Finnish Education Expert Hired By UNSW Recognises Music’s Importance

Pasi Sahlberg. Image Credit: Photo by Matt Luciuk
Graham Strahle
| January 31, 2018

A world leading educational expert from Finland, Pasi Sahlberg, is moving to Australia to take up a position at the University of New South Wales’ newly created Gonski Institute for Education. There, he will advise on education policy and conduct research into improving the school system in this country.

Formerly Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki and visiting professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Sahlberg is well known for his critiques of standardised testing methods that have been widely adopted in education systems around the world. He argues that this has brought a preoccupation with literacy and numeracy that has narrowed educational thinking in the US, England, Australia and other countries, and has stated that this “is happening on the expense of social studies, arts, music and physical education that are diminishing in many school curricula”.

Sahlberg told Fairfax media that he believes there is an excessive emphasis placed on NAPLAN in the Australian educational system, and that he would prefer to see other ways of perceiving and evaluating success in a student’s progression through school.

“When you ask who is a successful student in school or which are the successful schools, it’s almost always those who do well in English and maths, and it doesn’t matter how good you are at music or social sciences or sports or something else,” he said. “What Australia could do with NAPLAN is to think how can we make this thing both testing in a less negative way in the system but still provide the information, the benchmarks that people need.”

In contrast to Australia, Finland keeps the amount of externalised testing to a minimum: there is only one test, and it comes at the very end of the student’s schooling. Instead, their system relies on individual schools and teachers deciding their own ways of monitoring and reporting children’s progress. See an interview here in which Sahlberg elaborates on this and Finland’s approach to education generally.

He is also critical of how this preoccupation with literacy and numeracy brought about by standardised testing is encroaching into the preschool level in some countries. In Finland, he points out that there is no formal pre-school or kindergarten system (children do not start school until the age of seven) because they believe in what they call “extended childhood”. This he says allows for “play, music, joy and learning to be together with other people” in the first years, all of which are “more important than being exposed with instruction”.

Another difference Sahlberg identifies between Finland and other countries relates to teacher training. To obtain a university teaching qualification there with a specialisation in music education requires first attending a separate music department or outside music institute. It is intensive too. Either one gains a Music Education Major by undergoing two years of initial music training followed by study in music pedagogy. Or, if aiming to teach music as a second area, one has to study music pedagogy on completing a major in another subject. His book, Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, which won the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2013, describes it all.

We look forward to the contribution Sahlberg makes in this country.

See our earlier story on how music is taught in the Finnish school system.

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