Following our previous feature on education across East Asia, we spoke to Kristiina Kumpulainen, a professor of education at the University of Helsinki, who specialises in pedagogy. Finland is a country that scores well in international league tables, and yet takes a radically different approach to many equally ‘successful’ East Asian countries – and the UK.
Policy based on research
Whereas the criticism has been levelled in the UK that policy is made up on the hoof, Professor Kumpulainen says research heavily influences policy and teacher education in Finland.
So what are the major factors for success in the Finnish education system?
“Firstly it’s this longitudinal, sustained effort: Finland has invested in promoting maintaining and developing equal educational opportunities for every child across the country, despite their background.
“Then teacher education: we have invested in university Masters level education, and the teaching profession is highly valued. We get only the top 5-7% of applicants who apply accepted to study to become teachers. So it’s the value the teaching profession has in our society, and also the quality of the teacher education. We expect teachers to be reflective practitioners who make decisions based on research.
“The third is a sustained interest – political consensus, even – in the value of education and equal opportunities in education.”
So what’s the end result, when all this research is applied in the classroom?
No national testing or classroom streaming
Professor Kumpulainen reports the atmosphere in a typical school is very informal and relaxed: “The pedagogy is very child and youth centred… the student voice is valued in the teaching process.”
And it may come as some surprise to those working in the UK system that Finnish compulsory education, which extends until the age of 16, doesn’t include any national testing – although the National Board of Education carries out some sample-based testing, without publicly comparing schools with one another. This enables schools that aren’t doing so well to be supported with additional help and resources.
Neither does the country have streaming in its compulsory system, and apparently hasn’t done for decades – although there are some specialist schools where students can apply if they have strengths in, and are passionate about, a particular subject.
“Teachers have a lot of freedom to realise goals in the ways they see relevant… and tailor [the national education framework] for local needs. That’s a very distinctive feature in our system.”
Learning to live with humans
“When there are high achievers – very talented students in the classroom – they learn a lot while they teach other children, so we’re not somehow ‘diminishing their opportunities’, but rather everyone profits. Learning experiences are very important; when we think about 21st century learning requirements, they are not only about learning a particular discipline, but also about skills in communicating and collaborating, and learning and working together.
“We don’t want to create artificial classrooms that only consist of particular types of students, because reality isn’t like that; there are always people with different personalities and intellects, so you need to learn the skills to function productively with different types of human beings. “That is part of our education, too.”
Our thanks to Professor Kristiina Kumpulainen for taking part.