Originally published Nov. 6, 2017 in The Times of Malta.
Finland’s Education Minister discusses her country’s education system
Headmaster Kenneth Vella recently visited schools in Tampere, Finland, a country which has made huge progress in education over the past few years. There, he interviewed the country’s Minister of Education, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen.
What do you consider the secrets of your success in education both at local and international levels?
For one, we have highly educated, skilled and motivated teachers. The teaching profession is respected and popular in Finland. At all school levels, teachers are highly qualified and committed. Universities can select among the most motivated and talented applicants. At both primary and secondary levels a master’s degree is required, and teacher education includes teaching practice.
Highly qualified teachers who are constantly updating and improving their competence are also allowed a great deal of independence, and Finnish teachers have considerable freedom in choosing their teaching methods. How the targets should be reached is not specified in the curriculum, and the pedagogic procedures are left to be decided by the well-educated teacher, depending on what is best for each group of students. This also enables learner-centeredness. Competent teachers can recognise different types of talents and support individual learners.The open atmosphere that exists in Finnish schools supports creativity and innovation. Attention is paid to the diverse personal development of children, and we try to ensure a balance between theoretical, arts, crafts and science subjects.
We have introduced phenomenon-based learning, and are increasing the use of other progressive teaching methods as well.
One of our biggest strengths is the culture of trust. In place of school inspections, there is self-assessment on the part of the schools and teachers. Instead of top-down control, we have come to rely on trust and cooperation.
I would like to stress the importance of a clear vision, a long-term perspective and strategy that is systematically supported by information. Finland’s success in international comparisons is partly explained by our continuous foresight in education, development based on evaluation and research, and the formulation of reforms together with stakeholders, researchers and other experts.
Recently Finland issued a new national curriculum. Why did you feel the need to update your curriculum and what was the process involved? What are the main reforms in this new document?
The world has changed a lot since the start of 21st century, and so have the competencies required in society and working life. The effects of globalisation, digitalisation and the challenges of a sustainable future have to be taken into account in the new curriculum. Children need skills and competences that make them ready to cope with the change and help them seize the opportunities. I believe that learning to learn, being able to acquire new skills, and thinking critically and creatively are some of the key factors for the education of tomorrow.
The new curriculum also looks for the balance between academic achievement and student welfare. The National Core Curriculum was compiled in an extensive collaboration process where the Finnish National Board of Education worked side by side with municipalities, schools and teachers, and with teacher trainers, researchers and other key stakeholders.Education systems can never be complete. The curriculum can also be described more as a process than a product. Along with the new National Core Curriculum, our comprehensive education reform involves student-centered, phenomenon-based learning that makes use of digital learning environments, and a new culture of collaboration.
The focus of the reform has been on consolidating the pupils’ ability to think for themselves and learn to learn, interaction and cooperation skills, and motivation. The new curriculum has meant transformation from what to learn to how to learn. By having more personalised learning approach, we can hopefully motivate students better. We would like to see students carry an active role to build their own future.
How do you view the role and involvement of heads of school, teachers, students and parents in the development of the education system? How are these involved in the development of the system in your country?
Administrative entities at different organisational levels collaborate actively between schools and between social actors, parents and schools to further enhance the educational system. At the education provider (municipality) level, policy-making is the responsibility of local authorities. Local teachers and principals are often part of the planning process, including the crafting of the local curriculum.At the national level, teachers and principals are engaged by taking part in different working groups. One such group is responsible for preparing the National Core Curriculum.
The teachers’ union is also an important stakeholder, working in collaboration with the government prior to the decision-making on different issues. In my opinion, close and versatile cooperation has an important and essential role. Dialogue helps the parties to find shared guidelines for the development work. I consider it to be good practice that the State and stakeholders work together in working groups and other preparatory bodies already when key reforms affecting the schools and teachers’ work are being prepared. In Finland, local authorities are responsible for organising and implementing education and national objectives. Beyond that, schools and teachers have wide autonomy in how they provide instruction and what its contents are. The National Core Curriculum is the driving force that gives room for shared leadership at lower levels of government and schools.
Educators in the field play an important role and schools make good use of shared leadership. Decision-making at school level is based on a collaborative approach. The leadership team and teacher teams take part in decision-making in matters concerning educational and practical issues in schools, including the school level curriculum.
Can you tell me something about the status of Finnish teachers and administrators, to what extent are they trusted within the system and why do you think Finland does not have a shortage of teachers and educators like other countries?
Teachers in Finland are trusted professionals. The teaching profession has a high status in Finland. Teachers are also autonomous in their work, as the system is based on trust rather than control. Local authorities are responsible for organising education and implementing the national objectives.
