During discussions on how Singapore can improve its education system the Finnish reference never fails to emerge. How have the Finns managed their pedagogies in the classroom? Why is the Ministry of Education not taking lessons from Finland? I too asked: can Singapore learn anything from these mechanisms? And when our Prime Minister says that Singapore’s students and schools have done well, that our schools “have delivered good results over the years and continue to hold up well against counterparts in the rest of the world” (ST, Apr. 11), the view is met with scepticism.
Yet the challenge is the uniqueness of the two countries. Finland’s belief in egalitarianism and Singapore’s belief in meritocracy is one of the differing characteristics. Singapore’s problems – of stress and perpetual competition, of the overemphasis on academic examinations, and of the lack of creativity – cannot be addressed by importing a foreign system per se. We in Singapore have read, and reckon we know a lot about our Finnish contemporaries. It would be more reasonable to adapt parts instead, such as smaller class sizes and more flexible assessment methods, but the former is constrained by manpower limitations and the latter is already underway.
Finland’s education system was one of the main reasons why I chose Finland for my exchange programme, and while I never expected to visit an elementary school, during my first week in Helsinki I met Mr. Juha Romppanen. I was eager to quiz him about his education experience.
The Finnish university student is not too different from a Singaporean one. My five months at the Aalto University School of Business – perhaps given the universality of the business education and degree – have been similar to the experience in Singapore. Juha is a marketing major at Aalto, and his fascination with Korean popular culture has brought him to Yonsei University at Seoul, South Korea for an exchange programme. The 20 year-old was the vice president of the sub-committee for international students of the school’s student union, and is very into machine dance gaming. He has been the promotion manager of the Finnish Dance Gamers Association for two years, and won the DanceDanceRevolution Finnish championships in 2010 (he was third and second in 2012 and 2013).
Juha studied in an elementary and high school in Oulu, a city and municipality of Finland, and appreciated the range of subjects and activities he was exposed to. “There are some mandatory classes for every student”, he recalls, “but there is freedom to choose what you want to study”. For instance one could take additional classes in music or mathematics, and throughout the twelve years a student can study coding, languages, and woodwork – even at the elementary school. This versatility was the most significant, and for Juha “the best thing is that your choices in high school do not affect your choices in the future that much”.
In other words students are encouraged to pursue their own interests, without fretting too pragmatically about whether a particular endeavour would be useful in the future.
Unsurprisingly there is strong reliance on the expertise of educators, and as I observed during my visit to Kivistön koulu they are responsible for curriculum planning and assessment. Finnish teachers determine how much homework is needed and how their class should be graded. Teaching is a respected, sought-after career choice in Singapore, many are very well-qualified (even without a master’s degree), and the training college is rigorous, but the difference in Finland is that teaching is amongst the most admired professions in the country, and the salary is hardly a motivating factor.
The common perception that there are no major or national examinations in Finland is not entirely accurate. In his last year at the high school Juha had to take matriculation examinations for English, Finnish, History, Swedish, and Social Studies, and an entrance examination was also needed before he entered Aalto University. These examinations would determine if a student furthers his or her studies at the traditional universities or the universities of applied sciences (the polytechnics). It is nonetheless true that there are no standardised tests before the age of 16, and the evaluation of a student’s performance at the elementary and high school is at the discretion of the teachers.
Therefore detractors do have a point, if the contention is that schoolchildren are too young when they sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination. For Juha his learning environment was relaxed because it was rarely about “getting the best grade”, he explains. Yet at some point the examination is still the tool to assess whether an applicant is eligible for a university education.
The versatility of the system and the autonomy granted mean that students have to take ownership of their own education. Given Finland’s focus on egalitarianism equity is hence very important, and from his anecdotal perspective some teachers do seem to favour some students more than others, even if this is a “common problem everywhere in the world”. When I asked about the shortcomings from his opinion he noted that there have been cases of bullying in schools, and while Finland has taken constructive steps to address these incidents “there is always room for improvement”.
Can we do what the Finns do? Maybe. It is always hard to evaluate an education system comprehensively, and even harder to draw comparisons fairly without first-hand accounts. Hence we seek to make sense of official reports, and I hear more from students who have gone through these systems. But every experience is different and unique to the individual. Sometimes in our eagerness to improve the status quo in Singapore we are blind to what we have done right – and I too am guilty. So as we draw lessons from Finland, let us not forget our own strengths and needs.
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.