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.

Powerful Project-Based Learning Professional Development

Teachers are inherently lifelong learners. They thirst for new ideas and practices to add to their teaching repertoire. However, teachers often feel overwhelmed when trying to innovate their teaching craft. Through well-designed Professional Development (PD) programs, schools can empower their teachers to be more innovative.

Teaching Efficacy in Professional Development

Self efficacy is an attribute that allows us to explore and implement new concepts and strategies in our daily lives (Bandura, 1977). In education, it is more finely defined as teaching efficacy (Protheroe, 2008). Essentially, the higher your teaching efficacy, the more likely you are to experiment with new teaching strategies in your daily practices, which facilitates professional development.

According to Bandura, efficacy can be developed through four modes of induction: performance accomplishments or mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal. In PD, efficacy is built through plenty of modeling, suggestions, self instructions, relaxation, feedback and desensitization to potentially averse emotion-inducing situations.

Professional Development Focusing on Project-Based Learning

I was recently tasked with the responsibility of facilitating a PD on Project-Based Learning (PBL) for new teachers. The teachers’ experiences in PBL varied greatly. However, the majority of the teachers in the PD had never taught a PBL lesson before.

PBL has always been a difficult PD focus. For teachers that are new to PBL, it can seem like a daunting task of implementing it in their classrooms. Teachers feel that using the PBL approach requires overhauling their existing teaching metods. There is a lack of clarity in PBL pedagogical practices, which can be confusing to teachers. PBL is also a relatively new concept for teachers, so they have limited-to-no first-and second-hand experience to draw from in lesson planning and implementation.

The PD as a whole was designed as a “project slice” – a wonderful idea borrowed from PBL training gurus at High Tech High. A project slice takes teachers through a project from start to finish. During this time, teachers get a feel for the project process through the eyes of a student. The project process involved seven steps that were derived from Buck Institute of Education’s (BIE) PBL Handbook : project launch, building general knowledge, team organization, building specific knowledge, creating a product, presentation and reflection, and assessments.

At each point throughout the project, I introduced specific teaching strategies used to facilitate a PBL classroom. The teaching strategies used were highlighted on a large printout of the Gold Standard of PBL model, and teachers were asked to reflect on these strategies at the end of each day as part of their “teaching toolkit”. They posted these reflections (how and why each strategy is used) on the school’s blog as a means of documenting their new teaching strategies, which could be easily accessed during their upcoming semester.

This practice of connecting practical teaching strategies to a conceptual model helped with bringing PBL to life. As one experienced teacher described: “Connecting specific teaching practices to the components of this PBL model is brilliant! I have been doing PBL for a few years now, and this model has never made more sense to me.

After each key learning point throughout the PD week, we stopped to take a mindful minute and reflect on our processes. The teachers vocalized their fears, concerns, or excitement about the processes of the strategies or information provided. There was no need for feedback at this time, but silent recognitions (the sign language action for “agreement”) were conveyed when a sharing was provided . This part of the PD was overwhelmingly successful. The teachers were impressed at how good it felt to voice their opinions, and the mindful environment within which they did the sharings reduced their existing anxieties.

Protocols were used to facilitate experiential learning and discussions on some more complex portions of the PBL process. During team norm settings, the teachers did an Inner-Outer Fishbowl protocol, which brought about a deeper discussion and sharing of norm setting and building strategies used by teachers. As one teacher shared: “Having students understand something as complex as a definition of what a behavior looks and feels like was something I either did too much of, ineffectively or avoided altogether. The fishbowl activity really brought to life simple, yet structured approaches that I will surely use in my classroom this semester.”

After we had completed the project slice, we circled back on the whole process through a case analysis. The teachers read a complete PBL case that was taken from the BIE PBL Handbook. They then designed a visual timeline of the strategies and protocols used at each point of the PBL process. “Creating this (visual representation) really helped me review the process again. It will come in handy when I get down to actually planning my project for the upcoming semester.

TImelines designed by the teachers on the Project-Based Learning (PBL) process. Image: Brad Walsh

Finally, a mini assessment was designed from the PBL Teaching Efficacy Scale (Tschannen-Moran et al, 1998) to see how the PD participants’ teaching efficacy in PBL grew over the PD week. Teachers provided their personal assessment on two main questions at three points throughout the PD week: 1) I have a good understanding of PBL curriculum and lesson design, and 2) I am able to organize and manage PBL activities effectively. As we reflected on our growth, the teachers were also invited to share the thought processes and experiences that got them to each point.

As a teacher coming from a public school, I was required to attend a PBL PD once. It was a lot of discussion about theory and making a lot of posters. After the PD ended, I really had no idea what they were talking about. What was PBL? How could I use it to help me become a better teacher? (This week’s) PD made me realize how valuable it is to actually practice and experience what PBL is if I ever want to truly implement it in my classroom. I am really excited for this upcoming semester, because I am going to put everything I learned here into practice!


Teachers’ self assessments on PBL teaching efficacy taken at the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the PD. Image: Brad Walsh


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 (2), 191-215.

Protheroe, N. (2008). Teacher Efficacy: What is it and does it matter?. Available at: https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/1/Pdfs/Teacher_Efficacy_What_is_it_and_Does_it_Matter.pdf (Accessed: 08/20/18).

Tschannen-Moran, M., Woolfolk Hoy, A. & Hoy, W. K. (1998). Teacher efficacy: Its meaning and measure. Review of Educational Research, 68, 202 – 248.