The wonderful education system of Finland

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The wonderful education system of Finland

Postby toddles » Thu Jul 18, 2013 11:10 am

Just posting this article here for posterity... a system that we can dream of, if not work towards... ... innish-way

March 2013 article

Mention private tuition, and one gets a bemused look from Finnish educators, pupils and parents. This is unheard of in their country, they say. When school ends, so do the lessons.

Once bell rings at 2pm across schools in Finland, children run to the park to indulge in snowball fights or pastimes like ice hockey and music. The only group missing out on the fun, when TODAY visited last month shortly before the matriculation exam (the only national assessment in Finland), were the 18-year-olds, who duly trooped home to revise.

Mr Juha Korhonen, who has three children, did not know of any tuition programmes in Finland. “Even if there were, I wouldn’t send my kids … Children need free time and rest after school and homework,” he said.

Homework for Finnish students consists of a few Math problems or perhaps essay assignments. For the minority who have trouble keeping up, teachers provide remedial lessons after school.

As Professor Jouni Valijarvi, an expert in international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), notes: “In Finland, school is the only place where students study.” This has been the tradition, said the Director of Finnish Institute for Educational Research: “Children mark a very clear difference between school time and their free time.”

Even the after-school sports or arts activities that students engage in — and which are managed by private or community organisations — are clearly treated as hobbies, and not the mandated co-curricular activities of Singapore schools.

Hanna Korhonen, 13, trains in figure skating because “I enjoy it very much and I hope to be a professional skater someday”.


Meanwhile, Emmi Siitonen was preparing for the first major exam of her life when TODAY met her.

The 18-year-old had practised mock exam scenarios set by her teachers and previous years’ papers. She was still feeling nervous, but at least she was certain she would have enough time to finish the matriculation exam — which allocates six hours per paper (most pupils sit for six subjects).

Said Emmi: “I have the time to think and write my answers … after all, the exams are not about memorising but to test my understanding and ability to apply knowledge.”

During the six-hour-long sittings, most schools even provide sandwiches and juices. “There is no hurry, you can think, you have a short nap, drink your coffee and eat your lunch, before completing the paper,” said language teacher Katrina Vartiainen. While most of her pupils can complete a paper in four hours, she said the time allows weaker students to do their best as well.

There are no national exams during the first nine years of a student’s life in comprehensive schools. Out of each cohort of 60,000 students, about 30,000 go on to upper secondary education, where their ultimate aim is to do well in the matriculation exam which they sit for in two or three years.

The other half of the cohort enters vocational schools or starts work. Entrance to upper secondary is dependent on their Grade Point Average at the end of Grade Nine (the equivalent of Secondary 3). Both vocational and upper secondary schooling can lead to a university education.

While Emmi certainly felt the stress of having to prepare for the matriculation exam, she said upper secondary school — which operates on a modular system — has taught her to take charge of her own education. Pupils are given the flexibility to customise their own timetable across interests such as German Language or Philosophy.

Educators note that the matriculation exam weighs heavily on students and parents’ minds — not too different from major exams here in Singapore. While the nation’s top scorer is not publicly announced, there are still informal rankings compiled by the media. This may perpetuate the reputation of “top” schools and enable them to attract high-performing students, educators add.


In the 1960s, the Finnish authorities decided to implement a compulsory nine-year education path, providing free education for children between seven and 16 years of age.

Pupils attend comprehensive schools nearest to their homes, in part due to the authorities guaranteeing children in the neighbourhood a place. Most parents interviewed also believe that all schools are equally good.

To ensure the quality of education in schools, the Finnish National Board of Education randomly selects schools every few years to conduct assessments. Language associations helmed by teachers also regularly carry out voluntary tests among pupils.

In the classrooms, teachers use a variety of tests and quizzes as well as provide regular feedback to help students manage their learning process. They follow a national curriculum highlighting key areas to be covered, but can decide how they want to teach and assess students.

For instance, teachers could hold two class tests counting to the final grade, while giving quizzes after each topic is taught. At the same time, they pay attention to how pupils participate in class, recording their observations almost daily in an online system.

Both parents and students can access the system. Said 17-year-old student Linh Lin: “There are tests and self-evaluations; this pressure is enough to motivate me. My parents also always emphasise the importance of getting good grades.”

And without major exams every few years, Finnish educators noted another benefit: They can tailor lessons according to pupils’ pace of learning, allocating time for field trips and frequent group activities.

