Dr. Aija Rinkinen, Senior Education Specialist, The World Bank

Dr. Aija Rinkinen works as a Senior Education Specialist in the World Bank Education Global Practice, East Asia and Pacific, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She is a citizen of Finland, and she has worked in the field of education for more than 30 years.  Before joining the World Bank in 2020, Aija worked as a Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, Counsellor of Education at the Finnish National Agency for Education, Head of Education in one of the Finnish municipalities, principal, and a special education teacher.

Aija has a PhD degree in educational policy, administration, and leadership from the University of Helsinki, Finland, and master’s degree in special education from the University of Joensuu, Finland. She also holds three additional degrees in educational governance and leadership.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Dr. Rinkinen shared her insights on the K12 education transformation over the last 5 years, the need, importance and benefits of inclusive education, her career trajectory, leadership style, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

How has the K12 education landscape transformed over the last five years and where is it heading now?

Several different themes have surfaced in recent years. Of these, I will highlight a few, focusing on the ones I have most often seen in my work. These are also ones that I see as global topics, shared by many countries, and as topics that we need to continue working with in the future as well.

Learning poverty and learning loss, Covid-19 pandemic effect: The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus and the outcomes it caused affected all activities, human lives and the economy worldwide. We were forced to face a reality, for which we had not prepared in advance. The effects of the crisis were widespread, and the learning poverty which already existed before pandemic, deepened during months and even years of school closures. School closures meant different things in different countries. Transition from face-to-face to distance learning was a challenge for many education systems. Students, teachers and school leaders were pushed to change, and certainly not everyone was in their comfort zone. While in many issues we returned to tried and tested models and structures when schools reopened, I hope that the best reforms and innovations that took place during the pandemic will remain. It is quite likely that we will face other crises in the future as well. It will therefore be important to develop models that support the ability of education systems to function in exceptional circumstances, regardless of what causes the exception. The structures of cooperation, the flexibility of the system and the ability to adapt to changing situations help us to build operating methods and models that can be utilized in challenging and unexpected situations.

Skills: The world around us is changing continually and rapidly. This change is reflected in working life, lifestyles, and environments. At the same time, the changes will affect our understanding of the skills and competencies needed in the future. We’re likely to need new sets of skills and have to look at the old ones from a slightly different angle than we currently do. The need to update 21st century skills may soon be needed in areas such as health and safety, security, environment and climate, self-management, mental resilience, communication, digitalization, technology, and media literacy. Skills are often divided roughly into three categories: cognitive, social and behavioral, and technical and job-related skills. Each category includes multiple and diverse subskills. The important issue here is that a combination of all these skills is needed, and also valued by employers. The younger the child is, the more foundational are the skills that need to be learnt at that point of age. Skills are interlinked, learning them is cumulative, and strong support from teachers and parents is needed.

Lifelong learning: Lifelong learning is a thought pattern that helps people to adapt and succeed in their lives, society, and at the labor market. It prepares us to live in a world that is shaped by technology, globalization, environmental threats, and demographic changes as well as sudden shocks – such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It also answers to rapidly changing demand for different types of skills, that leads us to the need to build an education and training system where continuous upskilling and reskilling is possible, and where are no dead ends.  Skills development starts from early years and lasts for a lifetime.

Resiliency and innovation: Importance of resiliency has been raised already before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has accelerated the discussion. Resilience helps us to adjust and find solutions to different and fast changing circumstances. Resilience is important on different levels; there needs to be resiliency on system level and processes, and also on individual level and everyday situations. We do not know about the future, so even if we think today that we know how the future will turn out to be, we might be proven wrong. That is where resiliency comes to be handy. Our skills, knowledge and resilience are the building blocks that support innovation. The more skills you have, and the more innovative you are in combining those skills, the more out of box solutions you will be able to create. Many times, we link innovation with technology and business, but it actually is needed in all the sectors of our life.

Digitalization and technology: One of the skills that has been talked about a lot during the pandemic is the set of digital and technological skills. That obviously arises from the school closures and remote teaching and learning practices that countries were forced to start using in a rapid, almost overnight, manner. At the moment, we are in a situation where we cannot choose any more if we will use digital tools and technology or not. Technology already is and will increasingly be used both in our everyday life and in the working life. Technology is here to stay, we just need to decide how it is used, and make sure that everyone has access, skills, knowledge, and opportunity to benefit from it.

