'Show empathy' as kids navigate their way to the future

Parents need to listen to their children more, says Prof Sahlberg, an education expert.
Parents need to listen to their children more, says Prof Sahlberg, an education expert.ST FILE PHOTO

"There are 75 million young people in the world today without jobs," says Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world's leading experts on school reform.

"And many of these youth will never find employment."

This number reflects a sobering reality. And even in Finland, whose education system is widely recognised as one of the world's best, Professor Sahlberg predicts that "we will have more and more people who will not find their place through the traditional ways of thinking".

But what does it mean to think less "traditionally"?

"Nobody knows how the future will look. No parents, no children - and certainly no university professors," says Prof Sahlberg.

"I have two children myself. I realise it's a difficult thing for parents to help their children get ready for the future when they don't know exactly what it will be like."

The key, he says, is to change the way we educate our children. After all, in both Singapore and Finland, "we see learning as the best way to bring not only our economies, but also our culture and nation, forward". But change is challenging.

Prof Sahlberg suggests that many parents today, including himself, are "products of a very different past - when it was more common to choose the area that you want to be educated in, go to university, get your degree, go to a job, work there, and retire".

"However, most of the kids in parts of the world like Singapore and Finland don't have this luxury any more. Very few will have one career that they will enter and retire from."

And this is something that young people are acutely aware of.

"If you speak to them, they understand that there's no such thing as a lifetime job," he says.

"Our children need our guidance to deal with this kind of uncertainty."

What does this "help" look like in practice? The first step is empathy, says Prof Sahlberg.

We need to listen to our children more, which includes accepting and supporting ideas that may sound strange at first. He anticipates that many parents might be puzzled, or alarmed, by questions such as "Why should I go to college?"

"Our first reaction shouldn't be, 'No, no, you have to go to college, because I went to college', or 'I couldn't go to college, but you will go'."

He suggests that parents treat these queries sensitively and make a genuine effort to understand why our children think this way. "This is a very hard thing to do, but I think we must try harder."

Why? It is tough conversations like this which will help children uncover the path that will serve them best as they try to navigate a future where "good jobs don't exist at the rate they used to any more".

"We need to respect what the children want to do," he says. "I don't think having a university degree or going to college will be as important any more in the future. For an increasing number of people, their lives would be much better off and they would earn much more by doing something else."

So, what will prepare our children for the future?

Prof Sahlberg says: "The answer to this question is slowly changing."

A decade or two ago, a good education was "something that was able to provide all students with basic knowledge and skills so that they can go further their studies, find a good job, and make a good living".

In developed economies like Singapore and Finland, rather than teach young people how to be good workers and employees, they need to grow into people who can generate opportunities for themselves and others.

"We often say that if you want to have a good job in the future, you have to create one," Prof Sahlberg says. But he acknowledges that this shift in thinking will take time.

"In Finland, we still have this mindset that the role of the education system is to educate and prepare the labour force." If change is to happen, our schools and homes are a good place to start.


Today, he says, "we're speaking less and less about how much knowledge students have when they leave school, and how much they can do" - because what's expected of them in the workforce is changing too quickly.

"Knowledge is no longer the monopoly of the school education system."

What makes for a good education, then? It's not just parents, teachers and policymakers who are pondering this. "In Finland, we have more and more teenagers coming to school every day, asking 'What am I doing here? What is this school offering me?'"

"I've two sons," Prof Sahlberg says. "For me, the answer is brief. I think a good education for my children, in Finland, will help them leave the school with the attitude that they want to learn more about the world, themselves, and other people."

Beyond building an attitude of curiosity, an education should cultivate each individual's strengths.

"In Finland, many children are in a situation - I'm sure that it's the same thing here in Singapore - where they haven't really discovered what their passion or what their talent is."

In a world where people "can learn anything you need in your life outside the school", Prof Sahlberg feels that helping every student "find the talent within him" should be the goal of every school.

Having a good grasp of one's own strengths and a strong desire to learn are critical to helping each individual carve out his own niche in the workplace of the future. "If the schools fail to do that, it doesn't matter how good your examination results are."


Supporting children comes not just in the form of action (or deliberate inaction), but also in the expectations placed on them.

All parents "just want the best for our children", but Prof Sahlberg says it's worth pausing to examine whose standards of excellence we're holding our children to.

Sometimes, what parents consider to be "the best" for them may not match up with what the children themselves aspire to.

"If we, as a parent, are asking our children to do something that is completely different than their inner talent, it can be very harmful in the long course."

Despite parents' best efforts to prepare their children for the workforce, the future will remain unpredictable. That doesn't mean that parents are helpless in the face of this uncertainty.

Prof Sahlberg, who was formerly the director-general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture, says the best thing parents can do for their children is to guarantee what is within their control - assuring their children that whatever happens, they are there to help "in the spirit of love, caring and protection".

Even if they're feeling a little lost, he says, what matters most is that "we're trying to figure out where we're going - together".

• This article was first published in Schoolbag.sg, an online publication by the Ministry of Education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline ''Show empathy' as kids navigate their way to the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe