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What is happening in schools?

Pasi Sahlberg, teacher and creator of the educational reform in Finland, talks about what children have learnt outside of schools and the conditions school systems need to keep going.

Today´s pandemic consequences place education in front of exceptional situations, where the whole school structure faces a great challenge to continue working.

Schools have closed, but they need to reopen. How will that transition be? What will remain the same and what does this crisis show will have to definitely change?

These questions, that have shaken the ground of what we know in the school field, strongly shock us. And the answers that appear aren´t without confusion and controversy.

Pasi Sahlberg, Finish teacher and author, who worked as a school teacher, teacher´s educator, investigator and advisor, to name a few, for the educational reform in Finland, is the person we wished to talk to about everything that is happening.


Pasi Sahlberg is a referent in educational forums and was recognized with the 2013 Grawemeyer Award in Education due to his vision and experience. He currently lives in Australia and works as a professor in School Politics in the University of New South Wales.

What are your general observations about education in the course of this COVID-19 pandemic?

Pasi: First, we have to acknowledge that schools around the world were not prepared for this kind of massive disruption that covid-19 pandemic created in March 2020. Some 1.7 billion children were forced to learn from home when their school buildings were closed to prevent the spread of the virus. We have to look at what has happened in schools and school systems against this sudden shock that really put school systems to a test regarding their flexibility, adaptability and creativity. No doubt there will be many books and articles written about how well school systems managed to cope with this shock by looking at these three features and some others in different countries. Second, in most countries that I have followed during this crisis, teachers have been recognized as ‘essential frontline workers’, akin to nurses and doctors. Teachers have helped to keep children learning and active during school closures and many of them have provided important support and shelter for those children with most urgent needs. I am witnessing a new renaissance of teaching as a noble, essential profession in many parts of the world. When parents have been at home looking after their own children’s remote learning many of parents have understood how difficult it is to teach and help those who need more help than others in learning. Hopefully one day when this crisis is over, more parents would appreciate what teachers do and respect them as professionals more than before.

Students were forced to stay home. Now, some of them learn using online education while others receive printed homework because of connectivity issues. What do you think about the way that learning was faced under the circumstances of school shut down?

Pasi: As said, schools had no plans for anything like the disruption of schooling caused by covid-19 pandemic. In some countries emergency plans existed for natural disasters or extreme weather conditions. Singapore prepared rehearsals for epidemic situation after the 2004 SARS virus but the scale of the covid-19 pandemic was more fundamental than anything that school systems have experienced before. It was quite surprising, actually, how quickly schools around the world shifted from traditional face-to-face schooling to remote online learning from home. In Finland it happened in 36 hours. In Australia it took a week. But considering all health, safety and educational aspects that had to be taken into account, I think in most places the transformation to the distance education mode was quite impressive. What is worth of note in this transformation is that in most countries this transformation of learning at school to learning from home didn’t really disrupt the ‘grammar of schooling’ that means that remote learning often followed the same sequence, schedule and logic than how teaching and learning was organized in schools. I am not aware of any education system where the model of learning would have changed when students were studying at home. Online learning and printed homework tried to follow the scripts and plans of schools almost as if no disruption had happened at all. I believe that the reason for this is that there simply was no Plan B in schools if something radical like a global pandemic would happen and children wouldn’t be able to go to school for months.

Teachers have been suddenly pushed to struggle teaching virtually. What are your thoughts about how teachers are responding to this unforeseen change? And how teachers could enhance their skills to get better adjusted to this new approach?

Pasi: My firm opinion is that teachers in most places how turned impossible to possible by adjusting to this remote teaching and learning situation so quickly. This is exactly why I would like to include teachers in the category of essential frontline workers in our societies. We have to remember that teachers in many countries were already before the pandemic stretching their efforts to work long hours in increasingly complex situations in their schools. Authorities in many countries have been expecting teachers and schools to do miracles in improving student performance, closing the achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, integrating immigrant and refugee children in their schools, and taking care of a growing number of young people in schools with mental health and behavioural challenges. Teachers need, of course, more training and resources to make the best possible use of available technological solutions in their schools. They also need better working conditions in many countries to do what they are expected to do. It is important that the schools are not seen as economic instruments in our societies but that they are part of the public service network that will keep our nations healthy and safe.

