The high quality of the Finnish school system is based on a clear national ethos that people are the nation’s most important asset
TEACHING is an attractive career choice in Finland, and is often mentioned in the same breath as professions such as medicine and law.
Finnish Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen said the secret is that the teachers in Finland are extremely well-educated.
All comprehensive school teachers must have a Master’s degree. This high level of training allows them the autonomy to select what methods and materials to use.
Regardless of the schools’ size, the qualifications of teachers are uniform everywhere.
Education at school is compulsory for Finnish children. Compulsory education begins the year the child turns seven and ends when they have completed the nine-year comprehensive school syllabus in full or after 10 years of compulsory education, At grades one to six, class teachers teach all subjects as a rule. They usually hold a Master of Arts degree in education, with emphasis on pedagogical skills.
At grades seven to nine of comprehensive schools and in upper secondary schools, subject-specific teaching is provided by teachers who have a Master’s degree in the subject and have completed pedagogy studies.
The number of candidates who apply to teacher training is five times higher than the actual intake.
Grahn-Laasonen said the education system is based on trust.
“We trust our teachers. They are well-educated professionals who know what they are doing, and that gives us excellent results,” she added.
The national curricula must be followed, but teachers have the freedom to choose their teaching methods and learning materials in the classroom.
Teachers are independent specialists who know the needs and strengths of their pupils and respect the common objectives.
University of Helsinki professor of educational psychology Dr Kirsti Lonka said the success of Finland’s education system has always been founded in world-class research-based teacher training.
“The teaching profession is particularly valued in Finland.
“The Finnish school was built on a solid foundation of equality and the world’s best teachers.
“These are the values that we wish to hold on to in the future as well,” she added.
To remain at the cutting edge, she said both the school system and learning methods must change to keep up with the changing world.
Rapid changes in society, such as globalisation and the transformations in work, have introduced new challenges for schools and learning. Work is now increasingly done in projects, with non-permanent teams solving complex issues together. Information is not only acquired, but also created together.
“These are the very challenges that we seek to answer at the University of Helsinki by developing sustainable, research-based teacher education.
“Traditionally, teachers have primarily taught school subjects. Today, however, we are moving away from subjects and towards a future where teachers will increasingly teach comprehensive learning skills. This will make teaching more and more problem and phenomenon based,” she said.
As a result, she said future learning will take place in multidisciplinary projects that centre on complex phenomena and develop learners’ problem-solving and thinking skills.
New technologies, she added, will also be integrated into teaching, and learning environments will be increasingly modified to promote learning.
Finnish education is in high demand internationally.
“But we should not export the school system we used to have, because we are among the leading countries in creating new innovations in education.
“Instead, we should as we do develop new export products in collaboration with universities, universities of applied sciences and companies.
“Retaining our place at the global top is possible only through continuous development, research and learning.
“If we want to continue to be the best, we cannot hold on to today or the past. Instead, we must invest even more in education and in the top research that drives it forward,” she added.
Finland has long been one of the top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is where 15-year-olds worldwide are assessed on science, maths, reading, collaborative problem-solving and financial literacy.
In the 2015 report, Finland was ranked fourth in reading, fifth in science and 12th in maths, out of more than 70 countries and economies participating.
This, despite dropping down the ranks in the science, reading and maths tests as compared to the previous Pisa survey.
Nurturing from young
Education in Finland stresses learning through insight and encouragement in assessing performance.
It is not based on continuous assessment, the grading of performance or competition between pupils. Instead teaching focuses on finding learning methods that best serve each pupil and on supporting those who have challenges in learning. Every pupil is offered the chance to continue studying.
The first national examination is at the end of general upper secondary education. It comprises four compulsory tests which are mother tongue and according to each candidate’s choice, three of the following namely the second national language, a foreign language, mathematics or one subject in general studies such as humanties and natural sciences.
In a recent visit to the Vesala Comprehensive School in eastern Helsinki, pupils from various backgrounds including those with special needs such as dyslexia learn together in class.
Its principal Juha Juvonen said the school provides the 920 pupils in grades one to nine with quality basic education with an emphasis on nature and science.
Most of the pupils are from the neighbouring suburban area, he said, adding that around 40% have immigrant backgrounds. The socioeconomic status is considered lower than the average.
“The school has a large greenhouse with a variety of plants and animals, which different pupils take care of under the supervision of teachers.
“Someone who moved to Florida gave a turtle he had owned for many years to the school and placed his shoes there to make sure it feels at home here,” he said.
Any pupil, he added, can attend the school here as long as he lives in the area.
School starts at 9am and finishes around 2pm.
At Vesala, some lessons are designed to be fun and integrate concepts from various subjects. As an example, a robotics lesson teaches pupils to explore science and mathematics concepts. They also speak in Finnish and English to solve issues with their robots.
During the visit to Vesala, Sheha Fahrid Rashid, 11, was working with her classmates Vilma Vallin, nine and Pauvo Palamaki, 11, on a robotics project.
“It is fun to do this,” said Sheha.
Other skills such as teamwork and problem-solving will also equip pupils for the real world.
When children enjoy a lesson, they want to learn more, said Juvonen.
“Special education also has an important role at Vesala. Around 80 to 100 integrated pupils study in mainstream classes and five special education classes offer specialised education in smaller classes.
“There are two preparatory classes for immigrants and two work emphasised classes,” he added.
It’s an inclusive system with the same curriculum for all in school, said counsellor of education Riia Palmqvist who is with the Finnish National Agency for Education.
“Everyone is supported to ensure there are equal opportunities for all,” she added.
All pupils of compulsory school age have the right to general support, that is, high quality education as well as guidance and support.
Intensified support must be given to those pupils who need regular support measures or several forms of support at the same time.
In Finland, education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education.
A free lunch comprising a hot meal including salad, milk or other beverage and bread is provided to every pupil.
In fact, Finland was the first country in the world to provide school children with free lunches in 1948.
Many adults return to school to learn new skills or update existing ones, even though the courses they take may not lead to a degree.
Nearly all municipalities have at least one institution offering liberal adult education.
Omnia Education Partnerships CEO Mervi Jansson said those taking courses at the institution can be any age with some in their 60s.
“They want to earn new things about their work,” she added.
As an example, vocational college Omnia offers adult education courses such as management, cooking and even refurbishing old furniture.
Employers also encourage their workers to upgrade, with some offering to sponsor their course fees and paying them their full salaries during their studies.
“Companies give time for their workers to upgrade, because they will return with new skills and are more valuable,” she said.
* For related story on Finnish education, turn to page 8.