Two related narratives of the Finnish education system should be familiar to Singaporeans: A longstanding one (since the launch of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA in 2000, when Finland was one of the top performers) of educational excellence in a less stressful environment, without high-stakes standardised examinations, homework and tuition, or inter-school competition; and a more recent one (since PISA 2012, when it slipped down the rankings, and in mathematics, in particular). In general, the Finnish education system has been of immense interest to us, and when I visited the country in 2014 I too spent two days in a Finnish elementary school. In this vein, Pasi Sahlberg’s “Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” starts and ends – respectively – with these two narratives, and towards the end a vision for the future is also mooted.
The book, moreover, is less about providing a blueprint for other education systems around the world, than it is about the factors for Finland’s success (though the Global Education Reform Movement, cheekily abbreviated as GERM, is assailed against). Across the five chapters – about peruskoulu (the nine-year comprehensive school model), flexible student assessment over examinations, and research-based teacher education (not only allowing for “radical national education policies” to be implemented, but also giving teachers, armed with a master’s degree, options for their future – the writer details these factors, while stressing cognisance of cultural context and national circumstances when reforming an education system. A systems-approach, like the process of learning-by-doing, is critical: “The separate elements of a complex system rarely function adequately in a new environment and in isolation from their original system”.
“Finnish Lessons 2.0” may not be a blueprint, yet there are lessons for Singapore too consider, even if it has topped the most recent PISA rankings. The first is humility, with the recognition that PISA is but one performance indicator, and that future success is never guaranteed. There is keen awareness of the feelings of complacency: “The huge flow of foreigners from all over the world who come to visit the remarkably successful Finnish schools have made the authorities afraid to change anything”. Still, the other lessons include:
– The wide availability of counselling and career guidance in basic school, with students entitled to two hours a week of educational guidance and counselling “during their three-year lower-secondary school”: This gives students greater clarity about their options for higher education and for future career opportunities, and similar undertakings are underway here.
– “The principle of equal educational opportunities and equity in education” (or, more precisely, the equality of opportunities and the equity of outcomes), such that the learning of students in school is less contingent upon their socio-economic or family backgrounds: Though it must be said that despite its flaws, meritocracy has empowered many to do well in Singapore.
– Placing early childhood education under the purview of the education ministry, away from the social and health administration. Policy connectedness is of growing significance in Singapore, in the transition from early childhood to formal education, and then from school to the workplace.
– “Young Finns are also actively involved in sports and youth associations that normally have clear educational aims and principles”, made possible by a large number of non-government organisations. The community features heavily in Finland.
Summa summarum, Sahlberg mooted five points for the global community: first, the offering of equal opportunities through peruskoulu; second, teaching as an inspiring profession which attracts young and talented Finns; third, a smart policy for accountability; fourth, enhancing the equity of outcomes; and fifth, having sustainable leadership and political stability.
The aforementioned notion of humility is not only important, but it is also present throughout Sahlberg’s vision for the future, to “help all students find their talent and passion in school” (which should sound familiar to Singaporeans too), with less classroom-based teaching, more personalised learning, and a focus on social skills, empathy, and leadership. Bear in mind: Finland is still top of the countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. And, above all, the core precept or wisdom of Finnish education – that “the teacher’s task is to help students to do their best” – should remain unchanged, even as the pursuit to be better continues.