“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.