20 April 2023

Pasi Sahlberg: We hold on to traditional ideas and methods, but the world has changed. Everything has changed. Schools should reflect this

Interview with Pasi Sahlberg, one of the creators of Finland’s phenomenal education reform, professor of education policy at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and a former senior specialist at the World Bank in Washington, DC.

Author: Justyna Pokojska,


Pasi Sahlberg and Justyna Pokojska (HTT's executive director) during the HTT Summit 2023 in Columbus, Ohio

What is your favorite memory from your school days?

You have put me in a difficult position.

Why is that?

Because the reason I became a teacher was the challenge of teaching better than my teachers did and making school a better place than the one where I learned.

I will insist. Perhaps a teacher, a subject, or a particular situation? What’s the first memory that comes to your mind?

Hanging out with my bandmates. I was playing in the band, and we made a lot of music in school. So my best school memories are those of informal settings during breaks or the moments before and after classes. Obviously, something good has also happened in the classrooms, but somehow I don’t remember that.

This is also what our film, “Good Day,” shows: that the best and most interesting things in school happen outside the classrooms.

This is sad, given that – as Nelson Mandela said – education is the most powerful weapon to change the world. The majority of humanity is young people. Educating them is the key to a safer, more equal, and better future for all of us.

So how to get started?

With reflection on what we have been doing so far, what works in our schools, and then identify the areas that need improvement. Oftentimes I think the key to growth is understanding the past – only then we can have a dream about the future.

It is true that we are comfortable criticizing, but sometimes we don’t see the advantages. So let’s discuss what works well in schools worldwide. What are the strengths of current education?

I think definitely one good point is that today most children attend school and see the value of education. Just think about the world where kids don’t want to come to school. Then we would have a different starting point. We would be in a much worse position.

Even if most children see the value of education, they don’t go to schools with joy. You said today during your keynote that we need to make schools places where children want to spend their time. But how do we make this a reality?

Rely more on young people’s voice and agency. Their dreams, intentions, their partnership as well when building schools of the future. We can learn a lot from younger generations.

What obstacles do we face in improving education?

We hold on to traditional ideas and methods. Too often, we – we parents and we teachers – think that we need to do things as they have always been done. We need to teach children as we were taught. But the world has changed. Everything around us has changed. We need to adapt to these changes and embrace new ways of teaching.

The second obstacle in the fight for better education is that we think there are too few of us and that we don’t have enough power to make a difference on a broader scale. But after all, what is small can also be powerful. Just think about spending a night in a tent with a mosquito. It can really keep people awake. I’m from Finland, and we have been repeatedly reminded that our country is too small to make a difference, whether it’s about international relations or, in this case, education. But – we know it from real practice – you should never give up because you think that you are too small and have too little power to make a difference. You never know what’s going to happen if you just keep on keeping people awake.

Do you believe that interdisciplinary teaching and learning may be the answer to challenges that we face in contemporary education?

Now is the time when we are really beginning to see that we cannot solve the current challenges in our lives with the subject-based, traditional way of understanding knowledge and the world. Many issues around us – like climate changes and the global health pandemic – require a more interdisciplinary (or, should I say, anti-disciplinary?) approach to build a brighter future. School education should reflect this.

And what about assessments? We are used to grades, some numbers we receive for school work.

Yes, but if we are thinking about the interdisciplinary curriculum and helping teachers to work in different ways, we also need to think about how the assessment has to change.

How? How can we assess progress in an interdisciplinary paradigm of teaching?

We need to learn to work on a different front simultaneously and make sure that the new ways of assessing also support the interdisciplinary methodology and the other way around as well. It doesn’t make any sense to push interdisciplinary teaching in schools if the student assessments and examinations remain as they are.

Which of these groups – students, teachers, or parents – is most resistant to educational changes, and which is the most eager for them?

In some places, parents may be key stakeholders in education, and their voices can influence politics, and politics could change policy. That’s how it often works. But I believe that educators, in collaboration with young people, must create a new narrative for the future of education. We need to engage with parents, employers, and the rest of society to share this story and conversation with us so that we can create a new, broader, and richer understanding of what school could be.

What are the central values we should mention in this narrative? What should we present as the most crucial competencies that a school should teach?

For me, the essence of the new future school is to find a way where every student can realize their talent and passion for learning more. Otherwise, we will end up having a situation where too many young people leave school without knowing what their talents are. In my own vision, this personalized, individualized approach combined with collaborative learning and understanding of the world is key for the future.

How can we empower kids to find their assets and strong points?

We need to have a school environment that is rich and diverse enough to make sure that all different types of students have something interesting to do in the school. It’s crucial that teachers and schools move forward faster in finding more interesting and different ways to teach and help young people to learn what they are supposed to learn. I think that one size fits all idea in pedagogy has been really harmful and only serves a minority of our young people. By using more diverse teaching methods, more students will likely realize what they are really interested in.

What advice would you give to young educators not to lose their satisfaction and passion for teaching kids?

I have two pieces of advice. First: consider teaching as a combination of science and art. Too often, we ignore both of those things. So young people are educated to see teaching almost as a mechanic delivery. We often even use the word delivery. But teaching is essentially an art form supported by science.

And the second piece of advice?

Never try to change the world or your school or classroom alone. Collaboration and sharing with others – both teachers and students – are crucial if we want to see changes in the future.