Writing articles is not enough

Engaging with the general public is an important skill for a researcher in the topical field of education. Pasi Sahlberg came to Helsinki to bust some myths.

The current discussion on educational policy is full of mistakes and myths. This controversial statement is from Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish professor at Harvard, who visited Helsinki in late May.

For example, is it true that the most important single factor in improving the quality of education is teachers? Or that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers?

According to Sahlberg, both of the above statements are myths. The latter is particularly dangerous, as it distorts practices. Many factors impact the education system, such as its leadership and mission. Meanwhile, the results of learning can be better predicted from the pupil’s family background than from the work of the teachers.

However, such is the jungle of claims and beliefs that surrounds important decision making.

Streamline the message

Education researchers play a central role in providing correct and balanced information about the consequences of decisions and the causal relations between different phenomena. For example, in international comparisons there appears to be a correlation between equality in education and successful learning. However, a correlation does not imply causation.

In order to disseminate their research results, researchers must learn to express themselves succinctly, to summarise their idea in three sentences. Sahlberg teaches his students to write short texts with impact. His article from three years ago, What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?, has been read more than three million times through the Washington Post.

"You can’t change the world through academic articles alone. Personally, I’ve stopped writing them altogether,” Salhberg states.

Expressing impact

It is a common complaint that politicians and officials turn a deaf ear to the latest academic research. Sahlberg encourages the opposite perspective: is research produced in such a way that it is useful? Slow, complicated or highly abstract research will not find its way to the desks of politicians.

Even the choice of words is significant. The researcher or any person providing statements on research must be careful and precise when explaining the complexity of a phenomenon.

Pasi Sahlberg is Visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University and holds the title of docent at the University of Helsinki. He lectured in Helsinki on 30 May upon invitation from the Doctoral Programme of School, Education, Society and Culture (SEDUCE) under the title Educational Research and Policy – Thin line between fact and fiction.