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How to transform an education system the Finnish way

| December 3, 2018 | 0 Comments


For the last few years, Finland has been the cool kid on the block, leading the charge of revolutionising 21st century education. Are there lessons we can learn from them? And if there are, could we (or, more importantly, should we) try to apply them to our South African context?

I have lost count of the TED Talks,1 podcasts and articles presented by ‘Google-esque’ types who, on any social media platform, expound the woes of our antiquated, industrial education system in the hope of going viral. Closer to home, there are those who seek to solve the country’s education crisis while holding a beer in one hand and turning the boerewors on the braai with the other. I hear questions such as, “Why can’t our schools just do what Finland’s doing?” Unlike the extechies, these folks actually offer a list of things Finland is doing in the classroom. The list is usually as full of as much half-truth and misinformation as you could generally find in a Guptaowned publication,2 but it’s entertaining to listen to and it demonstrates that the average South African parent is prepared to look beyond our government and borders for real solutions to what they perceive is an education crisis.

Finland and South Africa: the similarities

In a recent podcast interview on this topic, the host, Carmen Murray,3 referred to the Finnish education system as being “unorthodox”, which indicated that most people are unaware of how many similarities between their system and ours actually exist. Our children start school at the same age (the year a child turns seven), preceded by preschool, and followed by basic education until the end of their Year 9, our Grade 9. Finland then offers upper secondary education of three years, concluding with a national examination, akin to our further education and training (FET) phase of grades 10-12, which also culminates in a national matriculation examination. Tertiary options begin at that point. Even our fundamental educational values are similar: both systems believe in the option of free basic education and that every pupil has the right to educational support and inclusive learning opportunities. Their ethos recognises and attempts to support language minorities and promote lifelong learning, just as we do.

How did the Finns transform?

However, if this is the case, how did Finland manage to turn its educational system around from being one of the weakest in the world in the 1970s to being a current global leader in the field, while we sink to a point of ranking last in the world in the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) literacy survey?4 The answer is that our two fundamentally similar systems are implemented completely differently when it comes to curriculum, assessment and teacher training, and that these differences are underscored by the biggest challenge of all: context. Consider that before the 1960s, only one in 10 Finnish adults had completed more than nine years of basic education.5 Holding a university degree of any form was rare indeed. Their current educational successes are the result of an educational transformation that began in the 80s. Today. Finland has reinvented its education system from one whose standards were akin to those of countries such as Peru, to one that competes as a global leader.6 How did it manage this in the course of a few decades? The context was dramatically different from ours in two ways: population size and homogeneity. The world population review7 shows that Finland currently has a population of approximately 5.5 million people, whereas South Africa is home to more than 57 million people. People who live below the poverty line constitute approximately 6% of the Finnish population; South Africa struggles with approximately 50% of its population falling into this classification. The cultural demographic of Finland is a predominantly homogenous one with regard to home language, language of instruction and most generally accepted expectational norms with regard to education. South Africa juggles home languages with languages of instruction over a spectrum of 11 official languages and has extreme gaps between the levels of our society’s educational expectations and norms: the most elite private education, an overburdened and failing public education system,8 and an unconscionable number who are not in any position to make educational choices at all. Often the overwhelming nature of this contextual challenge alone is enough to have people throwing their hands in the air, beaten by its magnitude. How can we possibly talk about an education crisis when half of our population is wondering where their next meal is coming from,9 never mind whether their child has been exposed to 30 million words fewer than their affluent counterparts before the age of three, effectively stunting longterm cognitive development?10

Curriculum overhaul needed critically

This being the case, is it even appropriate to look to a country like Finland for guidance? I believe that it is. Our scale may be larger and our gaps wider, but it would be short-sighted (and possibly even negligent) to discount the lessons of a nation that turned their education crisis around. In an effort to learn where their successes can apply to us, we need to consider three areas: curriculum, assessment and teacher training. The South African Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) curriculum11 was introduced to schools in 2012 and has been used as the core curriculum for the last six years (regardless of which matric examination is written).12 Like any curriculum, it has its weak points, but it is a fundamentally strong curriculum with the potential to provide basic and upper secondary education better than even some First World countries. The danger of CAPS, however, is highlighted when we look at the Finnish ‘less is more’ approach to curriculum.13 The Finns focus on several fundamental concepts per subject per academic year, exploring them in breadth and depth, allowing their pupils to really get their teeth into them. The students engage with concepts fully, until they have mastered them. Conversely, CAPS trades quantity of curriculum for quality, and teachers are required to introduce several new topics per week if they are to complete their curriculum. This results in a wide, superficial ‘mastery’ of concepts that does not foster sufficient competency for higher cognitive problem solving and application of concepts in realworld scenarios that the students can then integrate into their learning. Generally, there is little time for higher-level application of new skills in class, so this allimportant element of learning is relegated to assessment. Here we see a reflection of cognitive scaffolding that should have first been mastered in the classroom.

