On Sunday 10 May I flew to Finland for a week of fact-finding. My mission: to learn from Finnish education leaders and teachers what it means to run a world-class education system. Over the course of several articles, I will recount my experiences and share my findings…
These articles are written in the form of diary entries based on the scribbled notes I made during various meetings with colleagues. Any errors and inaccuracies are entirely my own. I’d like to thank all the colleagues I met for their generosity and kindness. They made me feel most welcome in their country and selflessly gave me their time and expertise. I have chosen not to name these colleagues because I do not want to attribute opinions to them which they may not wish to be in the public domain. They were disarmingly honest and yet utterly professional at all times.
Tuesday 12 May
Early on Tuesday morning, after very little sleep, I made my way across Helsinki and caught the train to Espoo. I walked from Espoo station (enjoying a much-needed injection of fresh air) to the regional innovation centre where, arriving with half an hour to spare, I set up office at a table in the canteen and bought myself a coffee.
Just as I was beginning to feel rather pleased with myself for adapting so quickly to life in Finland, I did something strange and, well, rather stupid. When I was handed my coffee I said, by way of reply, “gracias”. Not “thank you” or even “kiitos” in badly-pronounced Finnish. But the Spanish “gracias”. The lady serving me performed a subtle double-take but said nothing and quickly moved on to the next customer. Perhaps she thought I was Spanish and didn’t speak any of her country’s favoured languages, Finnish, Swedish or English. Or perhaps she thought I was having a breakdown. Either way…
I’m not Spanish. What’s more, I speak very little Spanish (having studied French at school). Whichever way you look at it, I had no reason to spit out Spanish words whilst ordering a coffee in southern Finland. So why did I do it? Was I going mad?
Well, as I’ve already said, I was tired (cue small violin), having slept very little since arriving in Helsinki on Sunday. I should emphasise that I was enjoying my visit and it was proving both enlightening and productive. Not only was I learning a lot about Finnish education, I was also making good contacts along the way and had already agreed to run two projects in conjunction with a teacher training team in Helsinki.
But, nevertheless, it was tiring. And not just because the days were long but because being in a foreign country is always tiring, especially if you don’t speak the local language. In France, Italy, or Spain – because their vocabularies share strong Latinate roots with English – there are enough parallels and similarities to be able to catch the gist of someone’s meaning or to understand what a sign is telling you to do or not to do. Even Swedish and Norwegian are a part of the Germanic family of languages and therefore grammatically similar to English. But Finnish is part of the Uralic family – sharing roots with Russian, Hungarian, and Estonian – and therefore has a very different vocabulary and structure, or at least it seems that way to my untrained ear. And so trying to understand people or decipher signs is difficult if not entirely fruitless. This means you have to think a lot more, you have to process more background information than you do in your everyday life which is mentally tiring.
When you’re in familiar territory, you can rely much more on habit, on automaticity. You don’t need to think about, say, road signs or the direction of traffic. You don’t need to keep your senses heightened in case someone is speaking to you or warning you of grave danger. You take in a lot of low-level information subconsciously, you have an innate awareness of what’s happening around you.
But in a strange and foreign land you have to be much more alert to your surroundings. You can’t rely on habit, or on your subconscious making little decisions for you like computer operating software whirring away in the background whilst you focus your processing power on one front-end application.
Daniel Kahneman calls this reliance on habit – on instinct – ‘thinking fast’ – it is quick, innate and emotional. Being in a foreign country surrounded by a language you don’t understand and slightly different ways of functioning, makes you ‘think slow’ – that is to say in a laboured, deliberative and logical way – because you have to process every minor detail consciously, you have to think about everything. And it slows down your operating system and drains your power.
Even though, without exception, my Finnish colleagues spoke good English (they certainly spoke better English than I spoke Finnish), they occasionally became lost for words or mistook one word for another, meaning I had to keep my wits about me to correct any errors and to readily offer a translation to break the impasse. And I had to think carefully about my own language, ensuring it was simple and direct, not figurative. I had to tread that careful line between being easily understood and yet not too patronising or slow.
