the world and particularly the West, we have to educate everyone. It’s not like in the larger countries like Germany or England or France, that you know, it’s enough to give and create education to the elites and then make sure that you know, they will go and take the lead.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:13:11] Finland had four million people in the 1960s, and it’s too little to, you know, lose anybody. And that’s it’s very important to understand this as well that when the kind of a foundation for this current education system and culture was created in the 1960s, it was based on this idea that it’s critically important to educate everyone as well as possible. 

So, so the option was not the one that was the kind of apprentice or Anglo-Saxon way of, you know, have a selective system that will be based on selecting the talent early on and then, you know, give them the best and longest education. People often look for these reasons for Finland’s success, from the things that they can see, you call to Finland for three days and you look around and said, Ahh you have small classrooms and teachers and you know, the facilities, everybody has a computer, so it’s probably something like this. 

You know, lack of diversity has been one of those things that people often said. It’s easier to run the system when you have a kind of more homogeneous concept. But, you know, I always try to emphasise the importance of the starting point. And then, you know, building this strong public system that is based on equality and equity of opportunity for each and everyone, which is a very different thing that we can see here in Australia. 

And then, later on, it was easier, easier to understand that, OK, we need well-trained teachers. We need to have teacher education that will be, you know, kind of a competitive pathway for the best and the brightest in the society so that we can have the kind of a high-quality teaching force.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:14:56] And then finally, I think more recently to understanding that, you know, if we really want to run the school system successfully, we need to give the schools more freedom and autonomy and trust them so that they can basically do the best they think they can do in that in their communities. 

But you know, you can hear from this already that, you know, I’m not the kind of person who would give you an answer off, you know, seven steps to heaven or five keys to you know. Schools, it’s much more complicated than this, and people need to understand the history and the past and the kind of unique situation that Finland has been in many ways.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:15:34] So let me repeat this one more thing here, the language, that people often forget. You know, the Finnish language is only spoken by about five million people in the world and only in Finland. So if you, you know, if you desire to be a kind of a global in business, for example, or sports or anything in arts, you need to learn other languages. And then we have another language, Swedish. So it’s bilingual, so everybody has to learn these two mother tongues and then we need to study, you know, learn English or French or Russian or something else to survive. 

And you know, here in Australia, if you look around here, there’s no such thing as, you know, learning about other language or learning about other cultures even. And, you know, learning a language is many people argue that, you know, if you learn how to learn other languages, you learn how to learn things in general. And often people say that and you know, there’s actually evidence that when you look at any country that is bilingual or multilingual country that they often do better in this international comparison simply because of language. 

Learning a language will help you to learn mathematics and science and many other things because of, you know, the kind of (inaudible). This has been a kind of a fortune of Finland in the sense that, you know, Finland is the only bilingual Nordic country. All the others have that kind of one language, but we have always had to learn different things. And it may be it may have something to do with this as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:17:01] Something that you’d written and you mentioned as a by-line. Good education is not rocket science, it’s more complicated than that. And I love that little by-line. You mentioned teachers. 

I mean, there are a few aspects there that I want to just flesh out a bit more because teachers are really very different status in Finland than they are here. And I’ve always felt teachers and nurses should be held up as the actual guardians of our society, and yet they aren’t. How is it different? How is that developed differently, how does that look in Finland?

Teachers as Guardians

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:17:39] Yes, it’s a great question again, Ron. And again, I wanted people to understand that this has not always been like that. You know, I’m a schoolteacher. That’s was my first job. I was teaching mathematics and science for a number of years in Helsinki, and I remember my early, early years in that profession. 

But you know, we didn’t have this feeling that, you know, we teachers are trusted or that we are particularly valued. Or let alone that we would be regarded as professionals. The teaching that time was much more a kind of a, it was like, I almost felt like I’m a human mechanic. You know, I got to the classroom, and then I kind of tried to fix the brains and minds of people. So this is a fairly recent thing.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:18:22] And you know, towards the end of my own time as a teacher before I moved to the deets at the university and then to the Ministry of Education, Department of Education, I remember that there was a kind of a crowing argument amongst young teachers, particularly, you know, people like myself who had received a higher, you know, master’s degree level academic research-based teacher education at that time. 

