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Learning for life, the Finnish way

Mention private tuition, and one gets a bemused look from Finnish educators, pupils and parents. This is unheard of in their country, they say. When school ends, so do the lessons.

Mention private tuition, and one gets a bemused look from Finnish educators, pupils and parents. This is unheard of in their country, they say. When school ends, so do the lessons.

Once bell rings at 2pm across schools in Finland, children run to the park to indulge in snowball fights or pastimes like ice hockey and music. The only group missing out on the fun, when TODAY visited last month shortly before the matriculation exam (the only national assessment in Finland), were the 18-year-olds, who duly trooped home to revise.

Mr Juha Korhonen, who has three children, did not know of any tuition programmes in Finland. “Even if there were, I wouldn’t send my kids … Children need free time and rest after school and homework,” he said.

Homework for Finnish students consists of a few Math problems or perhaps essay assignments. For the minority who have trouble keeping up, teachers provide remedial lessons after school.

As Professor Jouni Valijarvi, an expert in international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), notes: “In Finland, school is the only place where students study.” This has been the tradition, said the Director of Finnish Institute for Educational Research: “Children mark a very clear difference between school time and their free time.”

Even the after-school sports or arts activities that students engage in — and which are managed by private or community organisations — are clearly treated as hobbies, and not the mandated co-curricular activities of Singapore schools.

Hanna Korhonen, 13, trains in figure skating because “I enjoy it very much and I hope to be a professional skater someday”.

EAT, NAP, THINK IN 6 HOURS

Meanwhile, Emmi Siitonen was preparing for the first major exam of her life when TODAY met her.

The 18-year-old had practised mock exam scenarios set by her teachers and previous years’ papers. She was still feeling nervous, but at least she was certain she would have enough time to finish the matriculation exam — which allocates six hours per paper (most pupils sit for six subjects).

Said Emmi: “I have the time to think and write my answers … after all, the exams are not about memorising but to test my understanding and ability to apply knowledge.”

During the six-hour-long sittings, most schools even provide sandwiches and juices. “There is no hurry, you can think, you have a short nap, drink your coffee and eat your lunch, before completing the paper,” said language teacher Katrina Vartiainen. While most of her pupils can complete a paper in four hours, she said the time allows weaker students to do their best as well.

There are no national exams during the first nine years of a student’s life in comprehensive schools. Out of each cohort of 60,000 students, about 30,000 go on to upper secondary education, where their ultimate aim is to do well in the matriculation exam which they sit for in two or three years.

The other half of the cohort enters vocational schools or starts work. Entrance to upper secondary is dependent on their Grade Point Average at the end of Grade Nine (the equivalent of Secondary 3). Both vocational and upper secondary schooling can lead to a university education.

While Emmi certainly felt the stress of having to prepare for the matriculation exam, she said upper secondary school — which operates on a modular system — has taught her to take charge of her own education. Pupils are given the flexibility to customise their own timetable across interests such as German Language or Philosophy.

Educators note that the matriculation exam weighs heavily on students and parents’ minds — not too different from major exams here in Singapore. While the nation’s top scorer is not publicly announced, there are still informal rankings compiled by the media. This may perpetuate the reputation of “top” schools and enable them to attract high-performing students, educators add.

ENSURING QUALITY TEACHING

In the 1960s, the Finnish authorities decided to implement a compulsory nine-year education path, providing free education for children between seven and 16 years of age.

Pupils attend comprehensive schools nearest to their homes, in part due to the authorities guaranteeing children in the neighbourhood a place. Most parents interviewed also believe that all schools are equally good.

To ensure the quality of education in schools, the Finnish National Board of Education randomly selects schools every few years to conduct assessments. Language associations helmed by teachers also regularly carry out voluntary tests among pupils.

In the classrooms, teachers use a variety of tests and quizzes as well as provide regular feedback to help students manage their learning process. They follow a national curriculum highlighting key areas to be covered, but can decide how they want to teach and assess students.

For instance, teachers could hold two class tests counting to the final grade, while giving quizzes after each topic is taught. At the same time, they pay attention to how pupils participate in class, recording their observations almost daily in an online system.

Both parents and students can access the system. Said 17-year-old student Linh Lin: “There are tests and self-evaluations; this pressure is enough to motivate me. My parents also always emphasise the importance of getting good grades.”

And without major exams every few years, Finnish educators noted another benefit: They can tailor lessons according to pupils’ pace of learning, allocating time for field trips and frequent group activities.

“The younger kids need a relaxed learning atmosphere, and that cannot happen with high-stakes exams,” said Mr Olli Maatta, who teaches at Helsinki Normal Lyceum. “It would also limit teaching as you would only teach what is tested; learning is narrowed due to this fear of the exams.”

Maininki School principal Rolf Malmelin agreed that schools are not just places of study, but also for children to learn how to live and work with others in society. “When you are not just teaching for the national tests, you are teaching the kids for life,” he added.

EQUALITY AND INCLUSIVENESS

One way to learn for life, according to students and educators, is the inclusive study environment in Finnish schools.

There is no best class; kids of different abilities are grouped together. A special needs teacher steps into the classroom to assist special needs learners or brings them to another classroom for a few periods each day. (In 2011, 11.4 per cent of comprehensive school pupils received some kind of special support.)

Joao Hamalainen, 17, studies in one of Helsinki’s elite upper secondary school, the Helsinki Normal Lyceum (Most students enter with a Grade Point Average of 9.0 upon 10).

Of his first nine years of school-life, he said: “Being with classmates of different abilities guided me more. For subjects I am better at, I learned by helping my classmates.”

Nevertheless, while international tests show that Finnish pupils are performing well and the variance between Finnish schools is small, some observers have argued that smarter learners are not stretched to their fullest potential.

Ms Armi Mikkola, Counsellor of Education at the Finland Ministry of Education and Culture, explained that equality underscores the Finnish education system. Huge investments are chanelled to support pupils with special needs. “Our system believes in providing equal education opportunities, where schools do not select students,” she said.

TODAY visited an English Language class at Maininki School, half an hour from Helsinki. Teacher Rose-Marie Mod-Sandberg posed questions and got her eighth-grade class of 14-year-olds to discuss in pairs. Next, she gave out vocabulary exercises, assigning additional questions to one or two of the faster learners.

Ms Mod-Sandberg agreed that managing a heterogeneous classroom is tricky. “Sometimes, I feel bad that a lot of attention is paid to the slowest ones … the really clever ones, they don’t always get enough.” To make up for that, teachers use diverse ways, including challenging quicker students with more demanding tasks, or grouping pupils so that they help each other.

Although managing these differences might mean more work for them, teachers baulk at the suggestion of streaming students according to abilities. Said Mr Maatta: “We are not for helping only the talented thrive… In the classroom, everyone is lifted up to a certain level.”

THREATS AND HURDLES

The uncertain European economy, however, may be threatening the future success of Finland’s education system. City officials seeking to cut costs might decide to reduce education spending, arguing that Finnish students are already scoring well in international tests, noted Prof Valijarvi of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research.

Last month, for example, the authorities from Jyvaskyla city decided to relocate Jyvaskylan Lyseon lukio — one of Finland’s oldest upper secondary schools — in order to potentially set up a larger high school. The savings on building maintenance costs were cited as a reason by local media.

But this is no time to rest on laurels — as Prof Valijarvi noted, schools are facing emerging challenges, such as the growing number of special needs and immigrant children, who need more attention. And with individual municipalities having autonomy on spending, the richer municipalities would be better able to invest more in schools — jeopardising Finland’s tradition of equal opportunities across the country, he added.

There is also a need to use technology more pervasively in Finnish classrooms, said University of Helsinki head of teacher education Jari Lavonen. “That’s a real challenge ... There are lots of success stories, but not in every classroom.”

And in an increasingly educated society, educators are reporting a trend of demanding Finnish parents.

While teachers have long been highly-respected in Finland, of late there have been lawsuits brought by parents against schools, and parents who question teaching methods.

To manage the shifting education landscape, educators highlight the need to better train school leaders to manage teachers’ welfare. Ramping up in-service training opportunities is also crucial to help teachers keep up with changes, they note.

Finnish parents told TODAY that they still trust teachers, but busier lifestyles have also led to higher expectations of educators. They urged the Finnish authorities to support teachers by keeping watch on expanding class sizes and investing more in special needs pupils.

Ng Jing Yng is a senior reporter with TODAY covering the education beat. She spent one and a half weeks visiting schools in three Finnish cities — Helsinki, Jyvaskyla and Turku — ranging from primary through to upper secondary (JC equivalent) levels. She spoke to students, educators, university faculty who train teachers and officials.

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