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May 30, 2018
by Maryam Ghaddar
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Olli-Pekka Heinonen- There Should Be More Freedom in the Classrooms for Teachers

Director General at the Finnish National Agency for Education affirms importance of dialogue in system reforms Olli-Pekka Heinonen speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

Learning is an enduring process. What are the implications of a teacher having freedom in a classroom? To what degree are teaching and learning related? How can positive thinking assist in developing educational systems?

Olli-Pekka Heinonen, director general at the Finnish National Agency for Education, envisioned and articulated a future for the education system in Finland which spoke volumes of his passion for bettering community-based instruction.

Heinonen was one of around 30 participants who attended this year’s annual meeting of the Public Sector Strategy Network, a three-day program at Salzburg Global Seminar. The session titled Mechanics for the Future: How Can Governments Transform Themselves? convened high-level government officials and representatives from multilateral institutions who aimed to build an interactive coalition of forward and outward-thinking individuals in a world dominated by rapidly shifting ideas, technologies, demographics, and expectations.

When it comes to bringing societal values and ethics into education systems and learning from other countries, Heinonen underscored his organization’s “responsibility to develop education, lifelong learning… and enhance internalization.”

The former state secretary at the Ministry of Finance of Finland said, “We should increase the adaptability of the education systems… emphasizing the role of the teachers, that they have the ability to… develop their own work… That’s, I think, a very important element of the adaptability… they have actually the autonomy and the trust of society for doing it. There’s a core curriculum which sets the general target that must be met, but how to do it is entirely up to the teachers. What pedagogical tools they will be using, what kind of materials, textbooks, books they will be using, it’s entirely up to them.”

Heinonen suggested it’s as difficult to study to become a teacher as it is to study to become a lawyer in Finland. If true, this is quite indicative of the extent to which other countries can learn from the Finnish system: its strengths, its weaknesses, and its objective for all children to reach their full potential. Assessment strategies are a major element of that goal.

“The trust issue is very central in making the system more adaptable,” Heinonen continued. “Assessment is very important in the Finnish system, but it is something that is a continuous, many-fold process, between the teacher and the pupil… to support learning and also to support the capability of the child to self-assess his or her own learning… We can create the kinds of schools and educational institutions as kind of communities of practice.”

Heinonen stressed how these communities function delivers a much stronger message than what is actually being taught. Maintaining equality, excellence, and diversity in the Finnish society is increasingly crucial as systems veer towards decentralization. Frequently, everyday work in governmental agencies creates cognitive dissonance, and standards and principles must be in line with actions.

“I’m saying walk the talk for schools also is so, so important. There’s no use… talking about sustainable development if you use a lot of paper all the time and do things that go exactly in the wrong direction.”
The dialogue itself is often the fundamental and necessary action in reforming systems of engagement. This is, after all, one of the ideals on which Salzburg Global Seminar was born, something Heinonen widely acknowledged. When asked how we can translate that discourse into actionable progress, the director general expressed his deep-set belief in the power of open exchange.

“The question is how to create such spaces for dialogue to happen that are safe and where there is no hierarchy in the discussion... I think [trust] is something that you must have in order for dialogue to succeed, but on the other hand, I believe that dialogue and hearing other shareholders or actors’ points of view creates trust also… when we talk about education, we talk about visions and utopias in a way, and if there is a disconnect with the rest of the society, it’s a very bad thing… dialogue is one way of finding a shared language to talk about what’s important in education.”

Civil servants learn and locate solutions together all the time. It is a testament to the depth and breadth of human exploration and experimentation, not only in education but in all facets of the public sector. Heinonen said, “I see how people grow together, as individuals and as teams… human’s ability to adapt to the surrounding world and change it.”


Mechanics for the Future: How Can Governments Transform Themselves? is part of the Public Sector Strategy Network, a multi-year initiative held in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and in cooperation with Apolitical. More information on this session can be found here.