But, you know, we could do much more. This is what I remember we were saying. And you know, interestingly, this is what I hear in Australia often, that people say that, you know, we could do so much more. We could do so much better as teachers, if only we were given more autonomy and trust. If only the authorities would not try to kind of fix each and every performance and curriculum. 

And you know, those things, even pedagogy in our work. You know, let us work as a kind of professional colleagues and collectives, and we could do much better.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:19:19] Somehow it happened, this was in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. And, you know, Finland went through a huge economic crisis in the first half of the 1990s and the government. I moved to work at the government at that time and we had to. We were faced with this kind of ultimately hard question that since the Finnish economy was declining and there was unemployment was at almost 20% and the public sector spending had to be cut like radically. 

The question was: How do we do this? How do we deal with this? This kind of a hard question in education. And then there was somebody who was leading this whole thing that time who said that, you know, let’s let the schools lead more, you know, let’s cut off, you know, all this unnecessary bureaucracy and respect and control and, you know, turn these inspectors into advisers. 

And this is exactly what happened. It came almost like by accident at the exact same time, when in many other countries, like in the UK and the United States and here in Australia, this bureaucracy was building up within the same idea that, you know, let’s give schools a little bit more freedom, but it comes with the harder accountability. Never kind of went that way, but we used to say that, you know, let’s let teachers lead more.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:20:39] And very soon, they really, you know, the system realised that teachers were right when they were saying that we could do much better and we could do more. And actually, we could do this cheaper. 

You know, if you just trust us and that’s where this trust that we explain ‘In Teachers We Trust’ book that it started to kind of accumulate in the 1990s by this kind of a notion that, you know, wow these teachers, they really can do much more and they can find faster and better solutions to many of these issues that the system and the bureaucracy try to figure out early on. So that’s how we started.

And then, of course, you know, this goes back to the piece a conversation that, remembers when the first PISA results of 2000 came about that showed that you know, Finland is the best in the world in the school system in this measurement. Many people say that, and many teachers said, Oh wow, look at us. 

You know this is because you have allowed us to, you know, figure out the best ways to teach. So it was kind of, again, a historical story that accumulated. And now it’s very commonly understood and accepted in Finland that, you know, teachers are the key to the system. Teachers have been the key to the, you know, in Finland navigating through this COVID pandemic disruption as well. So it’s yeah. 

And you know, Ron, I always try to tell people that, you know, if you really want to trust your teachers like here, it doesn’t happen by, you know, the Minister of Education taking a microphone and said that, “From Monday on, we begin to trust you.” No, you have to do it. You have to show that you know, you’re doing that, you’re taking things away, that teachers often felt that they are unnecessary control things. 

And these are exactly things that I think should and could happen here. Much of these, these kinds of controls and regulations and those things could be gradually removed and use this to communicate, teach us that we do this because we trust you, that you are professionals just like everybody else. And so, that’s the kind of story the longest story in this Finnish case.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:22:49] How is that message being received in Australia? That the teachers should be more valued, the schools should be more autonomous, that the actual management should be much flatter if you like, I think you use that term yourself. How is that being received in Australia?

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:23:05] You know, my voice about this resonates very well within the teaching profession and most of the schools that they understand. And they said, you know, interestingly many more seasoned teachers tell me that, you know, this is exactly how it used to be in the 1980s that this is how I remember my kind of early years in teaching here that, you know, we are trusted and valued and we could be creative and, you know, we expected to do great things. 

But now I think that Australia, one kind of a disease that Australian education has that, not probably disease, but it’s a kind of funny way of thinking about things is that everything must be measured.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:23:47] Yes.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:23:48] And that everybody must be held accountable for everything that can be measured. And you know, as you know that what is measured often here is not the most important thing. So they are the other things that we can’t measure. Like, of course, you know, literacy and numeracy are extremely important things, but they should not be used as the only criteria for school being successful or student being successful, all the performance the of the system. 

