What China’s Education System Can Learn From Finland’s Education Reform

“Finland is becoming more and more known for being a happy place. This is a direct result of the education.” – Peter Vesterbacka, CEO of Rovio at MindTrek in Tampere, Finland in October, 2018.

Mr. Vesterbacka was referring to the World Happiness Report that anointed Finland as the happiest country in the world. During his speech, Mr. Vesterbacka went on to compare Finland’s education to Singapore’s, which he identifies as “the world’s worst education system.” He described an unhappy Singaporean society where students are cheating each other, increasing suicide rates, and rising stress levels as a direct result of the competitive education system. Actually, these issues are very similar to the situation that exists in China.

Peter Vesterbacka gives a speech on Happiness and Education at MindTrek (10.2018) (Photo by Brad Walsh)

China’s education does have its positive aspects. Teachers are highly respected in Chinese society. China’s education system can pump out large amounts of students who score highly on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is something many schools across North American drool over. Personally, over my ten-plus years living here, I have notived the Chinese education system breeds a strong culture and respect for learning from which the Western students can learn. However, despite these strong aspects, student well-being is still a major concern.

In order to improve student well-being, education reform in China has been a hot topic, and the Finnish education system is a model of excellence to which Chinese educators are focusing their sights. However, the question remains: Can China’s education system become similar to Finland’s? To do so, we must first understand what makes the Finnish education special, and how the two education systems differ on these aspects.


There are some common misunderstandings about the Finnish education system that cause people from other countries to thinkg ‘that model doesn’t work for us’. Oftentimes, Chinese educators don’t believe the Finnish model will work in China because it involves too much Project-Based (PBL) and Play-Based Learning, which contradicts or disrupts teaching the national curriculum. One of the Finnish schools I visited only does PBL for one week per semester, and it is up to the teachers to decide what teaching strategy suits them and the students best, so play-based learning is an option, not a requirement. Also, there seems to be a general belief that Finnish students have no homework, classrooms are much smaller than average, there are no textbooks, and there are no assessments of students. When visiting Finnish schools a few weeks ago, our tour group noticed every classroom desk had a textbook on it, and the teachers also complained about too much homework for their students/kids. Most classrooms were the same size as typical public and private schools (25-30 students). Finally, as I stated in another article, Finnish students are assessed, but the focus and method just differs to what we may be used to.

Students engage in play-based learning about recycling outside of the Nature School in Tampere, Finland. (Photo by Brad Walsh)

Teachers as Expert Educators

Finnish teachers are developed to be professional practitioners that advocate change and innovation in the education system while Chinese teachers are trained to implement a set curriculum. In Finland, teachers are required to have a two-to-three-year master’s degree in education. Teachers combine four years of learning theory and pedagogical practice with two years of education research. In China, teachers are largely taught content and pedagogical practices in a four year education degree.

Finnish teachers are required to have a Master’s degree in education. (Slide from Sirpa Eskela-Haapanen, Head of Department of Teacher Education, University of Jyvaskyla, 10.10.2018)

A System of Trust

There is a communal trust between the school and community because teachers have thorough educational backgrounds. At one school I visited, the principal was proud that he had no idea what his teachers were teaching. We went on a hunt for classes to observe, but didn’t find any because he didn’t know where his teachers/classes were located that day. “I am not the right person to tell (teachers) what to do. They are highly educated, and they know their students,” he said to us. Compare this to schools in China where micromanagement of teaching duties is excessive. In China, all public school teachers have to hand in every lesson plan for inspection to comply with school regulations.

Overall Teacher Well-Being

A study by Sohu in 2016 found that 72% of Chinese teachers polled said they would not want their kids to become teachers. Chinese teachers largely believe being a teacher in China is too stressful due to the long days. By contrast, in Finland, teachers work shorter days and less days per year than in most countries, and are much happier in their profession.

Finnish teachers also have considerably lower teaching hours and more holiday time (Slide from Sirpa Eskela-Haapanen, Head of Department of Teaching, University of Jyvaskyla, 10.10.2018)

 Education Reflects Society’s Needs

The Finnish education system focuses on 21st Century Competencies, which reflect the needs of local, national, and global communities. Tampere, Finland wants to become a carbon-free city by 2020, so the schools are now focusing on developing the 21st Century Competencies its citizens need to help the city attain its goal. In the Chinese curriculum, the focus is on preserving traditions and culture, so teachers are tasked with teaching the complex Chinese language and traditional poems and stories.

School Organization

All Finnish schools have a wealth of learning resources and facilities available to them, which is publicly funded. Teachers also stay with their class throughout the years, and classrooms sizes are manageable. These are luxuries some schools in China can only dream about. Finally, Finnish schools are about joy and collaborating to make a stronger learning community – “Nobody can tell you what the best school is in Finland – they are all fantastic! There is no such thing as an Ivy League school, and there is no competition to be the best,” responded Mr. Vesterbacka to a question about how the schools are rated in Finland. Are Chinese schools competitive? (Author’s Note: *emphatically proclaims* They are!)

