Finnish researcher wins LEGO Prize for his struggle against assessments
On Tuesday 12 April, the Finnish school researcher Pasi Sahlberg was announced as the winner of the LEGO Prize 2016 for his struggle against standardised tests in school systems worldwide. And the event came with a message for Denmark: “Get teachers to create their own assessments and use those to develop the Danish schools,” says the Finnish researcher. The interview below has been written by Folkeskolen (Danish journal for teachers).
Article by Sebastian Bjerril, journalist, Folkeskolen. Read the original Danish version here>>.
On that Tuesday evening, the LEGO® Prize 2016 was awarded to the Finnish educational researcher Pasi Sahlberg at the annual LEGO Foundation Idea Conference held in Billund, Denmark, which over three days had drawn 300 education and learning experts from around the world. Pasi Sahlberg was selected as beneficiary because of his many years of struggle against standardised assessment systems, which he considers to have a detrimental effect on school systems in many parts of the world.
“We live in an era in which we have to measure everything. From a global perspective, there’s the problem that many countries actually use the wrong types of measurements and measurements of low quality as well as the data being used incorrectly. This is all very problematic. The quality of the learning assessments carried out in most countries is not very high, and they do not test the things we want young people to learn. We often hear that politicians want to develop young people who are creative, good at critical thinking and good at working with other people, but the kinds of assessments we see in much of the world don’t actually encourage this,” explains Pasi Sahlberg when folkeskolen.dk (the professional journal for teachers in Denmark) met him the day after the award ceremony.
“Often we also see that politicians and those who sit and draw up policy use the data incorrectly. In the United States, for example, they use data from standardised tests to say something about the quality of teachers and schools. That is a completely wrong way to use data,” says the Finnish researcher.
Emulate the way we do it in Finland
All this doesn’t mean that assessments and testing do not belong in schools. But, according to Pasi Sahlberg, there is a great need for rethinking the way we conduct such assessments, while also using resources to compile the large volumes of data much more effectively.
“Many people say we don’t have standardised assessments in Finland, but it’s not quite right. In Finland, researchers carry out tests on a sample group consisting of 10–15 per cent of the students. This isn’t an assessment that teachers or students pay much real attention to, but it gives politicians sufficient data to indicate how things are going with the Finnish school system. In addition to this, we have only one external assessment, and it does not take place until the end of secondary school. That, I think, is a good way to do it, because it means you only have one single benchmark at the end of your school studies. This leaves a lot of freedom and responsibility in the hands of teachers and schools to carry out the rest of the learning assessments,” he explains.
Sahlberg believes that the benefits of doing assessments that way include that teaching is not affected by politicians’ overview to the same degree, and that the actual tests are much cheaper to carry out when only a smaller group of students is involved.
Rely on the teachers’ own assessments to develop schools
According to Pasi Sahlberg, Denmark should learn from this, because Danish politicians have a misguided perception about assessments.
“There is no need for Denmark to keep on testing students all the time in order to say something meaningful about the current state of affairs. Politicians and ministers often say to me that we need to test students comprehensively in order to be absolutely sure that things are working as intended. My response is that if you go for a health check, the doctor doesn’t suck all the blood out of your body in order to find out how well you are doing. They take just a small sample. And precisely the same thing is needed for the education system.”
With the few standardised assessments in Finland, teachers devise their own forms of testing, which they consider suitable for their own students and which give them the particular answers they need about how they can help their students improve. And that’s the way it should also be in Denmark, if it was up to the Finnish researcher.
“I believe that teachers will have to do it. Ultimately, it’s what makes teachers professional – that they have the authority and responsibility to carry out their own assessment, measurement and evaluation of what their students are actually learning. If you take that away from teachers, I believe it will remove a great deal of their professionalism. Being a professional teacher isn’t just about being able to teach. It’s also about selecting methods and materials that suit your students, and it is also about an ability to evaluate what your students best learn from, and what works less well.”
And it is precisely the knowledge available from teachers’ own assessments and evaluations that is part of the recipe for better public schools in Denmark, in Pasi Sahlberg’s opinion. He believes that the Danish education system could usefully learn from the ideas that the Danish branding expert and author Martin Lindstrøm presents in his book Small Data, in which he zooms in instead of out, and therefore spends 300 days a year as a guest in strangers’ homes around the world. The point is that the small details actually tell us more than large databases.
“That book is rooted in a marketing perspective, but I would be very happy if there were any Danes who took his idea and asked ‘what would it mean in the Danish education system?’ Because it would mean the same thing,” he says.
We need big data as well as small data
But that does not mean that Denmark should completely forget about large-scale data collection in the country’s public school system. However, the “big data mindset” should be reduced to the kind of assessments done in Finland, based on a sample of the schools involved, and this data should be combined with each school’s self-designed surveys and practical experience.
“Lindstrøm argues that there is a need for small data if you want a detailed understanding of the types of performance, method and practice that lead to good learning. Big data simply does not provide that kind of insight. And then you have to combine these two types of data. The small data will come from the teachers – the government will never be able to do it. As I see it, then, Denmark has a great opportunity to pursue this line of thinking, which will give teachers more responsibility, resources and time to gather small data in their own classroom.”
It will then be the responsibility of teachers and heads of school to process their experiences about what works for them, and to do so in forms that can be shared.
“The ministerial civil servants who help determine educational policy need to have access to both types of data. In Denmark, they only have access to big data. But such data will never be able to tell us anything about what causes the phenomena we are looking at. So it would be ideal if civil servants, school heads and teachers all had access to both types of data, so that everyone gets a richer picture of what is actually going on in Danish schools,” explains Pasi Sahlberg.
The LEGO Prize is accompanied by an award sum of 650,000 Danish kroner, to help the winner continue working to promote children’s learning.