Interview with Irmeli Halinen: The Success of Finnish Primary Education

Finnish Education

Today, The Hieno! features an interview with Ms. Irmeli Halinen, the Head of Curriculum Development of the Finnish National Board of Education, who shares some invaluable insights to the success of the primary education system in Finland. The Finnish primary education system has a reputation of being one of the best and most successful in the world. It is commonly praised for encouraging creative and innovative thinking in the young ones, who are placed in the care of highly trained Finnish care-givers.

Finnish primary schools have traditionally made it to the top 10 for English and the Mathematics in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Even though Singapore topped the PISA rankings last year, some educators attributed the exemplary results to the flourishing private tuition market in Singapore instead.

This has raised questions with some other Singaporean educators–What are the aspects of education Singaporean educators can learn from the Finnish model? These educators have expressed their sincere concerns that Singapore’s “exam-smarts” might come at a tradeoff of innovation in the country.

irmeli finnish education

WW: Hello Ms Irmeli Halinen, thank you for your time today!

Irmeli Halinen: No problem.

WW: We hear that there are some changes to the Finnish primary education system recently, and some members of the press might have mis-reported the new measures. Can you tell us more about these changes, and briefly correct the misconceptions?

Irmeli Halinen: Finland has just reformed the national core curricula for Pre-Primary and for Compulsory Basic (= primary plus secondary, grades 1-9) Education.

As a starting point for this reform was, in 2012, the reform of the Government’s Decree concerning the basic goals and the allocation of lesson hours among school subjects. The local education authorities are now busy working with the local curricula based on the national core curricula. Schools will start working according to the new curricula in autumn 2016.

The national core curricula were compiled in an extensive collaboration process where the Finnish National Board of Education worked side by side with municipalities, schools and teachers, and with teacher trainers, researchers and other key stakeholders. The reform process and the core curricula have met a positive response throughout the field of education and the Finnish society.

Developing schools as learning communities, and emphasizing the joy of learning and a collaborative atmosphere, as well as promoting student autonomy in studying and in school life – these are some of our key aims in the reform. In order to meet the challenges of the future, there will be much focus on transversal (generic) competences and work across school subjects.

School subjects still have an important role to play in teaching and learning. The subjects that are common to all students in basic education have been stipulated in the Basic Education Act, and the allocation of lesson hours among school subjects has been prescribed in the Government Decree in 2012. In international media, there has been some misunderstanding about the role of school subjects in Finland. Finland is not giving up subjects, but there will be less distinct borderlines and more collaboration in practice between them.

In the new national core curriculum, the learning goals of the transversal competences are described as seven competence areas. The areas are:

  1. Thinking and learning to learn;
  2. Cultural literacy, communication and expression;
  3. Managing daily life, taking care of oneself and others;
  4. Multiliteracy;
  5. ICT-skills;
  6. Entrepreneurial and work life skills; and
  7. Participation and building sustainable future.

Local authorities and schools are encouraged to promote the development of these competences and to consider their own innovative ways in reaching the goals. The core curricula for subjects have been written so that their learning objectives include the competence goals which are most important for the said objectives. The competences will also be assessed as a part of subject assessment. In this way every school subject enhances the development of all seven competence areas. This is a new way of combining competence-based and subject-based teaching and learning.

In the reform, the emphasis set on collaborative classroom practices will also be brought about in multi-disciplinary, phenomenon and project-based studies where several teachers may work with students studying the same topic. According the new national core curriculum, all schools have to design and provide at least one such study-period per school year for all students, focused on studying phenomena or topics that are of special interest for students.

Students are expected to participate in the planning process of these studies. School subjects will provide their specific viewpoints, concepts and methods for the planning and implementation of these periods. The project involves skills and knowledge related to many subjects, for instance history, arts, math, physics and Finnish language, but from the students’ viewpoint the boundaries will vanish. But not all subjects can be incorporated meaningfully to every multi-disciplinary project. The lessons of other subjects are organized normally. On what topics, with what subjects and how these integrative study periods are realized, will be decided at local and school level. Some municipalities want to emphasize these integrative study periods, and they are allowed to decide that there will be more than one study period per year in their schools.

The third emphasis in the reform has been set on formative assessment. We want to develop assessment for learning and assessment as learning. The task of assessment is to encourage students and to promote learning i.e. we need to help students to gradually learn to understand and analyze their own learning processes, and to take more and more responsibility over their learning. We believe that the ability to learn is a skill that must be systematically promoted and that this is something that is very much needed in life.

irmeli halinen

WW: It seems that the Finns prioritize a really noble ideal in education– equality. Do you think prioritizing equality in education is the key to success behind such an exemplary Finnish education system?

Irmeli Halinen: The ideals of equality and equity are very important to us. And I personally think that by creating circumstances where all children can feel and learn well, overall high quality results are produced. The learning of each student is supported in many ways.

We also try to do our best in order to support teachers to be successful in their challenging work. Anyway, we have to work hard to maintain these ideals.

WW: Given that societies all over the world hold different ideals when it comes to education, do you think that the Finnish education system is replicable in other countries?

Irmeli Halinen: Some features of the Finnish system are worth “borrowing”, but not the whole system itself. Every education system is a part of the society, and it is not possible to take out just the education system.

But features like respecting the teacher profession, having high quality education for teachers, allowing quite much freedom and creativity for teachers in their everyday work do go a long way. We also want to support all learners in many different ways, have a very close and open cooperation between national and local authorities and schools and creating national core curricula in this collaborative way, emphasize cooperation instead of competition, and not use financial and human resources for extensive testing of students etc. – these could be worth considering in other systems as well.

WW: Wow, that is really something new to us. Perhaps, students at Singaporean schools are highly stressed-out because of the strong emphasis on academic grades. On a lighter note, most younger Finns seem to be great at languages, and speak more than two fluently. Do you think this is due to the education system as well?

Irmeli Halinen: Finland is a bilingual country. All our children have to learn Finnish and Swedish. Additionally they have to study at least one foreign language during basic education. Usually this first foreign language is English. It may be some other language, too.

Most municipalities offer at least one or two optional languages after the first compulsory foreign language. Language teaching is very advanced, teachers are really good. They encourage their students to bravely use the language. So, students learn languages well at school. But of course, nowadays they learn also by watching television, reading texts in internet, playing games, communicating with their friends in social media etc.

WW: Do you think that there are any aspects of the Finnish Education System that can be improved?

Irmeli Halinen: At the moment, I’m worried about the financial development of our country, and especially cuts in educational budgets. The differences between municipalities are growing, and this will cause inequality. If working conditions for teachers and students get worse, it may influence on young people’s decisions whether they will become teachers or not.

At the moment, we are getting into teacher education those young men and women who are both talented in many ways and, at the same time, also suitable for teacher profession. For instance, in Helsinki University, class teacher faculty takes in only 10 % of applicants.

In the curriculum reform 2014, we tried to focus on those questions that, based on the feedback from the field and on the results of many evaluations and research, seemed to be most challenging. We wanted to improve the wellbeing of our students and have more inspiring and joyful learning in our schools. We also wanted to strengthen the competences our students will need in their further studies, in working life and as citizens.

At the same time, we also wanted to strengthen the knowledge and skills basis in different school subjects, and enhance students ability to use and implement these knowledge and skills in their life, and to develop that kind of attitudes and values which promote their willingness to work for human rights and to live in a sustainable way.

WW: Thank you for your time today, Irmeli. It has been an insightful sharing!

Irmeli Halinen: No problem.

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We hope you have learnt something from this interview, as much as we did! =)

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