Former top Finnish educator speaks of Finland’s successful education reform
Top educators around the world, especially ones in South Korea, yearn for an education system like that in Finland.
The Nordic country is known for its high quality education that gets its students ranked highest among those from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) at international student evaluations such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The country, however, doesn’t stress competition to get its students to score high. Instead, it gives students equal opportunities for learning and stresses cooperation among students.
Seoul’s top educator Kwak No-hyun met Erkki Aho, Finland’s former Head of the National Board of Education, recently, to learn of Finland’s method of success and to seek advice on the direction of education in Korea.
The meeting between the two top educators was organized by the Institute for 21st Century Education.
Kwak began the conversation by comparing the attitudes of students in the two countries.
“Korean students and Finnish students go neck in neck in terms of ranking at the PISA but our students seemed to be at the bottom in terms of happiness and self-motivation,” said Kwak.
Aho answered that scores weren’t everything.
“The purpose of schools is not to foster students who do well on tests. Ethical and moral education is also important. Finnish education is successful in providing this,” said Aho during the meeting which was open to the media.
The Finnish educator said cooperation and communication between students was important in producing a synergy effect in education.
“Schools are a miniature of society. There are all kinds of students from different backgrounds and regions and with different religions. They also have different talents. When these students with different talents learn in the same class, they encourage each other and learn from each other. New ideas are created when such differences are shared through communication,” Aho said.
The Finnish education system went through slow and steady reform during the past few decades. Aho took the helm from 1973 through 1991 in reforming the system to provide equal opportunities.
Public elementary and middle schools were combined into comprehensive schools with a 9-year curriculum and level classes based on achievement were abolished.
“We did have level classes for foreign language and mathematics until the beginning of the reform. The old and the new system functioned side by side for a certain period. Then we completely abolished the level system and the comprehensive school took over. Students with different achievement levels studied in one class,” said Aho.
The reform, however, was met with criticism in the beginning.
“People were critical about the new system at first. They questioned whether low-performing students could follow through. But I said they had the capacity to learn more. They just needed the opportunity, support, and trust. In the end, these students rose to the level the society required,” he said.
The students who excelled were taught to indulge in individual learning.
“Because the system changed, we had to differentiate education within the classrooms. So we had to educate the teachers to provide customized education for students. It was a big challenge for the teachers because they had to take care of students who did poorly and those who excelled all in one classroom. The students who excelled were given more learning materials and challenging tasks,” he said.
Cooperation and communication
This was possible because students weren’t compared.
“There’s no external testing at all during this 9-year comprehensive school, although the students do get evaluated. At the end of the year, students receive individual reports from teachers on how much they reached their goals of learning. But this information is only revealed to the individual student and his or her parents. Students are not compared with each other. That’s an essential point,” said Aho.
One of the characteristics that define Finnish education is cooperation.
As students of different academic levels learn in the same classroom, those who perform well are advised to guide and lead the poorly-performing ones. Through this process, students learn to understand each other and hone their social skills.
“Communication increases human capacity. Creation and innovation come through this process,” he said.
School violence was also tackled through communication.
“About four years ago, the minister of education organized a special project to eliminate bullying from Finnish schools. The method was through discussion. As soon as school bullying was spotted, teachers steered discussion between students. The bullies were asked why they were bullying their friend and whether or not they thought of the bullied students’ feelings. Punishment was not used,” said Aho.
“Students also did role play. This seemed to be effective. Also, some students were trained to help friends in this situation. Now about 80 percent of comprehensive schools are participating in the process.”
The Korean education system is too focused on competition, said Kwak after listening to Finland’s example.
“Competition and comparison is too deeply rooted in our society. We think stimulation is the key to effective learning. We need to be free from this prejudice,” said Kwak.