So I think that there’s a much more kind of a positive resonance amongst the teaching profession, within the schools, for example. But this still is it’s for the administrations here, it’s much more difficult to kind of figure out the how can we, you know, how can we have more trust based system at the same time, you know, be held accountable? 

And I think that one way to think about this accountability here in Australia is that, accountability should work both ways. That teachers and schools, of course, have to be held accountable for what they do, but also the administrators, the bureaucrats, authorities should be held accountable for creating the conditions for schools and children to do what they need to do. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:25:05] Mm-Hmm. I mean, you mentioned that when you started in teaching, you saw yourself as a mechanic and I guess as a side of the technological revolution or the industrial revolution where we were in factories and we had to go to offices and we had to do our job. 

This actually, this mechanical approach was a very good way of training a population to be very ordered in its approach to remember its timetables to ride out various things. Of course, our world is very different now from that. That kind of teaching surely is redundant. NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) is something we hear a lot about in Australia. Is the NAPLAN the reflection of that plays a test? Is that PISA-light in Australia? Is that the same thing?

NAPLAN Tests vs PISA Tests

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:25:56] No, no. NAPLAN is a completely different thing. You know, the big difference is that you know, PISA is the sample-based assessment, meaning that the random sample of students and scores are selected to take this test every three years. And it has no stakes. You know, the schools or kids have no kind of a pressure to do that. 

That test where it’s not planned, it’s run every year and it’s what we call a census-based test where the whole population will sit the same test and therefore it is being used, you know, say that the NAPLAN, originally 12 or 13 years ago when it was launched, had a very different kind of a purpose. 

The idea was that it will be used for the kind of more diagnostic purposes to see what needs to be done to the system in order to improve it. Where the needs are in the system that needs to receive more attention and how the system is performing and progressing overall. But now I think, you know, it happens with all the tests. It’s the same with PISA as with NAPLAN that you know, the initial idea is one thing, but how it’s being used now is another thing. 

And in many cases, no plan has become a kind of high-stakes test that it’s been used to rank schools against one another. It’s been used to, you know, select students to private independent schools at the year six and many other things that NAPLAN was never, never designed to be used.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:27:33] The one thing that people need to understand also is that you know, NAPLAN is only looking at the literacy and numeracy of people. That is again very important. I think that they’re very, very important, not the only kind of outcomes that kids must have. 

But NAPLAN doesn’t tell us anything about anything else. So we don’t know about social science. If we don’t know about creativity or compassion of people or foreign languages, any of those kinds of a whole child, things that we often want to include as a desirable outcome of schooling so, so NAPLAN may have its place. Not as it is now, but NAPLAN type of thing that will help everybody to know how the public system is progressing. 

That’s why we have been proposing that we should change NAPLAN to be a sample based a little bit like a PISA. It’s that, you know, do it every two or three years taking a good sample and have data also that would help us to understand a little bit how the students’ background resonates with these outcomes that the NAPLAN is not doing right now. So they are different, different assessments. I tried to do the same thing.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:28:41] In Finland, what’s the breakdown of public versus private or does there even exist in private education? Is it?

Public Education vs Private Education

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:28:51] No. Our constitution, I think, is Article 7 or something, says education, meaning any education that leads to formal qualification or decree, including higher education is public free of charge. And so it’s against the Constitution to charge money in the university, a school education, so we have a government-funded, fully funded independent school, so that’s what you can have. 

So we have Steiner schools and religious Catholic schools and Muslim schools and language schools, English, French, Chinese. And so they have independent studies, but they cannot charge fees. So I say it’s all funded by the government.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:29:36] Because I’ve often thought when I hear a politician get up and promise a tax rebate of $1500 or something, I thought, gee, you know what, if you actually just brought the public education system to a level where you didn’t have to spend on private school fees? What a rebate that would be. Yeah, that would be totally transformative. Life-altering, in fact. But yeah, it just doesn’t seem to happen here.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:30:02] But you know, the other thing, when I look at the Australian school system now, I see that you know, we don’t really have a private school system because all the schools are funded heavily by public money. Yes, but we don’t have a public school system either, because all the public schools, most of the public schools like ours here that they are regularly asking people to pay money for and not for tuition, but, you know, all kinds of other things. 

