“Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator who has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher-educator, researcher, and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and advised education leaders around the world..”
I have excerpted Sahlberg’s description of how Finland’s and Australia’s schools responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. For readers who wish to see the entire article, it appeared in Educational Research for Policy and Practice online October 31, 2020.
Australia and Finland, the two homes of mine at the moment, are not just geographically as
distant from each other than possible, but they are also very different societies with distinct
histories, traditions, values and cultures. Australia is sunny and hot. Finland is,many believe,
snowy and cool. The Australians prefer things big and fast. The Finns think small is beautiful.
In other words, Australia is fire, Finland is ice. These cultural distinctions make education
in these two countries and how each react to external shocks such as the current pandemic,
very different from each other. Here is how.
Most school facilities were closed for majority of primary and secondary school students in
Finland starting March 18 until May 14 this year due to the government’s measures to prevent
the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early childhood and care centres (kindergartens)
remained open and children of essential workers and those with severe special educational
needs in first three grades of primary schools had an opportunity to attend school if parents so
preferred. During the remote learning phase, one-third of children were in kindergartens and
less than 10 per cent of all basic school (grades 1 to 9) students went to school as usual. Since
education governance in Finland is decentralised and 310 local authorities run and, to a large
extent, also fund the schools, these authorities were responsible for the practical execution of
the transition from face-to-face teaching in schools to remote distance learning mode from
homes. After the remote learning period in mid-May was over almost 90 per cent of school
children returned to school and more than half of children in early childhood education and
care were back for the last two weeks of May before their summer holidays.
The speed and scale of disruption came as a surprise to Finnish schools as it did to
others around the world. Before March some schools had prepared emergency strategies for
minor situations, but no one was prepared to such a massive external crisis as the COVID-19
pandemic. However, Finnish schools had two particular positive features on their side in
shifting literally overnight from contact teaching at school to remote learning from home.
First, according to the Finnish National Agency for Education (2020), three quarters of
Finnish schoolteachers at the time of the (partial) school closures had digital teaching and
learning facilities available in their schools. Vast majority of teachers were also familiar with
using these facilities in teaching, although the confidence to do that well varied from school
Second, the National Core Curricula that is the foundation for schools’ own curriculum
planning have emphasised self-directed learning through projects and real-life problemsolving
that have made many students familiar with independent study and self-assessing
their own learning (Sahlberg 2021). Again, there are differences from school to school in
how successful this practice has been. Teachers have been mostly concerned about those
children who require more direct support in their learning that has been not so easy to
arrange through virtual arrangements.
Early research findings shed light on how children, teachers and parents or guardians
have experienced interrupted schooling in Finland. A large national study that is currently
underway by the Universities of Helsinki and Tampere is exploring how remote teaching
and learning in Finnish schools went from principals’, teachers’, parents’ and children’s
perspectives (Ahtiainen et al. 2020). The first findings in this study confirm the anecdotal
evidence gained during April and May, as well as trends found in other surveys. According
to about half of 860 principals and little less than half of over 5000 teachers who took
part in this study, students with special educational needs were not receiving appropriate
support from teachers and schools during the remote learning period, compared with normal
times previously. Approximately a quarter of students (N _ 56,000) and over 40 per cent of
parents (N _ 36,000) believed that they received less support from their school while they
were learning from home, than what they would have received in school previously. About
one in five lower secondary school students said that they had difficulties with technology or
internet connectivity, and the same proportion of students confessed they stayed up too late
every night with digital gadgets or social media.
A closer look at how students have experienced the school closures reveals an important
finding. Whereas authorities and other adults are afraid that children will stop learning or
that there will be losses in their lifetime earnings, not all children seem to think like this. In
Finland, for example, over 60 per cent of 10- to 16-year-old students said that they enjoyed
learning remotely most of the time and that most of them learned at least the same “amount”
or even more compared to what they thought they had learned at school (Ahtiainen et al.
2020). If these tens of thousands of students are right, then perhaps we need to rethink what
we mean by learning and how it should be measured and recognised at school.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Australian education systems in different ways.
School buildings were closed for varying periods of time after the first school term break
in April. Remote learning arrangements lasted from one week in Northern Territory and
South Australia, to nine weeks in Victoria (that has the second interruption of schooling
at the moment of writing). School education in Australia is, in general, more centralised
and governed by common standards compared to Finnish education system. Teaching and
learning are influenced by frequent standardised tests (such as NAPLAN) and school-leaving
examinations that often narrow the role of teachers and students, when it comes to the
assessment of student learning. Not surprisingly, one prominent discourse in the media and
among many parents has been the question of how the negative impact of remote learning
on students’ test score and examination results could be mitigated. Various “catching up”
measures have been suggested to do that, especially for disadvantaged students who are
thought to lose the most in these measurements.
Compared to Finland, Australia’s education system as a whole has two interrelated features
that makes it more fragile to sudden external shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic. First,
one-third of students in Australia attend non-government schools that are independently
governed and often better resourced than many government schools. Vast majority of at-risk
students attend government schools. Second, inequality is more prevalent inAustralian school
system compared to Finland and many other OECD countries. For example, performance
gap between the highest and lowest deciles in OECD’s PISA 2018 survey was significantly
wider in Australia (OECD 2019). Furthermore, disadvantaged students are often concentrated
into disadvantaged public schools that is harmful for equitable outcomes at the level of the
Early results of a large national survey of 10,000 teachers in Australia reveal similar but
also different reactions in schools to disrupted teaching and learning, compared with what
has been reported in Finland (Wilson et al. 2020). Similar to Finland, four of five teachers
were worried about their students with special educational needs. Just about a quarter of
teachers thought they were confident that students were learning well under remote learning
arrangements and just over 40 per cent were confident that themajority of their students were
positively engaged with online learning. Only one-third of Australian teachers felt satisfied
with assessment during remote learning compared to 95 per cent of teachers in Finland who
said they were able to assess students’ learning when they were learning from home.
The Grattan Institute in Australia concluded that the most disadvantaged students suffered
themost during school closures (Sonnemann and Goss 2020). “Disadvantaged students often
have a home environment that is not conducive to learning and get less help from parents
compared to their advantaged peers” (p. 9), according to their report on the impacts of
COVID-19 on school education. Poorer internet access, fewer digital devices and lack of
quiet place to study at home were often the common factors in disadvantaged homes.
The culture of schools in Australia is much more about conformity where schools often
are compliant rather than creative in responding to sudden changes in their environments.
National assessment programme for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) in primary and sec-
ondary schools serves as a yardstick to compare schools’ performance with one another. But
it also amplifies the existing educational inequities when parents who can afford to pay for
education can choose the school with higher NAPLAN scores (and often more affluent student
socio-economic make-up) for their children. Interestingly, when NAPLAN tests were
cancelled this year due to school closures, some parents were concerned about how they would know what
their children have learned at school. Most teachers, however, according to Wilson et al. (2020), were more
worried about students’ health and well-being. Uncertainty of the future of national assessments in Australia
raises questions of whether schools should focus on “catching up” to be prepared for the next year’s tests, or
care more about children’s well-being and health during the pandemic, even though their learning progress
may be affected….