Early childhood education: Many countries have worked on developing their education systems related to basic, secondary, vocational, and higher education. In past years the importance of the early years has surfaced, and countries have increasingly started to focus also on developing their early childhood education services and preschool education. There is quite a significant ideological difference in whether ECE is seen as part of family services and social support, or as part of the education journey. In addition, there is a lot of debate about at what age participation in ECE should be made compulsory, and the pedagogy that should be used.

In your opinion, what is the need for and importance of inclusive education? Tell us about some of its key benefits?

When we talk about education, equity and inclusion need to be mentioned right at the beginning. Inclusiveness is a policy framework that in short means offering equal opportunities for all. No one will be left behind, everyone is important, and everyone is needed. Universal access to high-quality education for all needs to be guaranteed. In inclusive schools, students from different backgrounds and with a diversity of support needs have the same possibilities for learning alongside with each other in the same schools and classrooms with the support they need. Addressing individual needs in shared school settings to foster mutual respect and social inclusion is central.

Fostering inclusiveness is a crucial approach towards a rights-based education system that promotes learning and well-being for all. Students with special needs, disability, indigenous background, and gender or sexual minority status often face multi-layered barriers when they go to school. They may lack the same opportunities and underperform academically compared to their mainstream peers. Falling through gaps in the education system and failing to achieve their full potential is a reality for many, if the needed support is not provided. Education provision has increasingly shifted from segregated towards inclusive approach, with a growing number of countries supporting inclusive mainstreaming.

There are several reasons why it is important to pay attention to giving equal opportunities for all. Education has lifelong impacts on people, and it is fundamental to their development and growth. It only makes economic and strategic sense for countries to make the necessary investments and reforms required to improve both access and quality of learning to fulfil everyone’s development potential, not to even mention the human and individual effects that being part of the society means for all of us. We lose a significant amount of human capital if all segments of society are not given right educational opportunities to achieve their best potential.

Dr. Aija, can you brief us about your professional background and areas of interest?

I have been working in different education related professions for over 30 years, so I could say that I have a long background in education. I have also been fortunate to be able to work at different levels, gaining experience and knowledge from international, national, local, and school levels.

After completing my master´s degree in special education in 1992, I started my working life as a special education teacher. At that time, my plan was to work as a teacher for the rest of my career. After a few years, however, I noticed that I had started to grow an interest in topics related to development and leadership, and my desire to influence the future of education on a wider scale was growing. I also started to wonder why things are done in the way they are, and what could be done to make the change for the better. Fortunately, soon after that I was offered the opportunity to move from being a teacher to the position of a principal, and later to the head of education in my municipality. Later in 2010, I moved to the national level to the National Agency for Education in Finland and finally to the Ministry of Education in Finland. While working at the national level, I was able to join some of the European Commission working groups and other international networks in the field of education. That was the time when my interest towards international and global issues was awakened. Finally, I started my work at the World Bank in early 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I love learning, which has probably partly been the reason why I have always been interested in new and different things. I also personally consider continuous, lifelong learning to be very important, so over the years I have regularly upgraded my professional skills and qualifications. That journey led to my PhD degree on educational governance, policy, and leadership in March 2020. I have completed all of my studies while working, so I need to thank my family for allowing me to use so much of my free time for this personal development.

There are multiple interesting and important themes in the education sector that I have been lucky enough to work with. However, if I had to highlight the two closest to my heart, I would choose inclusive education and educational leadership. I believe that inclusiveness in education is achievable, but a lot of work has to be done for it. And on the other hand, everything we want to achieve is only possible if we have leadership, which enables the development and renewal we need.

What do you think is the major role of the teachers in preparing, designing, implementing, and evaluating the curriculum? Also, enlighten us about your experience while working on Finland’s curriculum design.

Learning takes place in interaction with others and in different environments. Students need to learn how to learn, recognize their own ways of learning and develop their self-conception and confidence. Teachers are essential for learning, and the quality of a school system is largely dependent on the quality of teachers. A teacher’s role has, however, changed from teaching to enabling and guiding the learning process. There is a lot of information available in the world and an important part of the teacher’s work is to guide students to find, use and combine information and evaluate its veracity. The most important tool for the teacher is the curriculum, therefore teachers must know the contents of the curricula very carefully in order to ensure the quality of the education the students receive. On the other hand, curriculum is just a piece of paper if not used in schools and classrooms.

