Testing, accountability, technology and the peace-inducing quality of the sauna

Karen Virag

The recent spring snowstorm in Edmonton probably did not faze Pasi Sahlberg; he is Finnish, after all, and no doubt used to capricious weather and snowy Aprils. Still, he is currently based in a much warmer place than Helsinki—Turin, Italy, to be exact, where he is the senior education policy expert at the European Training Foundation, an organization that works with the European Commission to establish educational policies in the former Eastern Bloc countries entering the European Union.

Sahlberg was in Edmonton recently as a guest speaker at an Association symposium—the dauntingly titled “Leadership in Educational Accountability: Sustaining Professional Learning and Innovation in Alberta Schools.”

I caught up with him at Barnett House, where we talked about standardized tests, accountability, and the role of technology in the classroom and the importance of the sauna in Finnish culture.

First to the important educational component of our talk, during which we discussed attitudes toward testing and education on either side of the pond. Finland has no standardized testing except for a high school leaving exam, yet its students routinely score high on international tests. And in Europe as a whole (with the exception of England) there is little of the mania for testing and ranking that exists in North America. “Classrooms [in Europe] look more or less the same,” Sahlberg said, but “the attitude towards schools is actually very different. In the U.S., the tendency is to see the material value of education—it is for preparing one for jobs. In northern Europe, probably in Europe as a whole, education is valued for itself, not just as a way to prepare people for material goals. It is for understanding, expanding one’s horizons.”

Pasi Sahlberg

The North American educational system abounds with buzzwords like accountability. As Sahlberg explained, the concept of accountability came into education in the 1970s. “Previously,” he said, “accountability was used solely in a business context, but governments increasingly began applying it to education, and the result was the rise of standardized tests and other measures that held education accountable. Accountability is about making information public—ranking schools or provinces or teachers.” And it is based on the belief “that competition is the answer to any problems in schools.” Imposing a national curriculum is another common way to respond to concerns about student performance. Interestingly, the success of Finnish students notwithstanding, there is no word in Finnish for accountability in an educational context.

Another of Sahlberg’s interests is technology in the classroom, and he expounds what some might consider a surprising view: “What I am seeing,” he said, “is that technology will probably end up being a good tool for doing things but it is not going to be the answer to everything. In fact, I would argue that school is ending up to be for many students the only place where they can deal with people, where they can have a conversation and do things together, because they spend so much time online. It might take a while before we realize this, but there are many indications that technology is probably not going to be the solution to the problems we thought it would be 15 years ago. … Technology will remain as a parallel support, and the school’s role as a social community will be stronger in the future.”

We then turned our attention to the equally important topic of the role of the sauna in Finnish culture. Finland has 5 million inhabitants and 2 million saunas, which are found everywhere from private homes to the parliament. Sahlberg told me that the sauna is an important aspect of Finnish culture, for cleansing not only the body but also the mind. “It is a very specific place for communicating, where the basic values of our society become visible. Trust is one of them,” he added, going on to reveal, with a smile, that in the 1950s and 1960s, when Finland was “having difficulties with the Soviets,” the Finnish president used to invite the Soviet leaders to the sauna to discuss political matters. “Now, history tells us,” he said, “that some very important decisions about peace were made in the sauna.”

Now, if only we could get the folks from the Fraser Institute into the sauna…

—Photo by Koni Macdonald

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