Back in Singapore the prospect of visiting a school in Finland was always exciting, especially with the country’s prominence in the international education landscape, so when I received the email invitation I jumped at the opportunity. Framing the experience was important: I was not seeking to compare formally across systems or dispel myths, but to immerse myself in the lessons and interactions between teachers and students. And armed with a presentation on Singapore and the Chinese language, and with questions scribbled, I made my way to the school.
I spent two days at Kivistön koulu in Vantaa, a city and municipality which borders Helsinki. Away from the city centre and tucked away in a sparsely forested neighbourhood the two buildings of the elementary school housed well-equipped classrooms, an indoor sports auditorium, a music room, as well as a computer room and a crafts-and-carpentry workshop. The 300 students were from the first to sixth grades (aged seven to 12), and for the week the classes did special multicultural projects on various countries of the world.
Informality and Flexibility
The informality struck me the most. The young students, clad in home clothes with different hairstyles, addressed their teachers – Heidi and Minttu, whom I was attached to – by their first names. Lessons were 45-minute long, with 15-minute breaks in-between classes. Lunch lasted 30 minutes. Even in winter the kids ran around the courtyard, playing sports and games. I was part of a circus-themed extra-curricular activity, and we spent the hour juggling rings and balls, fiddling with diabolos and hand-sticks, and balancing on gymnastics still rings (not me, of course).
There was learning and teaching, yet laughter and chatter filled the air.
On my first day, as Heidi wheeled in a portable stove-set for her students to prepare tom kha in the classroom (her class was exploring Asia, and Thailand was the country for the day), I asked about her design of curricula and pedagogies. She is granted tremendous autonomy in her instruction methodologies, chooses the appropriate textbooks, and often crafts her own material and lessons plans. Faith in the educators is well-justified because the profession is very well-respected, and they must hold a Master’s degree to qualify for the training college.
There is also great flexibility in assessments. While it is true that the standardised, nationally graded matriculation examination is administered only after upper secondary education, educators themselves decide how to grade the annual report card. Continual evaluations can take the form of reading assignments, verbal exercises, written projects, or they are usually a combination of the aforementioned. They determine if homework is necessary too.
Classes in the elementary school are small, and they move up the grades together. Heidi has 17 students in her class, and Minttu has 23.
On regular weeks Minttu would go through the subjects of language, mathematics, science, ethics, and physical education, but for this special week on multiculturalism she shared about the United States with her students, who then did handicrafts of American flags and magnet woodwork of the iconic yellow taxicabs. Beyond the classroom-based engagements the students take classes in arts and craft, music, as well as carpentry and textiles. Minttu was particularly enthusiastic when she showed me the carpentry room, where students use saws and metal tools to carve wooden robots, stationery holders, and other paraphernalia.
Communicating with the young schoolchildren was challenging. They had only been learning English for a few months, and my Finnish extended no further than mitä kuuluu (how are you?) and minä olen Jin Yao ja singaporelainen (I am Jin Yao, and a Singaporean). On the second day while translating their Finnish names into Chinese characters my questions to the children about their experiences in the school were often greeted with a simple hyvä (good).
When I delivered my presentation to a few classes the teachers had to translate phrases and questions. After telling them about my city-state – Singapore on pieni maa, Suomi on iso maa (Singapore is a small country, Finland is a big country) – the students were fascinated by the ubiquitous high-rise buildings (compared to the apartments in Helsinki and Vantaa, where there is an adequate supply of land), even if there were initially a little shy and reticent. As one would be, when a strange Singaporean makes a rare appearance. Our assortment of hawker food and the Singapore Grand Prix around the Marina Bay circuit were popular topics.
There were little cases of misbehaviour and conflicts between some students after a long week, but the teachers handled them brilliantly. Heidi shared the behaviour passports she had for her class, and how three consecutive weeks of good behaviour earned the students an hour of free reading, time at the computer, or to plan a period of lesson for their peers. And if the class performed well collectively they could decide how to spend a period together, such as watching a movie or having some meaningful free-time.
A Bird’s Eye View
Two days is a short time, and even though my observations differed little from what I had read and understood I went away honoured and impressed. Honoured that I had been offered a first-hand glimpse into the system, and impressed by the dedication and proficiency of the educators. On my bus ride to the school on the first day I was worried that I might impose upon them unnecessarily, yet I was warmly welcomed to the classes.
My anecdotes will add little to the already-extensive discourse on Finland’s education system, and I understood that from the get-go. At the very least, on a personal note, the two days were a simple affirmation of the universal value of great teachers and great teaching, and how the Finnish education system brought the best out of teachers and their students.
Kiitos, Kivistön koulu. Thank you for having me.
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.