How Australia’s education system can overcome its ‘wicked problems’

How Australia’s education system can overcome its ‘wicked problems’

In the world of global education, few names resonate as deeply as Professor Pasi Sahlberg. Currently a distinguished figure within the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne, Professor Sahlberg's journey is a rich tapestry of experience and expertise, spanning continents and roles.

Beginning his career in the classrooms of Finland, Sahlberg has since been at the forefront of educational transformation – from pivotal roles at institutions such as the World Bank in Washington, DC, and the European Training Foundation in Torino, Italy, to helming Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture. His credentials are further burnished by his tenure as a visiting professor at the esteemed Harvard University.

As principals strive to shape the future of learning, this education luminary’s insights are more relevant than ever.

Recently, The Educator spoke to Professor Sahlberg about his passion for education, the rapid changes impacting Australia’s schools, supporting teachers and leaders, and what he believes to be the key ingredients of a world-class education system.

“Education has been my big passion, basically since I was born. I grew up in a primary school, where I spent my childhood,” Professor Sahlberg said.

“What excites me about education is that it's probably the best way to improve people's lives. I strive to give back to young people what I have received through education.”

Professor Sahlberg said like many wiser individuals before him, he believes that education is the key to providing people with opportunities in life.

“The opportunity to witness positive change, whether as a teacher or educator, where you see people becoming better, happier, and smarter people, is what drives me. That's the transformation I find most fulfilling,” he said.

“While some people may seek fulfillment in seeing buildings rise, trees grow, or art being created, for me, it's all about changing people's lives through education.”

Equity must come first

Professor Sahlberg said the significant challenge schools continue to face is the widening gap between those who have access to a quality education and those who do not.

“It's a persistent issue, and unfortunately, it appears to be worsening,” he said.

“I've been saying since I arrived in Australia five years ago that we can provide a world-class education to probably half of our children, specifically the top-performing or most fortunate half. When we compare their performance to the rest of the world, they excel.”

However, Professor Sahlberg says the main challenge remains the other half of children who do not have the same opportunities or conditions.

“We have been grappling with this inequality or inequity for a long time, at least for the past 15 years It's clear that we need to take action to ensure that every child in Australia not only has access to education but also achieves equitable educational outcomes,” he said.

“Unfortunately, it's proving to be a difficult issue to address. This challenge was the primary reason my family and I came to Australia, to work towards a more equitable, fair, and improved education system.”

Professor Sahlberg said that when people ask him how long he plans to stay in Australia, he tells them he “will remain until we see significant improvements in this area, even if it may not happen during my lifetime.”

How Australian education can do better

Professor Sahlberg said one unique aspect of the Australian system is the use of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) to rank high school students from the highest to lowest performers.

However, he says this ranking system may not be the most effective or relevant in the future, as the interests, skills, and competencies of young people seeking tertiary education are evolving rapidly.

“The current system is not significantly different from that of most OECD countries,” he said.

“In Finland, for example, we have a somewhat similar approach where high school students must graduate with good marks in their diploma and examinations before applying for higher education, similar to the process in Australia.”

However, Professor Sahlberg points out that on a global scale, the situation is changing.

“Examinations and high school marks may carry less weight, and greater importance may be placed on what young people can demonstrate they can do,” he said.

“Many high school students are already learning a wide range of skills and knowledge outside of traditional school settings through digital devices and gadgets.”

Professor Sahlberg said universities and higher education institutions are starting to recognise the value of these self-directed learning experiences.

“Therefore, I believe that in Australia, as in other places, we will see a shift away from solely relying on examinations and marks to assess students' readiness for tertiary education,” he said.

“Instead, there will be a greater emphasis on recognizing the skills and competencies students acquire through various means, including self-directed learning. This shift is reflective of the changing landscape of education worldwide.”

How Australia can reverse its teacher shortage

Professor Sahlberg said addressing the teacher shortage and making the teaching profession more attractive and sustainable is “a critical concern not only in Australia but also globally”.

“It's disheartening to witness fewer young people considering teaching as a long-term career option. Many view it as a short-term job rather than a lifelong profession,” he said.

To tackle these issues and retain talent in teaching, Professor Sahlberg said several key aspects need attention.