And this, I think, is why I spoke unsolicited Spanish. Or perhaps I am going mad. Who knows?
Whilst I sat in the canteen waiting for my first meeting of the day, several things struck me (once I’d recovered from the embarrassment of speaking Spanish). First, there were a lot of staff and students enjoying hearty breakfasts around me. Second, the atmosphere was calm and quiet, perhaps not studious but certainly purposeful. Third, student behaviour was impeccable and the physical environment immaculate – no stray cups or cutlery, no litter or graffiti in sight.
I later discovered that every student in Finland is entitled to a free breakfast and a free lunch every day which goes some way to explaining why the canteen was so popular that early in the day. As much as I admire Nick Clegg’s policy of free school meals for all infant pupils, to my mind it neither went far enough nor was it properly funded. In practice, schools simply had to divert existing monies to pay for it, meaning some other costs had to be cut. And for as long as free school meals for older pupils are still means-tested, they will remain a badge of dishonour and many parents will not claim their entitlement.
In Finland, free breakfasts and lunches aren’t means-tested, nor are they dependent on age or study programme. If you study, you get fed. Not only does this ensure that all students, no matter their backgrounds and personal circumstances, are well nourished and ready to concentrate on their studies, it also provides students with several stints of structured social time and the chance to periodically recharge their batteries.
Finnish people, I learnt, tend to eat earlier in the day than we do in England. Lunch, for example, starts at 10.30 and ends at midday. Students have a coffee break early-afternoon and a small early evening meal. Finns have about five meals a day, all smaller than a typical cooked meal in the UK and each meal of the day is smaller than the last. That’s the healthy way to eat, of course: breakfast like a King, lunch like a Prince and dine like a pauper.
So far on my trip, I had learned about the Finnish education system. I had learnt that compulsory schooling starts at age 6 and ends at age 16. I had learnt that, post-16, students took one of two common routes: vocational college or upper-secondary school. Each lasted three years and led either to a university or a university of applied science, or indeed into employment. I had learnt that education was free for all and that this encouraged free and frequent movement between different stages and types of education. Learning was regarded as a lifelong venture and something held in high regard by society and the state. As such, educators were highly regarded, too, and so the teaching profession attracted a high calibre of candidate.
I had also learned about the administration of Finnish education: Parliament voted on government policies and set out funding levels and arrangements; the Ministry of Education agreed lists of qualifications and wrote development plans providing strategic direction; the National Board of Education wrote the core curriculum and set learning outcomes and assessment criteria; and municipalities and individual institutions wrote the detailed content of curriculum and qualifications and took responsibility for teaching and quality assurance.
I had learned, too, about Finnish curriculum and qualifications. I had learnt that new qualifications, which were about to fall in line with the European Commission’s ECVET model, were becoming increasingly personalised and incorporated a combination of vocational learning, on the job learning, core subjects, and free choice modules such as entrepreneurship and sports.
In short, I had learnt a lot. But, on day three whilst sitting alone in a college canteen catching up on my emails, I came to my first truly valuable conclusion: one of the main secrets of Finland’s educational success is cultural: the state and society value education. The tangible signs of this are that the government make it free for all and also make sure students are well-nourished. As a consequence of this cultural love of learning, a majority of the population respect educational institutions and educators.
The bad news for those of us trying to learn from our Finnish friends and take home some ‘quick wins’ is that cultural values and beliefs are not easy or quick to change, and can’t meaningfully be changed at a local level. If we are to genuinely emulate the Finnish way, we have to change the national mindset, we have to raise the status of the teaching profession and attract trainees of a higher calibre, whilst being bold enough to turn more people away. We have to make education free for all and invest in adult education on an equal basis as pre-16 education. We have to raise the status of vocational education so that it is regarded as an genuine equivalent to the academic route and ensure that vocational qualifications provide a valid route to university as well as into employment
In my next dispatch I will look at quality assurance procedures.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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