I had the incredible opportunity to join a 3-week summer school at the University of Helsinki last month, immediately after submitting my dissertation and concluding a 1-year MSc in Comparative and International Education. Now, while I’m in Colorado visiting friends and finally taking a short break from academic work before hopefully (!!) resuming in October, I would like to share a poster and a reflection that I prepared as part of the summer school.
My reflection on the summer school experience is as follows:
Can we reach the Finnish line?
A reflection on the summer school course “Finnish Education System from the Perspective of Comparative Education Research”
I applied for this course while I was in the middle of completing a Masters of Science (MSc) in Comparative and International Education at the University of Oxford. We had discussed Finland’s high performing education system in class, and I was curious to learn about the system from the perspective of the Finns themselves, rather than what is said about them from the outside. So when the opportunity presented itself through the summer school at the University of Helsinki, I did not hesitate. The 3 weeks of lectures, visits and discussions amounted to a wonderful learning experience. In a series of vignettes that follow, I reflect on my learnings from the course, focusing on how my perception of the Finnish education system as well as the larger field of comparative education have been enriched by this summer school experience.
Equity as the guiding principle
As a budding education researcher, equity in education is one of my research interests, especially in the context of my home country of Malaysia. Back home, equity remains a challenge for our education system, suffusing the dimensions of geography, socio-economy, gender and ethnicity. Hence, one of the main reasons I am interested in the Finnish education system is due to its focus on equity. Equity—or its counterpart equality—is mentioned frequently throughout the course, for example in the lectures by Matti Meri and Hannele Niemi, during our visit to the National Board of Education and even during the panel discussion on the last day of the course. In essence, equity is captured by the definition of positive equality, which was highlighted during one of the article discussion sessions in the second week. In the article by Terhart & von Dewitz (2017), positive equality refers to the necessity of differential treatment (where some groups are allocated more resources than others) in order to realise equality for all in terms of outcomes. It is impressive that the Finnish education system formulates its policy and practice around the principle of equity. During the visit to Kulosaari Secondary School, I recall the international coordinator mentioning that the Finnish system does not focus too much on gifted and talented students, rather they ensure that students who are left behind are given the required support to catch up with the others. This is a remarkable ethos that prioritises the development of an equitable society in the long run, beyond the confines of the education system.
No dead ends in education
Another oft-mentioned tagline highlighted throughout the summer school is that there are ‘no dead ends’ in Finnish education, referring to the dynamic and flexible education pathways built into the system. In Finland, students are not streamed into separate pathways until after the end of the comprehensive schooling system (ages 7 to 15), where they have the option of academic or vocational tracks. This means that for 9 years, each Finnish student undergoes the same education experience and does not have to prematurely decide on his or her specialisation. Delaying tracking until much later in secondary education does not exacerbate inequalities in comparison to the policy choice of earlier tracking by some countries, a point made by Green, Green, & Pensiero (2015) in an article that was also discussed during the second week of the course. Additionally, the permeable boundaries between both tracks also mean that students are not locked into their choices; they have the opportunity to test their options, make mistakes and change their trajectory if necessary. Adults seeking career changes can also return to education in order to reinvent themselves, funded by the state as part of life-long learning. Jenny provided real-life examples of instances that demonstrate this principle during one of the afternoon discussions. A system that guarantees ‘no dead ends’ for its citizens led me to reflect on the true promise of education to realise each individual’s potential, rather than the pernicious function of perpetuating social stratification in less equitable systems, where certain factions of society are destined to fail by default.
A culture of trust
The pre-eminence of trust in Finnish culture is such that they even have a dedicated emoji for it. Trust is represented by the symbol of a handshake, indicating how “Finns…trust others to do the right thing. We say what we do and do what we say” (Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 2018). This culture of trust permeates into its education system. Education administrators and parents trust teachers to do their jobs, given their extensive professional training and highly respected position in society. Teachers have the autonomy to design their own curriculum and assessment, and they would not have it any other way. During the school visit, we marvelled at how students were listening to music in class and in the hallways, or were on their laptops during an art lesson. The international coordinator remarked that teachers also trust that students will not abuse technology in the classroom, and expect them to rise up to the challenge coupled with that trust. Despite being an inherent part of their culture, trust in the Finnish education system was not built in a day. In one of the lectures, Hannele Niemi made the point that trust must be built gradually, alongside the enhancement of teachers’ capacity to assume that trust. Indeed, historically, during the early years of Finnish comprehensive school reform that commenced in the 1970s, the education system was highly centralised. It was only in 1985 that municipalities began assuming greater responsibility, and in 1994 the National Board of Education eventually only supplied broad aims of the national core curriculum, providing municipalities and schools with abundant autonomy (Niemi, 2012).