So we have a kind of a crazy school system that is not — it’s not public, it’s not private, it’s a kind of a blended and the money is going like all over the places. And, you know, a big part of the money, government money, that is going to non-government schools and nobody has an idea of what happens to that. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:30:42] Well, I know what happens to it because they say this is a private school down the road from me, and they’ve just built this amazing indoor swimming pool and theatre. So, you know, it’s good to know that this public funding is going to a good cause. 

You mentioned that teachers that you’ve spoken to in the 80s said this is the way things used to be and having grown up in the sixties, couldn’t tell you that when my kids and my daughters are now in their thirties when they were at school. 

I was surprised that primary school, infant school, was given homework. We never were when I was growing up. We were never given homework until maybe five or six. And I know the play theory is something you talk about. I wondered if you might share with us what is play-based learning? What is that?

Homework vs Play Theory

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:31:39] We need to go back a little bit and start with the play because you know, this is another thing that comes with this question: ‘What is play?’ And we need to understand that play is the most natural way for children and adults to learn, and it’s a natural way for them to make sense of the world that they are living in. 

And this is something that we often are forgetting now that we think that, you know, play something that you do when the real work is done or in the school context that, you know, play what you do when you have done all your homework and kind of a serious study in the classroom.

You know, one thing I always remind people here in Australia, you know, this is one of those spots that really kind of a feel humbled and also inspired is the fact that we live, we have the oldest living culture here in Australia, but you know, the cultures before us and different people have been, you know, learning through play for thousands of years. You know, this is how the other cultures have flourished and basically survived here in Australia, many other places through sort of play and try to understand what’s going on through.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:32:57] A play. And then the course this time during the last probably a hundred years or 50 years that we have kind of a gradually begun to forget that. And we have moved, just like you said, you know, we have moved at the time where the kind of expectation is that children should start like formal schooling early on earlier. This should do this incredibly at younger and younger and, you know, be able to do faster and better. 

And you know, all those things. And there’s a lot of research that we have here in Australia and other countries that this is how many most parents feel that we are kind of pushing our children to grow up to too quickly, which eventually means that, you know, the play has been kind of pushed out from children’s lives.

And, you know, I would like to see play as a human rights issue. I see play as children’s rights. You know, Australia is amongst the hundred and ninety-six countries that have ratified the Declaration of the Rights of the Child that very directly says that every child must have a right to play and we, we adults need to protect that right. And it should be interpreted here, as it has in the Nordic countries, for example, that, you know, the child who is such a valuable part of our time that we have to protect that through this play.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:34:22] But then your question about learning through play, you know, this is something that comes after that because, you know, you may ask that, OK, how can we integrate play into teaching science in high school? How should we do that? And then the answer is that, yeah, we can. 

You know, we have different approaches to learning through play, teaching science in a high school, and I was a science teacher in a high school and I did this often. For example, ask students to design an experiment and then have a role play, you know, scientist or engineer or, you know, somebody else and just kind of pretends to do something while you do science. So again, you know, now I would say that it’s not rocket science. It’s much easier, isn’t it?

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:35:12] You know, I think the main thing is the main question the main answer is not what is learning through play to me. The main question is that ‘What is play? Why should we protect that more than we have done in the lives of all children, not just the early years, but all childhood? And why not adults as well?’ And it is particularly in a time like this when we live through this horrible pandemic and you know, only God knows what goes on in the minds and brains of these young, young children who don’t understand what’s going on. 