A typical classroom in Finland with SMARTboards and projectors to ensure children get plenty of modeling practice for their workbook-based school work. (Photo by Brad Walsh)

 So, this leads us back to the original question: Can China’s education system become similar to Finland’s? The simple answer would be to say that China’s education system shouldn’t have to do so because the Finnish education system works for the Finnish context, and China should find an education system that works for them. But this answer ignores a great model educational success from which China’s education system can learn.

“To learn from Finland, China needs to look past quick-fix methods, such as taking a curriculum and implanting it in their schools. If China wants education reform, schools should take notes on how Finland’s education reform happened, not just what they are doing,” says YuZhou Cai, Director of Sino-Finnish Education Research Center. He explains “Finland’s education system in the 1960-1970’s was very similar to what China’s education system is today; lessons were centered around the teacher’s ability to deliver them, students had to select vocational and academic paths, and schools varied in quality.”

Mr. Cai explains three key strategies that will help China’s education system become more like the successful Finnish education model. “China should continue its education reform. Reform has to start with unifying ideas and values on education, working with foreign expertise to adapt their methods to the localized context, and most importantly, to be patient.” Chinese schools can push educational reform by adopting Finnish techniques in teaching and learning that fit within the Chinese context. As that model succeeds, then more schools will take notice, and the whole system will gradually change.

ETU School in Beijing is one such school that is working on such a Sino-Finnish education model. ETU is currently working with experts from Finnish Universities to create a Finnish-inspired curriculum suited to the Chinese context. They are closing the gap between Chinese and Finnish teacher expertise by offering unique professional development and training programs in pedagogical practices from Finland and around the world. The schools provides the national curriculum taught through student-centered practices (play-based, project-based learning) combined with content focusing on sustainability in their local and greater communities. Specifically, students are learning how to face issues of tomorrow and not just textbooks of today.

6 Replies to “What China’s Education System Can Learn From Finland’s Education Reform”

  1. 感谢作者的分享!特别有价值的思考。我有几点想分享:
    1. 教师在中国表面上是收到尊重的,但国人内心还是会觉得老师是个辛苦且不是特别高智力的工作,我自己是跨行工作者,直到现在还有家人和朋友不能理解我为什么放弃银行基金的工作,去做一个小学老师,更别提幼儿园老师。这个从调查多少人愿意自己的孩子做老师也可以看出来。这样的社会环境如何吸引优秀的人才是个值得探讨的问题。
    2. 中国的社会和大环境是非常competitive的,对于教育孩子来说,团队协作和有个性的发展自然很重要,但是如何让他们更好的面对外面的竞争?因为他们迟早要走出去。

    1. 蛮认同第一点 教师的职业选择在国内并不那么受欢迎,这一个循环里的一个环节,目前的教师队伍并不属于社会中起到改革核心作用的,但这在逐渐改变。第二点,的确 我觉得我们社会缺少community的形式和服务意识,在我们的文化中更推崇“独善其身”以及出类拔萃,人中龙凤这种观念。竞争意识很强,几乎从小孩子们就在邻里亲戚的比较中长大,我小时候也这样,个性化独立的个体的接受和包容欣赏是需要我们去重新学习的

  2. Great article ! We all hope that CN Ed would consider a “change” in the near future,even if we all know that would be a radical change in terms of methodology, but the sooner they start applying some of it the better.

  3. 蛮认同楼上第一点 教师的职业选择在国内并不那么受欢迎,这一个循环里的一个环节,目前的教师队伍并不属于社会中起到改革核心作用的,但这在逐渐改变。第二点,的确 我觉得我们社会缺少community的形式和服务意识,在我们的文化中更推崇“独善其身”以及出类拔萃,人中龙凤这种观念。竞争意识很强,几乎从小孩子们就在邻里亲戚的比较中长大,我小时候也这样,个性化独立的个体的接受和包容欣赏是需要我们去重新学习的

  4. A very comprehensive article! As you have mentioned, “Chinese schools can push educational reform by adopting Finnish techniques in teaching and learning that fit within the Chinese context”. These small and practical approaches might include flexible classroom furnitures, flexible sitting arrangements; hands-on learning(e.g. to teach traditional poem and stories, instead of just sitting down and telling the students what the words mean, the teacher can guide the students to act the stories out/through drama to make it more interactive and relevant); ICT as a pedagogical tool (e.g. for an English lesson, provide students with the opportunity to create, draw and type stories, doesn’t matter if it make sense, right or wrong, so that they can see the connection between ideas, literacy, pictures, ICT..); half an hour each day to “learn through play”; more emphasis on social-emotional learning; the local community provides more support for schools and teachers to collaborate, share ideas/lesson plans/pedagogy; no more replacing ‘physical education class’(体育课) with “academic classes”, and make P.E class more free and playful.

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