Pasi Sahlberg : Teachers need a sense of mission, empathy and leadership


Finland, a Nordic country with a population of only 5.5 million, is a much-anticipated newcomer to the global education community. Since 2000, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has held the 15-year PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) every three years. Finnish teenagers were ranked first in reading and science competitions for two consecutive years. Also, Finland’s education philosophy of special education, teacher empowerment and training, and equal cooperation have also drawn the attention of the international community.

In December this year, at the Online Education Berlin, Journalist from JMDedu interviewed Mr. Pasi Sahlberg. He shared his knowledge and opinions on how to build social trust in education, how to select and train teachers and what a good education is with Finland’s examples.

Background introduction:

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator, author and policy advisor with rich experience in education systems and reforms. He is a former senior education specialist at the World Bank, a lead education expert at the European Training Foundation, a director general at Finland’s Ministry of Education, and a Visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University. He chairs the Open Society Foundations’ Education Board and is a member of the Governing Board of the University of Oulu and the International Council of Education Advisors (ICEA) for the Scottish Government.

He has written and spoken widely about these topics, his book “Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland” won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for an idea that has potential to change the world. His recent books are “Hard Questions on Global Educational Change”, “Empowered Educators in Finland” and “FinnishED Leadership: Four Big, Inexpensive Ideas to Transform Education”.

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Link to Pasi Sahlberg’s books, blog and presentations:

Trust and autonomy: More freedom for teachers and schools

Background introduction: In November 2017, more than ten parents of children at the Beijing school reported that their children in a class at RYB Education Xintiandi Kindergarten in Guanzhuang, Chaoyang District, Beijing were needle-abused and were given white pills of unknown ingredients. The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau Chaoyang Branch investigated. After the incident was reported on 23 November by the Beijing News, other media scrambled to report, which has aroused widespread concern in society.

Q: First of all, you may know the recent abuse of children in kindergartens in China. Now there is a severe lack of trust in the teachers and schools in the society as a whole. I am wondering if such an incident ever happened in Finland. How do you think the whole society could build trust in the education industry?

A: As far as I know, there has not been such an incident in Finland.

When it comes to trust, first and foremost we need to understand that in a system, if parents or society themselves have high demands on their children’s well-being and behavior, this often means that you are not giving some freedom to the consequences that may arise. In Finland, trust is for us the full trust and freedom for our schools and teachers, believing that they can develop goals, teaching standards and content appropriate for their children. The trust is instilled deeply in our culture; it is not a single behavior in a particular situation.

Q: How was the trust built and developed in Finland?

A: In fact, more than 25 years ago, Finland was also in a stage of lack of trust in the education industry. Teachers did not have enough freedom. At that time, I just started to be a math teacher, and the central government made very detailed provisions on the curriculum system. So at that time, I was only thinking about how to teach these government-prescribed teaching materials.

However, in 1991, the Finnish government embarked on a series of decentralization measures, including the easing of the school’s autonomy in 1994.

For example, the Finnish law clarifies the purpose of education and the rules governing the entire educational system. The government then provides the overall teaching framework. In the field of science, it regulates the purpose of science but doesn’t restrict what the students should learn. Eventually, the right to teaching autonomy is left to the school.

Q: What kind of autonomy? Is it the same for every school?

A: The autonomy of each school is different, depending on which municipality they are living. There are in total 311 “municipalities” in Finland (the author’s note: municipality is a Finnish local government agency whose role is to provide services, develop social viability, achieve autonomy for residents, and create local identities.). The 311 municipalities vary in size, with the smallest being the island, where 500 people live. There is only one school with about 50 students. The largest municipality is Helsinki, with 600,000 inhabitants and about 250 schools.

Since each municipality has very different regulations, the autonomy of the corresponding schools varies greatly. For example, in some municipalities schools have the right to hire teachers, while in some teachers are recruited by the government. In some municipalities, principals can decide some minor bonuses they pay to teachers, and in some municipalities, the power to pay all wages comes from the government.

Therefore, there is a common misunderstanding when discussing Finnish education internationally. People think Finnish education system is unified. However, in fact, education in Finland is very diverse, not the same everywhere. That is also why I often tell international colleagues that we should go out and see how different communities in different situations and with different needs in Finland.

Q: It is true that Finland’s trust comes from the autonomy of education, which is based on the political autonomy. But besides, does the effective implementation of autonomous education also depend on the quality of school administrators and teachers?

A: Yes. We highly value school’s expertise and intelligence to set specific goals and content. It results from the high quality of our teachers as well as the leadership teams. The advantage of Finland over other countries at this point is that for the past 25 years we have trained a group of highly qualified teachers. Primary and secondary school teachers in Finland have at least a master’s degree diploma. So imagine a school with 5 primary teachers who graduated from universities and received systematic educational training in mathematics, for example. Then you give them freedom. This group of smart people will burst out much wisdom in teaching. In contrast, if you are in a country where only one out of five teachers is a university graduate, and the other four just graduated from high school, of course, you will not trust, and you are not willing to give power to schools.

Teachers must have three qualities: sense of mission, empathy, leadership

Q:It is true that a crucial step in resolving the issue of trust is to improve the quality of teachers. Which qualities do you think teachers should have?

A: The first is the moral quality and sense of mission. When selecting teachers, we ask applicants questions like “Why do you want to be a teacher?” or “What do you want to teach?” In the past, many people may say “because teachers have a long vacation”. However, now we will value someone who treats teaching as his mission and who is passionate about changing other people’s lives. During the interview, they need to use examples to prove that.