Beyond that, schools and teachers have wide autonomy in how they provide instruction and what its contents are. Educational autonomy is high at all levels. Education providers are responsible for practical teaching arrangements as well as the effectiveness and quality of their education.
Local authorities (municipalities) determine how much autonomy is passed on to schools. The schools have the right to provide educational services according to their own administrative arrangements and vision, as long as the basic functions, determined by law, are carried out.
Teachers are a key for student achievement. Excellent teachers can be found everywhere in Finland, no matter the size or location of the school. In Finland, being a teacher is a respected profession. Teacher education is attractive for students and universities get an abundant number of good applicants. Less than 10 percent of applicants are accepted. Universities also pay attention to the applicant’s aptitude, which is vital factor. Teachers are motivated and constantly develop their own professional skills.
When one meets Finnish educators, these usually emphasise statements like less is more. This contrasts a lot with the situation in other countries where there are vast syllabi and children are given a lot of work to do. What is the secret behind such a statement?
We do have homework, but teachers and schools have lot of autonomy in organising lessons – and also concerning homework. It is true that in general, the workload tends to be much lighter than in other top-performing countries.
A holistic perspective on children’s wellbeing is a key element in Finnish education. School days are not only for academic skills but also for physical education, developing one’s social skills and learning to live and act as members of community. The main goal of the curriculum is to grow as a human being and as a citizen. We emphasise how to learn instead of what to learn.
In Finnish schools, a great deal of attention is paid to supporting pupils’ learning and wellbeing. School work and teaching arrangements are based on a conception of learning that emphasises the importance of pupils’ own activity and their interaction with their teacher, other pupils and the learning environment. High-quality special needs education and the principle of early diagnosing guarantee that no one is left behind.
Municipalities and schools have significant autonomy to organise schooling. Trust is of utmost importance. Highly educated teachers at all levels can be trusted to make wise decisions. Teachers are the key for student achievement as well as for early diagnosing and support.
I am also aware that recently you have spoken and written several times about the need to give early education a priority in your country. Why?
Foundations of learning are laid in childhood. Good-quality early childhood education benefits both the individual and the society. We want to widen participation in a high-quality early childhood education and care. There is strong national and international research evidence and better understanding of the significance on children’s early years and early childhood education and care. It reinforces equal opportunities in education, prevents social exclusion and promotes equal learning capacities.
The early years are extremely important in the development of emotional control, language skills and social skills. In today’s kindergarten, learning is mixed with play and care, guided by qualified professionals. This leads to better school performance and better learning outcomes later in life. Research has shown other benefits, too, such as reduced likelihood of anti-social behaviour, and even better health.
So, good-quality early childhood education and care has a great positive impact. This is especially true for disadvantaged children. The awareness of the significance of early years is increasing little by little. Improving the accessibility and quality of early childhood education and care is a smart investment for society. It is a slow process: the benefits can be seen many, many years afterwards. But it is definitely good policy.
What plans do you have for the future of the Finnish education system?
The government’s vision for Finland is a country where everybody wants to learn more. The government programme addresses the whole knowledge chain from early childhood education to top scientific research.
Comprehensive school education is developed in several ways: there is more focus on broad-based competences; more emphasis on digital materials and new learning environments; efforts to enhance earlier language learning and broadening the range of foreign languages; increasing physical activity during the school day; and upgrading of teacher education.The recent vocational education and training (VET) reform is one of the biggest in 20 years. The renewed VET system will better respond to the needs of working life and enhances lifelong learning. Reform of general upper secondary education has started.
The guiding principle in the Finnish system is “equal educational opportunities for all”. The earlier we invest in children, the better for their future. Early childhood education and care is being developed. Measures are also taken to get young people without education or employment back on track. The aim is that at all young Finns have at least an upper secondary education.
Future wellbeing depends on how well we take care of the growth factors. Higher education and research in Finland must be of high quality, effective and genuinely international. The higher education institutes have found new, innovative ways to cooperate with each other, including mergers. Cooperation between higher education institutions and business is intensified to commercialise innovations. Currently, we are reforming our pre- and in-service teacher education.
The introduction of the educational use of technology, digital materials and new learning environments will be facilitated through pedagogic peer training. Every Finnish teacher will be offered access to online learning starting from one’s own level. So-called tutor teachers will start working in every Finnish school. They assist and support their colleagues in meaningful educational use of technology in teaching and learning.
Dr. Kenneth Vella is headmaster of Mater Boni Consilii – St Joseph School, Paola. He is the international representative for the Mediterranean region of Learning Scoop Finland, an educational institution based in Tampere which specialises in courses, workshops and study tours for educators.