Discussion summary: Education post-Covid (CIS 2020)

This is a summary of the discussion hosted by the CIS on 11 August 2020 between Professor Pasi Sahlberg and Greg Ashman, moderated by Sydney Morning Herald Education Editor, Jordan Baker. The subject for the discussion was ‘Education post-Covid: Do schools need a transformation?’


Ashman and Sahlberg are major proponents of the two seemingly opposed approaches to education: ‘progressive’ education (Sahlberg), which is typically more self-directed and involves methods such as inquiry and project-based learning, and a more traditional approach (Ashman), which is teacher-centred, involving the teacher actively teaching content (explicit or direct instruction), which builds student knowledge and thereby does not overwhelm cognitive load. These approaches are the educational equivalent of A Conflict of Visions – Thomas Sowell’s book about visions of the world. In education, the progressive view is closer to Sowell’s ‘unconstrained vision’, and sees the student as naturally curious and capable of self-teaching, with the teacher a ‘guide by the side’. Direct or explicit instruction, on the other hand, is closer to Sowell’s ‘constrained vision’, and sees the teacher as superior in terms of knowledge, with an approach that can help students learn concepts and develop knowledge.

Ashman is constantly warning against educational fads proposed by thought-leaders. Concepts such as ‘21st Century skills’ are fashionable, but do they work? Ashman is skeptical, and notes they rely on the student having prior knowledge. Sahlberg’s more progressive approach may be seen by Ashman as a fad. Sahlberg is from the Finnish education system, which commences formal education later and is more focused on the development of the child than formal learning in the early stages. Sahlberg’s new book argues for the benefits of play in learning, and examines research and case studies that demonstrate the benefits of play to children across the world.

In March, Ashman criticised Sahlberg’s piece on ABC online where he argued Australia has an equity problem in education. Ashman argued that there isn’t evidence to support that view, and that Sahlberg’s proposed solutions were ‘vague and expensive’.

Discussion summary

Despite the potential for heated debate, there was substantial agreement and only minor disagreement in a very civilised discussion.

On the effects of learning from home

There was mild disagreement about the effects of learning from home, with Sahlberg indicating early research shows some positive effects, while Ashman noted that remote learning is more difficult. Sahlberg noted that some students may have appreciated the independence provided by learning from home, and while Ashman acknowledged independence in learning is possible, it works better where students are prepared and have strong foundational knowledge.

On removing exams in year 12

Ashman cautioned against removing exams as entry requirements and final assessments of learning, as the alternative – portfolios – may be worse in terms of equity. The stress of exams is not a bad thing, as life involves stress. Sahlberg agreed that final exams and the stress involved with them can be a good thing. But he emphasised that assessment needs to be fit for purpose, to which Ashman agreed.

On changing NAPLAN

Sahlberg suggested that the NAPLAN test cold be replaced by a sample-based assessment of student skills, while Ashman thought that some parents may be disappointed not to see the results of their child’s NAPLAN test. NAPLAN should be based on the Australian curriculum and not on content that is contextual or cultural.

On the relevance of PISA

Sahlberg suggested that the PISA results are containing more unexplained variance, enabling us to conclude less and less from the results. He noted that most/all OECD countries are facing similar trends down in results, which indicates there is a shared cause for the decline in achievement. He suggested it may be related to how students are spending their time outside of school, namely the use of smart phones, computer games, etc. There has also been a rise in mental health issues and a decline in physical activity, which could be related. On the other hand, Ashman emphasised the things schools can control. While Sahlberg noted that 60% of the variance in achievement is the result of factors outside of school, Ashman argued that change is possible if we make wise choices on how we educate. Such strategies include explicit teaching, adopting a systematic approach to student behaviour management, and using a knowledge-rich curriculum. The systematic approach involves teaching students basics like reading, teaching basic behaviours and expectations, implementing routines, and using positive reinforcement. With regard to behaviour, Sahlberg noted the problem in Australian schools with bullying, especially bullying of staff, suggesting the culture is different here than in Finland and the US, where such behaviour is less prevalent.

On the NSW curriculum review

Ashman argued that stripping back the curriculum by removing knowledge-rich content to make way for basics like literacy and numeracy is concerning, especially for literacy, because literacy involves activating knowledge. If this knowledge is not learned – because the curriculum would feature contextless literacy lessons – it can be hard to make sense of a text and improve literacy.

On change in education

They finished by agreeing that change involves engaging the profession in the change process. Teaching in Australia typically does not involve teachers, which is not typical of other professions.