What does the pandemic uncover about school and education system?

Pasi: First this pandemic uncovered the prevalence of inequalities that impact on how children learn in school. This became evident when children were supposed to log into schools’ digital networks from home to have access to virtual classes and teaching materials. In all countries around the world there were parents’ who didn’t have internet access or sufficient devices at home to do that. Then there were schools that lacked either adequate digital facilities or trained personnel to make virtual schooling happen. According to some estimates (OECD’s TALIS survey in 2018) only about two of three schools in the OECD countries have equipment and staff to properly embed technology as part of teaching and learning in schools. In Australia, for example, just half of disadvantaged schools have these conditions mentioned above. It is clear that children don’t have equal opportunities to keep on learning remotely when their schools are closed and if teaching is supposed to happen through digital education platforms. The other thing that the pandemic revealed was that children don’t stop learning when their schools get closed. Many of them continue learning at home on their own, not always the same things as they would be asked to learn at school. Anecdotal evidence that I have collected from teachers and parents here in Australia suggest that learning through play, learning to cook in kitchen to prepare meals, and learning at your own pace and ways can actually be very rewarding and empowering for children. I have been disturbed by too many questions about how much children have lost learning and how many weeks they have been left behind in reading and mathematics because of the school closures. Instead, I believe, we should be looking for positive things and ask what children have learned while they have been at home with their families. Intrinsically motivated self-directed learning that children do at home can be much more powerful and beneficial to children in the long run than learning something for the test or exam only at school.

Since schools are not operating, do you observe an impact on children and teens? If so, could we foresee more effects?

Pasi: I have three children and as a parent I have learned that children are very good in keeping their fears and other negative emotions hidden from others, especially from parents. There are different children, of course, but this is how young people often protect themselves from bad things. This said, I think we haven’t seen the real effects of the pandemic and the school closures yet. Physical and social distancing, for example, can be very hard for children and youth. We see already in many countries that numbers of young people seeking help in their mental health issues have doubled some places. I am mostly concerned about these unknown troubles that the pandemic is causing our youngest ones. But this all said, there have been some positive things happening as well. Young people have been sleeping more than they did before this crisis came around, they spend more time with their families, many of them learn to cook food at home, and look after one another more than before.

In Finland, over 70% of parents who were surveyed in April during the lockdown said that they are happier with their lives now when they are at home, spend more time with their loved ones, and sleep better. At the same time, many of them feel pain about what is happening to people who are infected by the virus and they are worried about their futures as well. I think it will take a while before we can really say how the covid-19 pandemic really affected people’s lives in general.

Learning remotely has become the option since March. Could you point out a successful experience going to online classes around the globe? Could you highlight similarities and differences worldwide?

Pasi: I must admit that we don’t know enough yet about how successfully different countries have coped with the remote learning arrangements. One fact is that at the moment we don’t know how long this abnormal situation will continue and how it will shake up school systems in different countries. Here in Australia where the school year is from February to December, we haven’t had long holidays that would have extended the kids’ time away from school as they have done in North America or Europe where children haven’t been in school since March. As I said earlier, overall, it has been quite surprising how quickly schools and teachers shifted from traditional face-to-face teaching in school to remote learning from home. What we do know, however, from early lessons from a number of countries is that the education systems that are designed to be flexible rather than bureaucratic, decentralized rather than centrally managed, and trust-based rather than accountability-based have been more successful in making these new remote learning arrangements work well. Also those countries where student´s wellbeing has been one of the top priorities of school education have had easier time to decide how schooling should be organized so that it would support wellbeing and health at the same time with helping all children to keep up learning. Canada, Denmark, Scotland and Iceland are some of these countries. Finland, that I know very well, also has managed very well. They key condition to success has been strong trust in teachers by parents and the rest of the society, and very flexible and decentralized management systems that leaves local authorities and school a lot of freedom to figure out the best ways to solve practical issues brought along by the pandemic.


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