A night with Pasi

I’ve had a date in my calendar for some time, and the entry read ‘A Night with Pasi’. The Pasi in question is Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. He has an impressive back catalogue, and you can peruse his gongs here. The night in question was last night, and by the time the educational part finished, I was ready for the heavy drinking part to begin.

The education part lasted one hour, and at the end of that hour it was difficult to isolate any key takeaways. One of the reasons I like ResearchEd is the diversity of presenters, and that includes teachers. Teachers work at the coal-face, and the translation of education research into classroom practice provides some of the most useful professional learning one can undertake. Education researchers and policy-makers are important people to listen to; but without the vital link of transfer to the classroom, even valid research and sensible policy can end up existing in a vacuum.

There was a hint of Sir Ken about Pasi. We were told early on that the standard of teaching in Australia is high, and that we should not be looking to improve in this area.  Instead, straight from Ken’s playbook, it was the ‘system’ that was problematic. This enables one to blame teachers without really blaming teachers, given that we are (at least in part) the system. NAPLAN was aired briefly, just enough time for teacher hackles to be raised, and we had a few avuncular anecdotes about Pasi’s year in Australia.

The talk supposedly centred on improving equity in education, and we were treated to a long explanation of how equity and equality are not the same thing. I expect he may have misjudged the audience, because it felt for the most part that we were being Fin-splained, and at a funereal pace. The graphic of three children of different heights standing on crates and trying to pick apples from a tree was used to illustrate the point. You know the one – it’s second only to the ‘fish climbing a tree‘ one for its ubiquity.

It seems that, according to PISA, Australia is bang-average for both overall performance in English and Maths *and* equity (which in simple terms was defined as the link between ICSEA and performance). The countries ranking highly in both were Canada, Estonia, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong – so find the common features there if you can. We were told that we needed to climb a ‘Stairway to Heaven’, given that these countries appeared in the top right-hand corner of the graph, but no suggestion of how this was to happen was posited. Instead, we were asked (excruciatingly) to wave our arms in time to Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Being the edu-grinch I am, I refused.

Not only is it tricky to see what these countries have in common, it’s also noticeable that they are moving in different directions. High performance and falling is not a system one should ape, even if it were possible to transfer the building blocks of one country’s education system to another (note: it isn’t). Another common problem with PISA data (or any data) is the cherry-picking of reasons to support these data. Finland’s educational decline was not mentioned, and neither were its high-stakes terminal examinations or the high-status (and relatively high supply) of teachers. Instead, Finland’s longer and outdoor recess time was highlighted as a key reason, even to the point of stating that the longer children spend time in Australia, the less educated they become. If that’s not a slight on teachers, I’m not sure what is.

The importance of funding was mentioned, and though it may seem axiomatic to suggest this is important, there was no indication of how increased funding would improve outcomes or equity. The importance of focusing on early years was mentioned, which is probably a good point, but again it was only in the context of funding, not (for example) evidence-based approaches to teaching reading.

As a conclusion, we were left with three points. The first was fair funding (an undoubted crowd pleaser, but unclear on the links to equity/outcomes). The second was ambiguously titled ‘educate the parents’. I’m unsure if this meant increase parents’ cultural capital to avoid children falling behind when *not* in School, or whether we needed to being parents on board with best practice in education, but it was odd to see a concluding point make an appearance only in the conclusion, rather than at any point during the talk. The final point was that ‘healthy kids learn better’, which again seemed to come from nowhere, other than as a nod to Finland’s outdoor play.

Pasi Sahlberg must be a capable educationalist, surely? You can’t get all the gongs simply by impersonating Sir Ken, can you? But I cannot believe anyone was convinced or reassured by this presentation. The whole evening was amateurish, from him being introduced on several occasions as Pasi Salzburg, as though we could expect Finland’s top Mozart impersonator, to his mis-pronounciation of the researcher after whom the lecture is named, to the confusion of Austria and Australia on one of the funding graphs. Or maybe we just need some spatzle with our morning tea?

I will keep attending education conferences, workshops and lectures. We need to remain aware of our biases and open to the opinions of other informed individuals. But this evening was gossamer-thin in useful content and gave no reassurance that the Australian educational powers that be have a vision (or blueprint) for educational improvement in this country. If they want an example of equity in education, they should look to Schools like Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela, but I expect the ideological opposition to knowledge-development and testing, as well as an ingrained rejection of intellectualism will prevent this. Ho hum.

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