National core curriculum is an important document in Finnish education system, and each education provider makes their own local curricula based on that. Core curriculum is renewed approximately every 10 years, and I was working at the National Agency for Education (government agency responsible for the curriculum design) at the time of the latest revision, and therefore deeply involved in the process. The curriculum revision involved several stages and was carried out in collaboration with various stakeholders. Work started with the needs assessment that incorporated new research findings and looked for needed changes in the curriculum content. After that multiple expert groups were appointed consisting of education professionals, researchers, teachers, education leaders, unions, and other stakeholders. These groups were responsible for revising the curriculum for different subjects and cross-curricular themes. They examined more research findings, evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the current curriculum, and developed new pedagogical approaches and content. I chaired the group that reformed the guidance counselling curriculum, and in addition I was a member of the group that reformed student support and the group that drew up general guidelines.

The revised curriculum was circulated for consultation among various stakeholders. They had the opportunity to provide feedback and comments on the content. Based on the feedback received, the needed changes were made before finalizing the document. The revised curriculum was implemented nationwide, and teachers received training on the practical implementation of its content and objectives. The national core curriculum document was accepted in 2014, but the needs assessment and assignment of the expert groups took place already a few years earlier. Education providers started to use the new curriculum in 2016, because there needed to be long enough time for the municipalities to make their local curricula, and training of the teachers took time as well.

You completed your Ph.D. thesis from the University of Helsinki. Can you please brief us about the topic of your thesis and what made you pursue it?

I defended my PhD thesis – Municipalities´ education directors´ views on the strengths and areas for improvement in basic education – in March 2020 at the University of Helsinki, Finland. The research was conducted from different organization and administration level perspectives, and the main aim was to identify themes that should be addressed nationally and locally in the development of basic education for compulsory school-aged students. I also wanted to research the division of labor between national and local levels in order to see who is responsible for making the changes needed.

Finnish K-12 education system is divided into three levels: state level, municipal level, and the school level. All of these levels have their own purpose and duties. Municipalities in Finland are the main education providers, and they have a lot of power and possibilities to organize the education in their area the way they see the best. They are although required to meet the requirements of legislation and core curriculum. Because I had previously worked in the municipality as a head of education responsible for K-12 education, I had personal experience of the pressure that the people working at this level face when they have to balance between national instructions and demands from schools. I also had the experience of how municipal education leaders have a lot of knowledge about problems at the practical level and solution options, but they have not been consulted much from the national side. On the other hand, they also have a lot of power and opportunities to influence education in their municipality. Those were the reasons why I wanted to ask these middle leaders how they see the situation in basic education in Finland.

I sent a questionnaire to all of municipality education leaders, and from their answers I was able to find eleven strengths and fifteen areas for improvement. To my surprise I found out that some of the themes highlighted as strengths also emerged as areas for improvement, such as equality and equity of education and issues concerning student support systems. In short, the themes that emerged were interrelated and multi-layered, highlighting the complexity of education system development. Some themes expressed the need for individual and concrete development measures, while others were quite extensive and principled. Some development activities can be implemented at the local level in the municipalities, while others require a national decision to reform. According to the results, there are also many strengths in education, on which the development can be based on.

One thing became very clear to me during work. It is important that leaders know where the boundaries of their decision-making power lie at the local level, and which are the issues that require decision-making at the national level. Leaders must also have the courage to act in matters that they have this opportunity to influence. They cannot wait for permission from a higher authority to act or for someone to do it first if it is a question of an entity that falls under their decision-making authority.

You are the Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank. Tell us about the organization and your role in it.

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) is part of The World Bank Group (WBG), and usually referred to as The World Bank. WBG is one of the world’s largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries. Its institutions share a commitment to reduce poverty, increase shared prosperity, and promote sustainable development. WBG has staff from more than 170 countries, and offices in over 130 locations. The headquarters is located in Washington DC, USA.

The work that the World Bank does in a nutshell is lending to countries’ social and structural reforms, advising governments, providing technical assistance in various projects, and working as a partner with other international communities and financial institutions. It is recognized that country’s economic development is tied to its human capital, and when developing human capital we need to take a close look at the education system of the country.  This is the sector where the World Bank’s Education Global Practice actively works, and this is the team where I am currently working.

The past three years I have been working at the Malaysia country office as a Senior Education Specialist.  The core of my work can be divided into three pillars: knowledge sharing, capacity building and policy reform activities. The main client is the government of Malaysia, especially the Ministry of Education. I have also worked a lot with the key stakeholders in the education sector, with other WB country teams, and international colleagues.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I want to highlight the importance of leadership. Leader has a great influence on how the organization performs, and how well the changes needed are implemented. Leaders are different, they have their own styles and characteristics, but I believe that all leaders benefit if they are innovative, they can endure uncertainty, they believe in change, and they are able to create an atmosphere where the change is done. Leaders must have a good knowledge of the goals that need to be achieved, strategy how to implement the change and a skill to break and divide that larger plan down into smaller shorter-term goals easier to achieve. Leaders know how to involve everyone, how to communicate and listen, and make things clear and simple to everyone.

