From Play to Pressure

From Play to Pressure

A Finnish perspective on Australian schools

Posted on 25.03.2019

As he settles into life in Australia after moving from Finland, six-year-old Otto Sahlberg is noticing the practical differences between his old school and his new one.

Back in Helsinki, Otto didn’t wear a uniform, or take his lunch to school, or address his teachers by their last names. He was never asked to focus on anything for more than 45 minutes or finish his day later than 1pm. In class, he played.

At the same time, his father, Finnish education Professor Pasi Sahlberg, is noticing the philosophical differences as he settles his family into their new home in Sydney.

For example, in Finland, teachers are trusted. Here, he sees a profession hamstrung by regulations. Back home, parents never asked about a school’s academic record. Here, it’s often the first thing Australian parents want to know.

Many thousands of hours have been devoted to figuring out why Finland consistently out-performs countries like Australia on OECD rankings. In 2015, for example, Australia was 25th in the world in maths and 16th in reading, while Finland was 13th and fourth.
But it may well be influenced by the one big difference that has struck Professor Sahlberg since his arrival – that Australian parents and schools put far more emphasis, and therefore pressure, on academic performance and comparisons than their Finnish counterparts.

“Otto’s readiness in terms of academics, reading and things, don’t concern me at all,” said Professor Sahlberg. “My main thing is that he loves to go to school, and that he learns to understand why he’s at school – what’s the purpose of it.”

Before his father took a position at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW late last year, Otto attended school in Helsinki between 8.30am and 1pm. After each 45-minute class, children had 15 minutes to themselves.

Even during class time, there was no explicit reading or maths instruction; the kids learned through play. “Their room is designed with words and letters, the children become naturally curious,” he said.

“Parents and teachers accept that play time is a learning time. Here I see people think more that play time is wasted time.”

The early end to the school day didn’t worry working parents. “We are much more comfortable back home in Finland to let our kids, even little kids, eight or nine years old, walk home from school,” said Professor Sahlberg.

Despite the differences, Professor Sahlberg is happy with Otto’s school. “I think it has a child-friendly, gentle approach,” he said. “They really care about the child feeling safe and comfortable, and learning to find his place in the school.”

Otto is embracing the differences, too. When his father asked his favourite thing about Australian schools, he chose the uniform – although he did acknowledge that if he wore his own clothes, “I would probably look more who I am.”

For the Sahlbergs, the most frustrating difference between Australia and Finland has been the cost of pre-school education for their four-year-old son Noah.

In Finland, as in many European countries, early childhood education is free. Some centres are open 24 hours a day to accommodate children whose parents work shifts. Here, the family is facing a steep childcare bill for Noah.

“This is something that makes us really feel bad,” Professor Sahlberg said. “For the first time in our lives, we are in a situation where we have to think, ‘can we afford something that would clearly be good for our son?’ Our conclusion is no, we can’t.”

They’ve found the Australian obsession with academic performance has reached preschools. “I really couldn’t care less about what the preschool is doing in terms of academics. That’s the last thing I want to hear, but it’s the first thing they tell us.

“I’m more interested in how much time you offer these kids to play outdoors.”

If Professor Sahlberg could change something about the Australian attitude to education, it would be the focus on academic achievement.

“Every parent wants the best for their own children,” he says. “The issue is that not all the parents really know what is best for kids – they think it’s high grades, and that they have to be better than others, and that’s not the case.”

Despite the differences in the two systems, Professor Sahlberg has faith in Otto’s school.

“I’m comfortable with what the school and teachers are doing,” he said. “The school has a friendly, personal approach. I’m not sad about leaving Finland, but I’ve probably learned to appreciate Finnish education even more now.”

Source
The Sydney Morning Herald

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