This is the first article of a two-part series featuring the perspectives of Miss Janna Erkkilä, a Finnish parent who is also the Director of Research and Development at the Novia University of Applied Sciences. Topping multiple international rankings, Finland’s education system has been hailed as being the crème de la crème; naturally, observers have implored Singaporean bureaucrats to seek inspiration from Finland to rectify an education system that is perceived to be needlessly competitive and stressful.
I think it would be meaningful to inject some diversity to present discussions, and for Singaporeans to read about a different side to the Finland success story (though some might contend that a single view is not exactly the most representative). I believe it is with a balanced exposure to strengths and weaknesses that would allow individuals to develop a more nuanced and balanced evaluation in the pursuit of recommendations.
In 2010, a publication titled “Limitations of the Finnish Educational System” (here) highlighted a number of shortcomings (emphasis mine):
– Students are helped from their earliest years by numerous and benevolent adults. They heartily bond with their teachers. The problem is that there are strong relationships between each student and one or several adults, but there is no group relationship between the students of a class. Each student can work with one or two others; this can also be the norm, as in technology. But I have never seen the thinking of one student being confronted with that of his peers.
– [T]he Finnish educational system lacks periods in the class during which children and teenagers can express their thoughts and listen to the thoughts of others.
They could easily be introduced to the Finnish system as it is right now: because the teachers’ educational position agrees with it; because the Finns debate the lengthening of the school day, considered too short; and because the two massacres in schools call out to the necessity to develop children’s self-expression and communication among the actors of the educational system.
This was the reply by Miss Jaana Erkkilä, adapted (emphasis mine):
Real-World Readings from the Pisa Wonderland
As a mother of three sons, who have never been too much in favour of authoritarian and oppressive relationships between people, I have first hand experience, how our school system kills enthusiasm for inquiring and questioning the ways world functions. I have brought up my children to question and discuss and think critically, to argue and express their opinions. The youngest of the three, when he was attending the second class in primary school in age of 8, came one day late from school and looked very sad. He had had to stay at school after the lessons and write 50 times in his pad “I will never more ask why”. When I called the school and asked for explanation, the answer was that he was disturbing the teacher with his constant questioning.
This spring the same lad is 13 and I have been to school again discussing about his attitude problems. The head teacher said quite in the beginning of the discussion that one can see that the boy is used to discuss with adults. I thought that it was something positive, but from the teachers point of view it is not: a child who is used to discuss, can make provocative remarks, ask hard questions, and show his disrespect in an unpleasant way: arguing and fighting with words.
Of course an adolescent is arrogant and makes mistakes and has not the capacity to consider in all situations, when it really would be wiser and smarter to be silent. But if you have never an opportunity to exercise argumentation, how can you learn it all by sudden in university, or in other real life situations? Finnish way of argumentation is still too often physical violence, especially after some drinks and perhaps a few years inward silent crumbling over something.
All the three boys like literature and reading. They are reading world classics and contemporary literature, history, biographies etc. All of them have had low grades in literature in school reports. The oldest one wrote an essay about professional contract killers in age of 16, when they had to write about a possible future career. The text itself was rather amusing and I as a mother did never think that he would seriously choose to be a killer. The teacher did not evaluate the essay; her only message on the paper was that the choice of the subject is not proper according the moral and educational aims of the school. In Finnish schools for a good grade in literature you have to read certain books or do the tasks that your teacher tells; nobody is interested in if you really read a lot and what do you think about the world picture you get through books.
The purpose of literature teaching in school is not to fall in love with reading or getting new insights of life, but to pass your course. Whether you read a single book after your school time nobody is worried about, as long as you follow the orders of your teacher in school.
This winter the youngest one was sent out from the class room during the music lesson, because he was disturbing. I was really questioning him, what had been going on, because he is very fond of music. He has been studying in conservatorium cello and piano and passing his exams and doing music theory, singing in choir. And now being a problem even in music class in school. His answer was that it is so boring that somebody just has to organise some entertainment. The same boy has been attending classical concerts from pre-school age and has never had problems in sitting still and quiet. So he cannot have a problem in concentrating silently on something he finds interesting. So, perhaps the problem is that I as a lousy mother have been taking my children to concerts, have been introducing them literature, taking them to museums and exhibitions, theatre, forest walks, introducing them to different religions, making them to participate weekly Sunday lunch with the grandparents, inviting various people to our home and showing by example that you can make friends with people from different nations and ethnic backgrounds. And worst of all encouraging them to question the world.
I am working as a director of research and development in university of applied sciences, in the department of visual culture. The teachers in our department are struggling with the problems of having students, who do not go to museums, art exhibitions, who have serious problems with reading theoretical texts, having no sense of history, being helpless in essay writing. And all those students are products of the Finnish educational system; they are coming from gymnasium with their white caps and good reports in their pockets. And most of them are totally without any knowledge in humanities or arts in general; and they are not especially interested in learning new things or doing something that is not absolutely required for the exam.
Back to the family school cases again. My sons have many immigrants as friends. The youngest one is playing basketball every evening with some Sudanese boys in the school yard. Last week he was telling me with a laugh that if you go bowling in a set times with these refugee children, you get some hours free from school, because you are doing a good service. But if you play with them daily and just because you have mutual interest in basketball, you don’t get any extra points or free hours from the school. You are just chilling out, because there are no adults leading the activity.
Summa summarum: the Finnish educational system is excellent in educating obedient citizens with little interest in anything, studying for grades, not for knowledge or life, learning that social relationships are for earning something, not for having friends and learning from one another, labelling independent thinking as a behavioural disturbance, oppressing and humiliating the children who really have problems either in learning or because of difficult life situations or ethnic background.