Pasi Sahlberg

What’s special about Finland?

Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, Finland’s school system has consistently come at the top of the international rankings for education systems.


So how do they do it?


It’s simple — by going against the test-driven, centralised model that much of the Western world uses.


Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator and scholar.  He is the former director general at the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and is now Visiting Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. His book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award.


I met with Pasi Sahlberg as part of my research for Learning {Re}imagined and asked him what was so special about the education system in Finland. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Julia Gillard – Education Activist

Julia Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and was the leader of the Australian Labor Party from 2010-2013 prior to which she was Minister for Education. An active reformer, Gillard oversaw the governments ”Building the Education Revolution” program, which allocated $16 billion to build new school accommodation including classrooms, libraries and assembly halls. As leader of the party Gillard stated “I will make education central to my economic agenda because of the role it plays in developing the skills that lead to rewarding and satisfying work – and that can build a high-productivity, high-participation economy.” Her government went on to extend tax cuts to parents to help pay for stationery, textbooks or computer equipment under the Australian Education Tax Refund scheme. In February 2014, Gillard was announced as chair of the Global Partnership for Education, an international organization focused on getting all children into school for a quality education in the world’s poorest countries.


I met Julia at last years WISE Summit and had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her inspirations for being an activist for education and how that translated into her achievements in office.




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Technology as a “Sat Nav” for learning?

Digital learning entrepreneur Donald Clark is someone that I find myself often in complete agreement with, or in fierce opposition, but always entertained. On the board of numerous e-learning organisations he is a bonafide contrarian, regular speaker at conferences, and a prolific blogger.


I’ve known Donald for nearly 30 years as we both ran digital design companies that produced learning materials since the 1980s when “new media” was genuinely new and came in the form of 12″ Laserdiscs. It has to be said that he was a more shrewd businessman than I and by focusing his attentions on the corporate training market while I decided to go and disrupt the music industry he made a tidy return when he sold his company, Epic Group, in 2005. He has won numerous awards for the design and implementation of e-learning, winning the ‘Outstanding Achievement in e-learning Award’ at the World of Learning Conference (WOLCE).


I met with Donald at the WISE Summit last year and asked him why he thought digital platforms had not made as much progress within our educations systems compared to their impact in other sectors. His position is that higher education and schools are resting on their laurels and tradition rather than embracing the future. Here’s a short excerpt from our conversation:



Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Teachers as designers

What is the role of today’s teachers?


Are they like commercial radio DJ’s who are given a prescribed playlist and are left to try to innovate within those limitations or are they able to design their own show?


John Dewey in The Child and the Curriculum (1902) suggested that there might be at least two alternate schools of thought within state-directed education. One school, he says “fixes its attention upon the importance of the subject matter of the curriculum as compared with the contents of the child’s own experience.” Thus he suggests that, “Subject matter furnishes the end, and it determines method. The child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is being deepened; his narrow experience which is to be widened. It is his to receive, to accept. His part is fulfilled when he is ductile and docile.”


The other school Dewey suggests is where “The child is the starting-point, the centre, and the end.” He continues, “To the growth of the child all studies are subservient; they are instruments valued as they serve the needs of growth. Personality, character is more than subject-matter. Not knowledge or information, but self-realisation is the goal.”


More than 100 years later these arguments are still being debated as successive policy makers and educators lurch from one side to the other.


I spent a day at High Tech High in San Diego, who are a case study in my book, Learning {Re}imagined, and I left inspired by what I saw. The school is built around the Dewey traditions of project based learning where subject material and disciplines are taught within their application and across disciplines rather than the subject silos that are so typically of our high schools throughout the world. I met with their founder and CEO, Larry Rosenstock, who is a force of nature if ever there was one. His full interview and discussion of High Tech High will be published in the book but here is an excerpt from my interview with Larry where he discusses teachers as designers.


Larry tells me:


So the idea of teacher as designer means that the teacher has control over what they’re basically doing. There’s nothing canned about it. And it has not only teacher voice and choice but student voice and choice. What I want to see kids doing is creating new knowledge and I want teachers creating new knowledge and doing so means that basically the teacher is the designer




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Telepathic teaching

Last year I was interviewed by WISE on the present and future of educational technology. I expressed my frustration with the limited impact that digital platforms had achieved within mainstream education and wondered how they would respond when it would be possible for students to “routinely connect information systems directly into their amygdala”.


Surely, the idea of being able to access the internet and receive uploads of content directly into our brain is the stuff of science fiction portrayed in films like “The Matrix” or the Gerry Anderson TV series that I grew up on as a child, Joe 90.