Empathy is also essential. They need to show that they can understand the needs of others and to accomplish others, rather than talk about themselves throughout the way.

There is also leadership. Our teachers need to understand the concept of leadership and how to implement leadership. Whether it’s leadership in classroom instruction, leadership when working with other teachers, or leadership in school management.

Finally, profound professional knowledge in teaching matters. Here, elementary school teachers in Finland are required to have more comprehensive professional competence because they need to teach their students all the subjects. They should know not only language and science, but also basic knowledge of art and music. If not, they should at least show the willingness to learn that.

Q: To train such teachers, you need the systematical selection and training design. You have written an essay about college entrance exams for Finnish teachers. Could you share with us here?

A: Take primary school teachers’ university entrance examination as an example. The first round is a standard written test of professional knowledge competence. The second round is a comprehensive ability test. The second round of examinations will vary according to the focus of the different schools, but there are always interviews, esp. group interview.

Group interviews are usually conducted in such a way that five teachers are part of a group, and they work together to complete a simulated teaching task, such as teaching 25 students math. The interviewers behind them then observe how they design the teaching process, how to communicate, and how to teach in the classroom.

So you can see that we not only examine the IQ and problem-solving skills of the applicants but also examine the communication skills, creativity, problem-solving, teamwork skills and so on that are particularly essential for teachers. Sometimes some interviewers may not rank the first regarding professional knowledge, but because they have very rich teaching experience and they are good at mobilizing students or playing a few instruments, they tend to be more welcomed than the other interviewers.

Q: In your introduction to the group interview, you mentioned teamwork. Why is it so important to teachers?

A: Because in Finland, teamwork occurs in curriculum preparation, say collective lesson planning, but also in the teaching process. For example, two teachers have the right to gather two classes of students and teach together. Such a form can be beneficial to courses that require full discussion and facilitation, such as history and politics. In the past, Finland, like other countries, also only had a one-to-many teaching mode and cooperation is not explicitly encouraged; but now, collaboration has become part of Finnish education. If you ask every Finnish principal, they all say that teamwork is essential.

So before we hire a teacher in the school, we will conduct a background check on him, such as calling to his former school. We did not ask him about his teaching achievements. Instead, we asked his colleagues’ opinions on him, whether he was helpful to his colleagues, whether he could contribute to the community, and so on.

Conversely, if a teacher is found self-centered and does not understand teamwork if I were the principal, I would dismiss him and not hire him again.

I observe that in many countries, cooperation or let’s say assistance to disadvantaged schools often come from top-down policy requirements. However, in Finland, we try to make cooperation part of our culture. If I were the principal and another new school was just established, my first reaction was: how can I help it? It is a natural behavior in our culture rather than policy call.

Q: What keeps Finnish teachers’ enthusiasm for teaching?

A: It comes first from the community’s respect, followed by the working environment, and finally the salary.

Q: You have introduced us Finland’s practices in teacher recruitment. Could you also share some experience in teacher training in Finland?

A: Finland has an academic teacher education system. Of course, apart from emphasizing the growth of teachers in their career paths, we also attach importance to “tying” them and schools so that they can grow together. For example, more than 20 years ago, our teacher in-service training was usually carried out by selecting some teachers and sending them out for training. The growth of teachers and the growth of schools were somewhat fragmented because some teachers did not have the chance to receive training. However, now, teachers are working together for the schools and their growth, for example, they will invite guests to schools to do the workshop, for all the teachers.

Idea: Innovation is not purely for innovation, education is not for competition

Q: You wrote in another essay that a Finnish teacher’s career lasts approximately 40 years. In today’s fast-changing world, how can Finnish teachers keep innovating?

A: I think we should re-examine the definition of education’s essence and innovation. I think a large part of the education is conservative. The teacher’s innovation comes from encountering different students each year. If the philosophy of education is correct, the teacher can teach the students and the students can learn happily in the right way; then this teaching method does not need to be changed. Sometimes we abuse innovation and people should not force educators to change without knowing the real needs that educators face. Of course, if the teacher thinks that the teaching method is incorrect and hinders the development of students, we need to make innovations like using technology to make changes.

Q: Yes, this means, on the one hand, the society needs to give educators more freedom and respect, on the other hand, educators themselves also need to be more aware of the fundamental rules of education. To end up our interview, what would you love to say to educators in China?

A: Many people think that in today’s highly competitive and fast-changing era, children need to learn how to compete and become winners. However, my point is the opposite. The best way for students to adapt to competition and change is to teach them to cooperate. Because in such a complex and ever-changing environment, creativity and adventurousness are more necessary, and these qualities can be nurtured and born only in an environment that encourages cooperation. So as an educator, I would not encourage students to study for the sake of competition and to win. On the contrary, I want to give them a relaxed and cooperative environment so that they will have the precious qualities and opportunities to make mistakes as well that they need to face challenges in the future.


Zhuoying (Zoey) Zheng, Chinese studying master of marketing in Germany. Having studied in Europe for two years and doing global projects in Asia, Latin America and Europe, she aims at driving intercultural communication through business and education innovation. Currently, her research focus is on the education industry development in China and Europe.


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Supporting the EdTech ecosystem in China & globally. Operated by JMDedu, the leading B2B industry media company in China. Website:

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