“Firstly, it's essential to improve the understanding of the realities of the teaching profession,” he said. “Many people, including potential teachers and those already in the field, may not fully comprehend the challenges and demands of modern schools.”

Professor Sahlberg said spending time in schools can provide valuable insights into the complexities of today’s education system.

“One significant aspect that needs to change is the school environment itself,” he said.

“Schools should resemble workplaces where educators have opportunities to collaborate, reflect, and innovate. Quick fixes such as importing teachers from overseas or marginally increasing salaries won't address the root causes of the problem.”

Professor Sahlberg noted that in Australia, both teachers and principals work longer hours compared to many other OECD countries, and that students also have longer hours in school.

“Despite expectations that the pandemic would bring disruptive change, the education landscape largely remains the same, with issues like rigid time schedules and extended classroom hours persisting,” he said.

“To make the teaching profession more appealing and sustainable, a shift is needed. Schools should allocate time away from formal instruction and learning to create a culture of collaboration, reflection, and support among educators.”

Professor Sahlberg said this change can help alleviate the “crowded and hectic” nature of schools, making them more attractive to both students and teachers.

“In summary, addressing the teacher shortage and retaining talent in the teaching profession requires a fundamental transformation in how schools operate. By prioritising collaboration, reflection, and a more balanced workload, schools can become places where both students and educators thrive,” he said.

“This transformation can ultimately help make teaching a more desirable and sustainable career choice.”

Digital wellness must be front and centre amid AI revolution

Speaking to the rapid advancements in AI, and its implications for Australian schools, Professor Sahlberg said schools, both in Australia and globally, must make strategic decisions on how to integrate this technology, and others, into their educational practices.

“AI is just one component of the broader technological landscape in schools. The primary focus should be on promoting digital wellness and responsible technology use, encompassing AI and other digital tools,” he said.

“This involves understanding what constitutes safe, healthy, and responsible device usage.”

Professor Sahlberg says the first area of development that schools should prioritise is digital wellness and wellbeing, ensuring that students understand how to use devices, including AI, in a safe and responsible manner.

“This includes topics like online safety, digital ethics, and responsible device usage,” he said. “Moving forward, schools should recognize the transformative potential of AI and other emerging technologies in education.”

Professor Sahlberg said AI has the power to revolutionise teaching and learning, and that it is essential to prepare both educators and students for this shift.

“Many young people are already well-versed in AI and technology, surpassing many adults in their proficiency. Therefore, it is crucial to bridge the generation gap and work collaboratively with students to explore how AI can enhance education,” he said.

“Engaging students in conversations about the future of teaching and learning, curriculum design, and assessment methods can provide valuable insights. This partnership with students can help schools adapt to the changing educational landscape and create a more appealing and effective learning environment.”

In conclusion, says Professor Sahlberg, schools should embrace AI and other emerging technologies as tools for positive change.

“While there are potential risks and challenges, young people are often more aware of these issues than adults,” he said. “Collaborative efforts between educators and students can help leverage the potential of AI while ensuring responsible and beneficial integration.”

‘We need to chart a new course forward’

Reflecting on the major challenges the Australian education system is facing, Professor Sahlberg says highlighted the need to foster more creativity and bold thinking when it comes to the future of education.

“We should refrain from frequently saying, ‘This is how it's always been’ or ‘This is what school was like when I attended’,” he said. “It's essential for parents and society to trust our teachers and schools to explore new directions because that's precisely what we require.”

Professor Sahlberg said Australia also needs a fresh direction for education.

“We must view the future through a different lens,” he said. “My hope is that as a nation, as a society, and as individuals, we can find the courage to acknowledge that while there are many valuable aspects of our education system, many practices are no longer relevant. We need to chart a new course forward.”

Professor Sahlberg said this also extends to his experiences traveling around Australia, especially in remote and First Nations communities.

“It's crucial to recognize that these communities and their children deserve better educational opportunities. The future belongs to them as well,” he said.

“My family and I could choose to live in almost any country globally, but we've chosen to stay in Australia. It's a commitment to be part of this beautiful nation and its people, who are working towards a better future.”

However, Professor Sahlberg said achieving this future “requires the courage and boldness to let go of outdated practices and engage in inclusive thinking that includes the First Nations communities, who play a vital role in the world we live in here”.

“This is a significant undertaking, but it's one that holds the promise of positive change.”