“Can we, and should we, apply Finnish lessons to our South African context?”

‘Less is more’ in Finland

Again, Finland adopts a ‘less is more’ approach to assessment. While South African teachers and pupils grapple with the heavy assessment load encountered in CAPS, Finnish teachers are trusted to prioritise teaching over testing, and skills development over continuous assessment. Conversely, in South Africa, results tend to take precedence over the educational process itself, and as an extension of this, teachers find themselves teaching to the test instead of teaching with the objective of real content mastery. This tendency to over-assess is not unique to South Africa and is, in part, a result of the third major difference between the Finnish and South African education systems: teacher training.

Teacher training

Finnish teacher training is rigorous and extensive. The minimum qualification requirement to teach in a Finnish school is a masters’ degree in education, taking five to seven years to complete. Young Finns consider teaching to be the most admired profession.14 Only one in 10 teacher trainees makes it through the selection process to be invited to study teaching. Finland has high-quality candidates entering the training process and high-quality professionals exiting it. This means that the quality of the professional teacher can be trusted to interpret and impart curriculum at a consistently high level, while working toward high-quality outcomes. Conversely, for the cream of the South African matriculating crop, the profession of teacher very rarely appears on their list of preferred careers.15 The admission requirements for a teaching degree vary between institutions (presenting its own set of quality standardisation problems), but generally follow the lines of a National Senior Certificate with a language requirement of 50% for the language of teaching and instruction, and little, sometimes nothing, else. (Most universities require a rating of four – adequate achievement – in the home language and three or four other subjects for bachelor’s degree entrance, and then review the requirements for admission to a teaching degree.) Many prospective teachers actually study a completely unrelated undergraduate degree, then study a one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) that relates to their original degree. This lack of rigour in teaching qualification is probably the most impactful difference between Finnish and South African education. It is the one that defines whether we can successfully navigate our education crises or not. When considering which elements of the Finnish system South Africa can learn from, the first two – curriculum and assessment – are realistic and actionable. CAPS is a solid base for a sound curriculum, but it is time to prune the dead weight so that the objective of long-term critical skills can be nurtured. Assessment objectives, too, can be refined and redefined to better reflect the importance of process over result. Teacher training, however, is a different story, because it is part of a larger picture. One of the reasons CAPS has been designed with a heavy slant on teacher administration and assessment is because it accounts for the teacher whose skill level is often insufficient. Finnish teachers, with their extensive training, experience more trust and less supervision. It is an inverse relationship found in any field, and closely linked to economy: high competency = less supervision; low competency = high supervision.

We must focus on our trainee teachers

As daunting and insurmountable as this seems, I believe that South Africa has the ability to dramatically improve teacher training. Scenario planner Clem Sunter speaks of “pockets of excellence”,16 and we certainly have those in our schools. This year, one of the 10 finalists for the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize (worth US$1 million)17 was Marjorie Brown, a history teacher from Roedean School SA in Johannesburg, Gauteng. Two years ago, Colleen Henning from St John’s College (also in Johannesburg) was on the shortlist. Teacher excellence exists in South Africa. We need to find it and work out how to implement it in teacher training. It is not a difficult equation: better quality teachers = better implementation of curriculum = a rising quality of education as a whole = lower unemployment = less poverty and crime, etc. Can we, and should we, apply Finnish lessons to our South African context? Lifelong, critical learning is about engaging with information, contextualising it to suit the problem at hand and applying what is usable and relevant. Perhaps the biggest lesson South Africa can learn from Finland’s supposed “overnight success” is that it took more than 40 years to achieve. We have a long road ahead of us.

Jacqueline Aitchison is director of Education Incorporated Boutique School in Johannesburg.

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Category: Summer 2018

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