Jari Lavonen: The Finnish education system cannot be copied, but parts of it can be exported

Finnish education is in demand internationally. Education export is an effective way of solving challenges and building a better future.

“The Funda Ujabule School, established on the University of Johannesburg campus in Soweto six years ago, follows the Finnish approach to teacher training. A teacher training school is one way of developing the teaching skills of teacher students in South Africa. The school was founded through cooperation between the University of Johannesburg and the class teachers who supervise teaching practice at the Viikki Teacher Training School.

Crucially, in this sustained development work we have not tried to simply transplant the Finnish model as is to South Africa. Instead, based on research, we first identified features that can be connected with the specific way students develop their skills in South Africa.

This proved successful. According to a study published in 2018, the training school adapted to the South African context from the Finnish model supports the development of students’ expertise in some ways even more efficiently than the system that is currently in place in Finland.

Different societies, different education

Education increases well-being, reduces marginalisation, promotes sustainable development and impacts economic growth. This is why education export into developing countries is one of the most effective ways of solving global challenges.

Globally, Finnish schools have received a great deal of positive attention, and we have one of the most highly esteemed education systems in the world. Finland is a superpower in education, which is why we have a duty to share our expertise with developing countries. As a recent report by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Finland shows, teaching and education should be given a more central role in the discourse on development cooperation, setting the targets for development policies and funding.

As societies differ, the Finnish educational system cannot be exported without adjustments. For example, families may have very different expectations of school practices. If we wanted to export the Finnish comprehensive school as is to another country, we would have to change the pupils and their parents, in addition to the teachers.

What we can do instead is to export the expertise needed in identifying challenges, developing matters in a communal manner and increasing the competence of various experts. For example, Finnish teacher training and its university-level organisation can be adjusted to suit other countries and different societies.

Finland is an exception in training teachers within the scientific community

In recent years, more and more children in developing countries have gained access to education. Unfortunately, as evidenced by international comparative studies, the level of teaching has not always been up to par.

Among other things, this results from the narrow scope of teacher training and large group sizes at schools, making it difficult to identify learning difficulties and support pupils. In addition, the learning materials and learning environments may be sub-standard. Therefore, if we wish to improve education, we need to improve teacher training and teachers’ working conditions.

Finnish teacher training is based on research. On a global level, it is a rare thing to train teachers at universities that also engage in high-quality research. Teacher trainees at Finnish universities complete a final thesis with the same requirements as all other academically educated students.

Estonia was quick to develop teacher training

In Finland, we believe that teachers with a master’s degree are imbued with a desire to continuously develop the school system and their personal skills, as well as to come up with solutions to local problems. It is important to export this outlook also to other countries.

Estonia is a good example of the successful development of teacher training. After Estonia became independent, several Finnish doctors from educational sciences went to Tartu and Tallinn to help establish doctoral-level education for the local teacher trainers. Now Estonia is one of the leading countries in education and has, for example, surpassed Finland in their PISA assessment results.

At this point, even we could take a cue from Estonia in several matters related to education, for example, in organising orientation training for junior teachers.

One of the challenges with many developing countries is that teachers have not received high-quality training. For instance, in Pakistan the skill and knowledge level of teachers is often below that of Finnish upper secondary school graduates.

The University of Helsinki and its Centre for Continuing Education HY+ are currently running a project to develop a recently established teacher training unit in Pakistan and to consider ways for teachers to train themselves. One of our successes has been to export an outlook which promotes the further development of teacher training.

Student-centred methods and teacher autonomy pay off

In addition to teacher training, we could also export our approaches to developing countries. The Finnish approach to school and learning is different from other countries. Instead of strict discipline and testing, we approach education in a student-centred way.

For example, the Finnish success in the PISA assessments is not based on standardised tests, but on a more comprehensive vision of pupils’ well-being and development.

Many other countries measure the success of their teachers by student performance and various ranking methods. This may even result in teachers being fired if the pupils do not reach a certain level. This is symptomatic of thinking that only the results matter, not the teacher training.

Our student-centred approach also includes teacher autonomy. Teachers are free to plan their lessons flexibly, as required by the individual needs of their pupils. Our teachers are also involved in planning the curriculum and producing learning materials.

HEI Schools, a startup co-founded by specialists in education, design and conceptualisation from the University of Helsinki, is a good example of a comprehensive approach to school and education export. The early childhood education concept developed by HEI Schools is easy to implement and helps teachers to take into account the initial situation of the child as well as develop their skills in a comprehensive manner. This is crucially different from training them to merely pass the tests.

Autonomy is one of the reasons why Finnish teacher training is considered so attractive. In many other countries, even among Nordic countries, the teaching profession is viewed as less attractive than in Finland. For example, in Norway the appeal of teacher training was seen to increase when it was made a master’s level profession.

Equal opportunities make for a Finnish success story

In addition to professionally trained teachers, the Finnish success in education is based on equal opportunity. It is good to remember that it was mostly education that turned Finland from a poor agrarian society into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Finland has made a political decision that education must be equal, and in the 1970s the country developed a comprehensive school system that is common to all. Around this time, it was also decided that teachers must be trained in master’s level university programmes. Our success was built mostly on these decisions.

As Finnish teacher trainers, we are committed to working together to share the best possible education with the world. This is why many of us are involved in projects which can generate change, especially in developing countries.”

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