You know why people die and why we cannot travel, why I cannot hug my grandmother anymore. The most powerful way to help these children and ourselves to make sense of this difficult time is through play. And this is how the cultures before us, they have always done this, that when the world is complex and complicated and scary and difficult, you know, play is what helps.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:36:10] And you know, that’s what makes me kind of sad and makes me almost angry when I hear people now saying that’s what children now need when they go back to school is more instruction. We need to catch up. Where they were 18 months ago? And I said, no, not just. Let’s think again because I think what the kids now need is that they need safety, they need certainty, they need these social relationships back. 

And there’s no better way to do that than just play. And you know, play is, as I said earlier, you know, the play is a children’s natural way to learn. So play is learning and often learning is also to play. So that’s why I wanted to take this a little bit backward. This is a great question, Ron. 

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:36:57] Hmm. I was going to ask you about the pandemic and what you saw as the biggest challenges and opportunities. Well, I mean, you’ve already mentioned some there. Is there anything you’d add to that? Because I think technology, the interface between technology and play is a new, new tool for us through our evolutionary history. We’ve always found things to play with, but now we have a window to a world of technology. How does that? How does that play and technology sort itself out?

Interactions between Technology and Play

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:37:32] Yeah. You know, when we write, we’re working on the ‘Let The Children Play‘ book with William Doyle. This was one of the biggest questions we had that is there such thing as digital play? And our conclusion was that, yes, there is. 

There’s a lot of games and plays and things that people can do through technology, but we decided not to include that into our kind of a story because it’s such a complicated thing to say, you know, there are a lot of people who feel very passionate about technology and you know, how it relates to playing and learning and many other things.

And then there are those who are much more reserved or conservative with that. What I would say is that what has happened during the pandemic now we know a couple of things. One is that at the time young people and children spend with their their their gadgets or screens have skyrocketed like, and it was already before the pandemic. 

You know, it was a kind of alarming amount of time that on average children spend with their screens, sometimes learning in school and doing homework, but often just entertaining themselves.

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:38:42] Then the other thing we know is that the mental health and well-being of the children, all the children have declined before the pandemic, and this pandemic has caused a huge additional decline. So we have these two to two things simultaneously. 

And you know, I have nothing against, you know, using technology for playing, playing alone or playing with others or creating something in the name of the play. But I think what we need to do more is to, you know, understand the alternatives. And one of those painful alternatives for children is, you know, go out and play and that’s what we can do. 

That’s what we should do here in Australia, much more than we do. We have a beautiful, the most amazing nation in the world. The climate is almost always a kind of a favourable to that and just use that, you know, rather than speculate whether, you know, digital play or gaming is good or bad. 

Whenever you can go out, just go and do it, particularly now during the pandemic and afterwards, because the number one challenge that we will face in our younger generation will be the well-being and health of our children and youngsters. And that’s why, you know, the thing that we can do right now is to use this kind of a natural treatment that is outdoor play for children as much as we can.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:02] Well, Pasi, that that is a wonderful message for us to end on, and I want to thank you so much not only for coming to Australia because everything that you’re talking about is so important to us all. But thank you for your time today. 

Prof Pasi Sahlberg: [00:40:19] Thank you. Thank you very much, Ron, and thanks to everyone for listening. Stay safe and try to take good care of your youngsters if you have any. Thank you so much.


Dr Ron Ehrlich: [00:40:31] Education is something that touches us all, either personally or through a family or in every single aspect of life, and talk about a holistic approach to life and education in this case. I loved all of the things we discussed with Pasi about what makes the Finnish system so unique. 

But elevating teachers to be one of the elites, which I truly believe they should be, they should be regarded as the elites in our society because they’ve such a critical role in shaping all of us when we’re younger.

And you know that statement that the Jesuits made, ‘Show me the boy at seven and I’ll show you the man’, well, you know, show me the person, a child at seven and I’ll show you the adults. So teachers play such a critical role in influencing that outcome. 

Look, we’ll have links to Professor Pasi Sahlberg’s website and all his books. And I just think I hope he stays in Australia and he has a dramatic impact on the Australian education system. I think we have so much to learn from it. I hope this finds you well until next time. This is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.