“The younger kids need a relaxed learning atmosphere, and that cannot happen with high-stakes exams,” said Mr Olli Maatta, who teaches at Helsinki Normal Lyceum. “It would also limit teaching as you would only teach what is tested; learning is narrowed due to this fear of the exams.”

Maininki School principal Rolf Malmelin agreed that schools are not just places of study, but also for children to learn how to live and work with others in society. “When you are not just teaching for the national tests, you are teaching the kids for life,” he added.


One way to learn for life, according to students and educators, is the inclusive study environment in Finnish schools.

There is no best class; kids of different abilities are grouped together. A special needs teacher steps into the classroom to assist special needs learners or brings them to another classroom for a few periods each day. (In 2011, 11.4 per cent of comprehensive school pupils received some kind of special support.)

Joao Hamalainen, 17, studies in one of Helsinki’s elite upper secondary school, the Helsinki Normal Lyceum (Most students enter with a Grade Point Average of 9.0 upon 10).

Of his first nine years of school-life, he said: “Being with classmates of different abilities guided me more. For subjects I am better at, I learned by helping my classmates.”

Nevertheless, while international tests show that Finnish pupils are performing well and the variance between Finnish schools is small, some observers have argued that smarter learners are not stretched to their fullest potential.

Ms Armi Mikkola, Counsellor of Education at the Finland Ministry of Education and Culture, explained that equality underscores the Finnish education system. Huge investments are chanelled to support pupils with special needs. “Our system believes in providing equal education opportunities, where schools do not select students,” she said.

TODAY visited an English Language class at Maininki School, half an hour from Helsinki. Teacher Rose-Marie Mod-Sandberg posed questions and got her eighth-grade class of 14-year-olds to discuss in pairs. Next, she gave out vocabulary exercises, assigning additional questions to one or two of the faster learners.

Ms Mod-Sandberg agreed that managing a heterogeneous classroom is tricky. “Sometimes, I feel bad that a lot of attention is paid to the slowest ones … the really clever ones, they don’t always get enough.” To make up for that, teachers use diverse ways, including challenging quicker students with more demanding tasks, or grouping pupils so that they help each other.

Although managing these differences might mean more work for them, teachers baulk at the suggestion of streaming students according to abilities. Said Mr Maatta: “We are not for helping only the talented thrive… In the classroom, everyone is lifted up to a certain level.”


The uncertain European economy, however, may be threatening the future success of Finland’s education system. City officials seeking to cut costs might decide to reduce education spending, arguing that Finnish students are already scoring well in international tests, noted Prof Valijarvi of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research.

Last month, for example, the authorities from Jyvaskyla city decided to relocate Jyvaskylan Lyseon lukio — one of Finland’s oldest upper secondary schools — in order to potentially set up a larger high school. The savings on building maintenance costs were cited as a reason by local media.

But this is no time to rest on laurels — as Prof Valijarvi noted, schools are facing emerging challenges, such as the growing number of special needs and immigrant children, who need more attention. And with individual municipalities having autonomy on spending, the richer municipalities would be better able to invest more in schools — jeopardising Finland’s tradition of equal opportunities across the country, he added.

There is also a need to use technology more pervasively in Finnish classrooms, said University of Helsinki head of teacher education Jari Lavonen. “That’s a real challenge ... There are lots of success stories, but not in every classroom.”

And in an increasingly educated society, educators are reporting a trend of demanding Finnish parents.

While teachers have long been highly-respected in Finland, of late there have been lawsuits brought by parents against schools, and parents who question teaching methods.

To manage the shifting education landscape, educators highlight the need to better train school leaders to manage teachers’ welfare. Ramping up in-service training opportunities is also crucial to help teachers keep up with changes, they note.

Finnish parents told TODAY that they still trust teachers, but busier lifestyles have also led to higher expectations of educators. They urged the Finnish authorities to support teachers by keeping watch on expanding class sizes and investing more in special needs pupils.
Last edited by toddles on Thu Jul 18, 2013 11:15 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The wonderful education system of Finland

Postby toddles » Thu Jul 18, 2013 11:11 am

Part II. (How every teacher in the world would love to be part of this system!)

05 March.Asked how he assesses his teachers, Mr Matti Koivusalo shrugs matter-of-factly that he has “no means” to do so. “There is no evaluation whatsoever for teachers. Everything is based on trust,” says the Principal of Haaga Comprehensive School in Helsinki.