I believe in taking steps on the path that is well planned and the leader has a map and a guidebook (strategy and action plan) to support her journey. The leader is in charge of creating that strategy for her organization, setting concrete goals, figuring out which are the steps to take, organizing the work, evaluating processes and results – and finally learning and making changes. She makes things visible and concrete, she prioritizes and changes direction when needed. In well led organization information flows, everyone knows what we are aiming to do, and why and how we do that.

Leader does her best to secure the resources needed for her organization. Even when the economy is low, she needs to see the issue of resources to be much more than just money. Personnel, knowledge, and time are essential resources to a learning community. It is one of the most difficult jobs for a leader to consider new and innovative ways of using and sharing the resources available, prioritizing, and focusing rightly on the decreasing budget. That is a time and a place when thinking outside the box is needed. You have to put all the resources available in a big bag, shake well and see how to allocate those resources in a better or new and innovative way in order to build something better.  And of course, there is a lot you can do without extra money if you are just willing to change.

But the leader doesn’t do all that by herself. Tasks need to be delegated and responsibility has to be shared (but of course the leader herself carries the ultimate responsibility). Alongside this liability comes freedom and trust. All the members of the working community hold and carry their own responsibility, and the leader is the one who holds all the strings in her hands and orchestrates this symphony. Change is done with people – not with them.

Educational leadership requires skills, determination, and uncompromising work. The leader leads by her own example. She inspires, is positive and welcomes change. She commends, gives feedback, motivates, and rewards. She understands that emotions are part of life. She is able to control her reactions, be able to listen and to be fair. In a well-led workplace, joy, appreciation, openness, enthusiasm, patience, trust, transparency, humility, courage, responsibility, and understanding sprout.

These are the things I believe in and try to build my leadership style according to.

What are some of your greatest achievements in your career till date? What makes them special?

I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to have such a long and varied career in different types of roles in a field that is dear to me. Along the way, I have met the most wonderful people from whom I have learned a lot. It is quite difficult to choose, but the following three could be mentioned here.

Strategic planning: When working at the Finnish National Agency for education I was a member of a small core team who created a national model for education strategy work in municipalities in 2013. The model called KuntaKesu (Municipal Education Development Plan) was created to help local authorities to combine national strategic goals to local ones and serve as a platform for strategic planning. Municipalities can use the model as is or customize it to fit their needs. The plan can also serve as support and a catalyst for local education policy debate. I had done earlier a lot of strategy planning and implementation work on local level, but this national project opened me a new perspective to the issue, more knowledge about the problems that local education providers are facing, and options for solutions to fix these problems.

Networks: Networks are a great tool to be used in educational development and sharing experiences. One of them is a Finnish Lighthouse, a development network for basic education schools, run by Finnish National Agency for Education. The goal of the Lighthouse -network is to innovate and experiment new pedagogical approaches and share those innovations to all Finnish schools. I was a founding member of the model, and after launching in 2015 I acted as a national coordinator for the network. I learned how to innovate a networking structure, and how to get it running.

Development programs: Many education reforms need a development program, which collects information about the topic, and innovates options for the reform implementation. I have been a member of multiple development program groups. Most interesting national ones in Finland were (1) A national teacher training development program, (2) Student support development program, (3) Guidance counselling development program, and (4) National basic education development program. At the European level I worked for years as a member of the European Commission Education and Training 2020 –group. While working in these groups I learned many things, but maybe the biggest lesson was that if you do want to make a change, you need to be proactive, and be involved in the groups that do the pre-work and planning. The time to influence is when the first drafts are drawn, and decisions made of the key focus areas.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

In the next five years I would like to see myself still working with the global educational development issues, learning more every day, and making a change with the work I am doing.

What is the one thing you would recommend to someone who wishes to pursue a career in teaching?

Working in the education sector is working for the future. It is meaningful, important, and impactful. There are various tasks in the field available and opportunities for advancement and career development if you are interested. All the work done in the field of education accumulates skills that will be useful in later years. Personally, I have benefited a lot from the experiences I gained from working as a teacher and principal in the early stages of my career.

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