Earlier this week an international team of scientists demonstrated what they call the first direct brain-to-brain communication, sending words between two people thousands of miles apart over what was effectively the internet, bringing the concept of direct to brain learning a step closer.



I think it’s not unreasonable to imagine that this technology combined with the expected exponential performance increase in digital processing systems will have developed significantly by 2030, i.e. the year that most children entering primary education this year will leave full time education.


My question therefore is, what are we doing to prepare our children and indeed our education systems for a future that might look like this?


Banning smartphones seems like fiddling while Rome burns against this background but it’s not simply the technological advances that I’m thinking of here but the ethical decisions that these children will need to make to protect their future.



Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Teaching as an Art

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”

Seth Godin



During my global journey for Learning {Re}imagined, I learnt about the absolute importance of the teacher and their engagement with their students. Indeed research by Gallup presented at the WGSI Equinox Learning 2030 Summit in October 2013 by their executive director for education, Brandon Busteed, showed a direct correlation between teacher and student engagement in relation to learning outcomes and wellbeing. The research also suggested that up to 70% of the teacher workforce were not engaged.


“We definitely want to show that these ‘soft’ measures move the ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores,” Busteed said. “But we’re also asking: is engagement more important or are grades more important? If you ask a parent whether they’d rather have a kid who is getting mostly As and is only mildly interested in what they’re learning or mostly Bs and is super engaged, I can tell you what most parents would pick.”



Quest to Learn, a school in New York that uses gaming mechanics within its practice and curriculum design, are a featured case study in my book. On the subject of teacher engagement Quest to Learn’s Co-director of School, Arana Shapiro, goes further telling me that when recruiting teachers:


We’re also looking for teachers who are really open to learning new things who are risk takers, who are passionate about kids learning, not just passionate about them passing the test. We’re looking for that kind of teacher who thinks of themselves as, for want of a better word, an artist


This certainly resonated with my experiences “on the road”. No matter how much, or little, technology was being used within a class or school it was the teacher who made the difference, who brought the room to life and engaged students in their learning. That’s not to say that the technology wasn’t valuable when used intelligently and with purpose but I would suggest that the technology-centric, teacher-less classroom is not only some way off in the distance, it isn’t even desirable. We may, however, need to think about the skills we are looking for in the teachers of tomorrow, or even today.


Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.



Experience vs Qualifications

Yesterday I caused a bit of a Twitterstorm in a cyber cup by suggesting to young people that being able to demonstrate their ability rather than their qualifications might give them a better chance at winning a job.



Admittedly it was a tad brash and I do admit to  taking a certain juvenile pleasure in teasing the Twitter attack dogs over breakfast. I received more than 150 replies, got sucked into Facebook “holy wars” and then finally had to get back to work. Like all good Twitterstorms it was a mixture of derision, agreement and knee jerk reactions suggesting that, well, I might be a bit of a jerk.


My tweet was conceived after reading an item on a section of the BBC website aimed at young people titled “It’s not too late to learn code and here’s why you should“. The gist of the message for young people was that if you learn to code you’ll get a well paid job. Another article that caught my eye had the headline “BBC aims to make programming sexy with new coding TV shows for kids” which pretty much had the same message about the road to riches.


It’s coincidental that both of these articles refer to the BBC. It’s not their fault as they can be easily forgiven due to the tsunami of nonsense that has now permeated every conversation, conference or policy that has anything to do with digital technology in education. It’s as if technology was supposed to be the outcome of learning with it, and as for the path to riches angle, they might as well recommend kids to learn to play guitar so they might be a rock star. That isn’t to say  I don’t think kids should have the opportunity to experience computer programming but, in so far as future employment, programming is a craft as much as playing the guitar and if you all you do is copy the notes then you might play music but you won’t be a star.


But why all this latest noise around “coding”?  Well, here in the UK, after much pressure from the business community including privacy dilettante, Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, computing has been made part of the school curriculum where kids as young as 5 are expected to tinker with code. Given that the UK and the BBC have a fondness for nostalgia when we led the world in computer programming as a result of a national programme based around the BBC Micro in the 1980′s this seemed, at first glance, a good idea. And I think that it’s probably a good thing as after our 80s heyday the UK drifted into teaching kids how to become office workers with technology which was also the advice given to government by business at the time.


These rather strange lurches in education policy present a rather polarised view of how our kids might engage with technology and somehow the digital community managed to steal the words “making”, “makers” and even “creativity” to mean exclusively digital pursuits which is as stupid as teaching STEM disciplines without the arts. But then again when kids are genuinely creative or provocative with technology, amassing a huge following along the way, they get criminalised by a legal system designed to protect property rather than citizens.


The emphasis around computing in our schools shouldn’t really be on coding at all but providing our children with an understanding of how the digital world, their world, the world we created for them, works. By this I don’t mean staring at a Raspberry Pi and naming components which is what we did in the 1980′s when we learnt about computers. What I mean is understanding how proprietary algorithms work and how they shape and bias our view of the world. This, I believe, should be the learning outcome of the new computing curriculum so that our kids leave school with a degree of intellectual self-defence in the digital world.


Perhaps we could commission a YouTube series called “How to Train your Algorithm” for surely these are the dragons that present and future generations might need to slay.


So coming back to my original tweet which is really about experience vs qualifications. Is it more important to demonstrate skills or show a certificate? I wonder if I read about swimming enough I’ll be able to swim?


I don’t think this is an either/or question but if you could only pick one which would you choose?


While you ponder on that I leave you with this talk that I curated from graffiti artist, Evan Roth, who applies a hacker philosophy to an art practice. It’s a 40 minute talk and absolutely worth watching until the end. The clue is on his T-shirt.



My book, Learning {Re}imagined, published by Bloomsbury / WISE can now be pre-ordered online.


What do we mean by “Transformation”?

One of the key things that I learned on my journey, and discuss in the Learning {Re}imagined book, is that transformation is contextual. By this I mean, for example, that a lightbulb can be transformational where there has been no light. The Worldreader programme in Ghana provides school children and their families with basic Kindle devices that provides them with access to the worlds books in places where the printed versions were scarce. In Jordan, school children are encouraged to create learning experiences and share them with their friends via Facebook. A school in Lebanon provides every student with an iPad so they can connect with each other and their teachers in and out of the school day. In rural India one of the world’s largest deployment for mobile learning uses the most basic of mobile phones to promote maternal healthcare and well-being.


Here in this 10 minute excerpt from a discussion hosted at last years WISE Summit I am joined by some of the people featured in my book plus learners from the WISE Learners Voice programme to explore what we mean by transformation.



Noam Chomsky on Assessment

Herewith another teaser from the Learning {Re}imagined transmedia project coming out on October 1st from Bloomsbury. This time is an excerpt from an interview with social and political theorist, Professor Noam Chomsky.


In this 7 minute excerpt I ask Chomsky about his thoughts on the value of the way we currently use high stakes examinations to test our high school students.


He says:


Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and into pursuing topics that engages and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests. In fact, if that’s the kind of educational career that you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you’ve discovered. There’s a famous physicist, a world famous physicist right here at MIT who, like a lot of the senior faculty, was teaching freshmen courses, he once said that in his freshmen course, students will ask, “What are we going to cover this semester?” His standard answer was, “It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.”


That’s what teaching ought to be; inspiring students to discover on their own, to challenge if they don’t agree, to look for alternatives if they think there are better ones, to work through the great achievements of the past and try to master them on their own because they’re interested in them. If that’s the way a teaching is done, students will really gain from it and will, not really remember what they studied, but will be able to use it as a basis for growing, on their own. Again, education is really aimed to just helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own because that’s what you’re going to do for your life, not just to absorb materials given to you from the outside and repeat it.




Malcolm McLaren on Learning and Technology

Malcolm McLaren, artist, innovator and provocateur, former manager of the once notorious punk rock band The Sex Pistols, passed away on April 8th 2010. One of the last public speeches he gave was to an audience of educators and technologists at a conference series that I curated for more than 7 years.


Whilst looking through my archives I happened once again upon his talk that is in equal parts challenging, biographical and thought-provoking. If you have an hour to spend to watch the entire talk I recommend it but only if you don’t mind language that some consider risqué or adult themed. It is however the last 5 minutes of the talk where I think Malcolm really nails it in regard to the debate around how we use technology for learning.


He says:

“Technology has unquestionably put something else in its place. But it’s not used necessarily correctly. If you can use technology to rediscover the idea of a flaneur, the idea of the romantic notion of learning for learning’s sake, the idea of art of art’s sake not career then maybe. Because information is accessible now, of course, and at extremely low cost, of course. Everyone knows that. We can’t fall into the trap that you can just flit around online. Use the internet and technology to discover new ideas maybe, be a virtual flaneur maybe, debate, go further and deeper maybe.



Don’t take information for granted just because it’s free. One did at school and we learned back in the fifties that the UK was a nation of liars and simply taught a culture of deception. Use technology in the right way, don’t become a slave to it. That is don’t become so reliant on it that you can’t calculate or read a map, because how do you know then to turn left rather than turn right? How do you know how to even spot a lie? Use technology as a tool just like a pencil for learning. It’s not a replacement for applied learning basically, it’s not a replacement either for experience. That’s it.”