Indeed, the “open” school culture means any feedback quickly reaches his ears, says Mr Koivusalo, who looks after 50 teachers and 600 pupils in grades one through nine (the equivalent of Primary 1 to Secondary 3 in Singapore).

It is easy to see how: Along the school’s hallway, pupils look up from their mobile phones and greet him as he walks past; some engage him in friendly banter. At the school cafeteria where free lunches are served daily — an established practice at all Finnish schools — teachers join him for lunch and chat about how their day has gone.

Said Mr Koivusalo: “If something bad happens, I’ll hear about it in five minutes … The atmosphere is such that (students and teachers) can come and talk about it freely without being afraid.”

Even so, sackings are rare in Finnish schools, say educators. Mr Vesa Valkila, one of the principals at Turku University teacher training school, tried to explain: “Finnish teachers have a lot of freedom and are trusted … that really motivates a lot of them to do their best.”


In Finland, a small country of 5.4 million people, its education system operates on this singular principle of trust.

The country’s model shot to global attention after Finnish pupils repeatedly excelled in international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment — despite having practically no mandated standardised exams, rankings or competition.

Schools take in students of all varying abilities, including those with learning disabilities, under one roof. The curious result is that, the differences between its weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to a Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey.

School leaders across Finland tell TODAY the same thing: “We trust our teachers”.

There are no national examinations in the first nine years of Finnish formal schooling, and schools and teachers are pretty much left on their own to educate their charges.

As Ms Armi Mikkola, counsellor of education at the Ministry of Education and Culture put it: “The administration is for support and not for inspection … Trust is part of Finnish society, it is a culture.”

Nevertheless, “with trust, there are some risks”, admitted Professor Jouni Valijarvi, Director of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research.

To mitigate risks of having underperforming teachers in schools, a stringent teacher selection process and rigorous teacher training is integral to the system, he said. “It is very important that we can say all schools are good schools,” added Prof Valijarvi. “Because in every school, we’ve highly-trained and qualified teachers”.


Yearly, 7,000 teaching aspirants apply to be class teachers (teaching the equivalent of Primary 1 to 6). Typically, there are just 800 spots available.

To teach secondary and upper secondary students (Secondary 1 to Junior College equivalent), 6,000 vie for 1,500 subject teacher positions yearly. Universities cherry-pick from this large pool of applicants, with two different selection processes for each category.

For class teachers, to prepare applicants for an entrance test, authorities will release study materials online on education-related topics such as pedagogical research studies. During the four-hour test, applicants answer about 100 multiple-choice questions. Even so, acing the entrance test does not guarantee a spot in one of the 11 universities offering teacher education.

In phase two, depending on the applicant’s university of choice (they are given up to three picks), there could be a psychometric test along with an interview, or an observed group activity. Some universities also select based on an applicant’s matriculation exam results — the only national examinations taken by Finnish pupils, at the age of 18.

Ms Anna Vaatainen, a student teacher at the University of Turku, is one who succeeded on her second try.

In her first attempt, she was invited by the University of Jyvaskyla for an interview but did not make it through. She went on to obtain a social work degree, and worked in an orphanage for four months, before deciding to give teacher education another go.

This time, after “studying very hard” for the entrance test again, she and three other applicants were tasked by the University of Turku to plan an imaginary school’s sports day. “I am better around people so this group activity might have worked for me,” she said.

Those hoping to be a subject teacher undergo a similar selection process, having to first pass an entrance test set by their subject faculty of choice. They will then apply to the faculty of education, which may require an aptitude test and interview.

The result is that you ensure true commitment to the job. Mr Jari Kouvalainen, a student teacher at the University of Eastern Finland, said: “Because we have to get through this really hard test, you have to be really motivated. With another five years of study, you’re really committed to this career”.


In the ’70s, Finnish officials moved teacher training under the universities, subsequently implementing a five-year master’s degree programme for all who want to become teachers. A combination of theory, practice and research was key to teacher education, they decided.

Class teachers major in the educational sciences and teach most subjects including Mathematics and Science at the primary levels. Teacher educators say that teaching younger children requires strong pedagogical skills to motivate and excite learners, and not just the transfer of academic knowledge at this stage.