Can we reach the Finnish line?
By the end of the course, in awe of the utopia that is the Finnish education system, one cannot help but ask the above question. Many of us travelled from around the world to Finland looking for answers that could solve the troubles plaguing our respective education systems. Interestingly, the ‘Finnish’ line, one that other countries see as aspirational, is instead a moving goalpost for the Finns, represented by their principal of quality enhancement rather than quality assurance, which was discussed during the lecture by Hannele Niemi. It is important to note that the Finnish education system is not without its challenges. The increasing diversity in Finnish society in recent years due to immigration has proved to be a challenge for ensuring equity in what has previously been a homogenous nation (Kansanen & Meri, 2007).
During the course, we were reminded that the Finnish education system works precisely for their own context, and because of this the exercise of policy borrowing is fraught with pitfalls and complications. This reality reminds me of the quote from Michael Sadler that I encountered during my MSc studies, which I reproduce below:
We cannot wander at pleasure among the educational systems of the world, like a child strolling through a garden, and pick off a flower from one bush and some leaves from another, and then expect that if we stick what we have gathered into the soil at home, we shall have a living plant. A national system of education is a living thing, the outcome of forgotten struggles and difficulties and of battles long ago. It has in it some of the secret workings of national life. It reflects, while seeking to remedy, the failings of national character. (cited in Welch, 1993, p. 8)
In light of this, what is the purpose of comparative education? Perhaps the point is not to reach the ‘Finnish’ line, but rather to view the high-functioning, high-performing Finnish education system as a mirror to study our own education system, and subsequently build a high-functioning, high-performing education system moulded by our respective contexts. In the 1960s, after intense debate, Finnish politicians came to a consensus to replace their parallel school system that heretofore created social inequalities with “a national nine-year basic education that would represent the ideology of comprehensive education…which guarantees everybody equal opportunities in education irrespective of sex, social status, ethnic group, etc., as outlined in the constitution” (Niemi, 2012, p. 21-22). Using this facet of the Finnish education as a mirror to reflect on the Malaysian education system, for example, a landscape which is rife with political clashes, I wonder what does it take for our nation to be able to garner the cross-partisan political will necessary to embark on reforms that reflect the kind of society we envision for ourselves? Additionally, if trust is so inherent in Finnish culture that it warrants a cheeky emoji, what elements of the Malaysian culture can we harness to propel our education system forward? These are some of the questions I take home with me to reflect on, equipped with the lessons learned from the Finnish context and the collective energy of my fellow classmates from around the world who are tirelessly dedicated to improving the education systems in their respective homelands.
Green, A., Green, F., & Pensiero, N. (2015). Cross-country variation in adult skills inequality: Why are skill levels and opportunities so unequal in anglophone countries? Comparative Education Review, 59(4), 595–618.
Kansanen, P., & Meri, M. (2007). Finland. In H. Döbert & W. Hörner (Eds.), The Education Systems of Europe (pp. 251–262). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.
Ministry for Foreign Affairs. (2018). THE HANDSHAKE: The feeling of trust. Retrieved August 27, 2018, from https://finland.fi/emoji/the-handshake/
Niemi, H. (2012). The Societal Factors Contributing to Education and Schooling in Finland. In H. Niemi, A. Toom, & A. Kallioniemi (Eds.), Miracle of education: The principles and practices of teaching and learning in Finnish schools (pp. 19–38). Rotterdam, Netherlands: SensePublishers.
Terhart, H., & von Dewitz, N. (2017). Newly arrived migrant students in German schools: Exclusive and inclusive structures and practices. European Educational Research Journal, 17(2), 1–15.
Welch, A. R. (1993). Class, Culture and the State in Comparative Education: Problems, perspectives and prospects. Comparative Education, 29(1), 7–27.