By contrast, subject teachers major in their teaching subjects, while also having to complete pedagogical modules and teaching practicums. In-depth knowledge in their teaching areas is crucial, to give them the confidence to explain complex theories and tackle difficult questions.

Ms Anneli Rautiainen, head of professional development of teachers at the Finnish National Board of Education, thinks that research-based teacher education accounts for the high quality of teaching in Finnish schools today.

“The fact that we have a Master’s degree for teacher initial education is very important. As research-based teachers, they can analyse learning situations and know how to support their students better,” she said.

Student teacher Ms Tuula Hurtig agrees that conducting research has honed her critical thinking abilities and improved her teaching methods. Graduating as a history and civics teacher this year, her thesis involved research into how historical pictures impacted her students’ learning.


Head of teacher education at University of Helsinki, Professor Jari Lavonen, calls research-based teacher education vital — it combines with field practice to keep student-teachers in touch with classroom realities and “thinking about their teaching methods”, he said.

All student teachers undergo multiple teaching practicums as part of their five-year programme. Each one lasts between two weeks and a year.

Guided by teacher mentors, student teachers are attached to teacher-training schools set up by the universities, where they plan, teach and observe lessons. These 12 teacher training schools across Finland function as normal schools, with pupils coming from nearby homes. These schools also partner regularly with universities to produce the latest research in education.

Final-year student teacher Mikko Honkamaki, from the University of Jyvaskyla, worked with different mentors during each of his four practicuums — which broadened his perspective on various teaching styles — and got advice before and after each lesson. He also got to observe and critique fellow student-teachers, and vice-versa.

“Watching my peers forced me to focus on my own way of giving instructions ... Receiving and giving feedback has also been crucial to my growth as a professional,” he said.


It was a cold winter’s morning when TODAY visited Maininki School in Espoo city, half an hour outside Helsinki, and Ms Rose-Marie Mod-Sandberg was conducting an English Language lesson with her eight-graders (Secondary 2 equivalent).

The classroom was quiet as some students had fallen ill; it was a smaller than usual group. Ms Mod-Sandberg, 55, decided to get her pupils to share about their favourite American cities and imagine what they would do if they got there. As the mood lightened, she gave out worksheets which each student completed on their own.

She has the leeway to tailor her lessons according to her students’ abilities or interests on that very day itself, she told us. For instance, if the children were keen on a topic that was meant only for next year, she could dive into it. And if they seemed more tired than usual — such as after a strenuous Physical Education lesson — she could choose to do something less demanding, and pick things up later.

“If I want to teach a topic, I can teach it anyway and anytime I like,” she said. “Finnish teachers undergo a long training, so (school leaders) can trust us to be professional and to act in the pupils’ interest”.


In Finnish schools, teachers typically teach from 8am to 2pm before heading off to plan lessons or attend to parents’ queries. They are not required to take charge of after-school activities such as arts or sports clubs — usually run by private community organisations — and those who do so, are remunerated accordingly.

Schools leaders also said that a layer of stress is removed for teachers as there is no evaluation process linked to their salaries. In fact, the pay structure is relatively flat where pay increases with years of experience and teaching hours.

According to the latest OECD data, Finland’s average annual wage is S$59,852 or approximately S$5,000 a month. For those teaching at the primary level, annual salaries start at S$35,883 (about S$ 3,000 a month). After 20 years, their pay reaches a maximum level of S$64, 530 (S$5,400 a month).

Nevertheless, pay is not a main issue for Finnish teachers, said those TODAY spoke to. People are attracted to the career due to the high status that education is accorded in Finland and the autonomy given to teachers.

The government provides free education in the first nine years of a child’s school life, while schools receive funds to invest in slower learners. Teachers also hold a place in Finnish history, often cited as important figures alongside priests and doctors.

“Young people still see working as a teacher as very creative and independent, where teachers can make a difference in their pupils’ lives,” said Mr Olli Maatta, a teacher trainer at Helsinki Normal Lyceum, a regular Finnish school owned by the University of Helsinki for trainee teachers to serve their attachments.

At Haaga Comprehensive School, the school bell rings and children burst out of their classrooms into the snow-filled courtyard, throwing snowballs at one another and sledding down mini snow hills.

Starring out of his window as one of his teachers leads pupils back from a skiing lesson, principal Mr Koivusalo observes: “The role of an educator is very important. If a teacher loves his job, the children know it and they will want to come to school.”

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