The following interview with Alyona Yurchenko of “The Teacher’s Newspaper” was done in July 2021 about education in Finland. This is the original (rough cut) interview in English. Published Russian version is here: “Мы должны дать детям больше ответственности”.
Alyona: Finland and neighboring Nordic countries are quite similar in many ways, however, according to the results of global rankings, the Finnish education system seems to be more efficient. Why?
Pasi: It is true that all Nordic countries are similar in more ways than one. It is also noteworthy that Finland’s school model at the time of the Great Transformation in the 1960s and 1970s was greatly inspired by the Swedish school model. Therefore, it is interesting that Finnish education system has performed differently in comparison to Sweden and the others. One reason for this is that Finnish educators realised early in the 1970s that, to have education system where every school is a good school enough for all children and that everyone must have equal opportunities to succeed, the teaching profession needs to be much better trained than before. Whereas Finland transferred all teacher education from seminars and teacher training institutes to its research universities and made master’s degree the basic qualification for all teachers, other Scandinavian countries didn’t follow this model. In other countries many teachers are still prepared in post-secondary institutes and are only required to hold bachelor’s degrees in their teaching qualifications. All teachers in Finland have gone through research-based academic education that has allowed to government to rely much more on schools’ ability to design the best possible curricula, use the most effective pedagogies, and also assess students’ learning in schools unlike in most other countries.
Alyona: In the OECD’s PISA rankings the educational achievements of Finnish students are regularly in the top. Their results in the field of international (academic) Olympiads are quite modest in comparison. Is the Olympic movement popular in the country of a Thousand Lakes, is participation in such competitions considered prestigious in the school environment?
Pasi: That’s right. As a general notion I think it is fair to say that the International Olympiads are not considered anything significant in the Finnish education system. These competitions are mostly of the interest of the research universities, not the school system. Education authorities in Finland are more interested in making sure that each and every student in Finland has a good school and great teachers to fulfil their aspirations and goals.
Alyona: As far as I know, Finnish teachers are fans of minimalism, including what their classrooms look like. What advantages does such a design of space provide to their students, how, in general, does it affect academic performance?
Pasi: That’s an interesting notion. Like everywhere, Finnish teachers are different from one another. There are those who display their students’ works all the time on their classroom walls. Then there are those who do it less frequently. My experience is that whenever students are creating something significant, like posters illustrating their projects or other artefacts, these are often presented to others to see in classrooms or hallways. It may be the desire toward minimalist lifestyle that explains why teachers often don’t decorate their classrooms by teaching materials and student works.
Alyona: We often talk a lot about lesson planning, but what role does the break play in the process of studying? It’s hard to underestimate it, isn’t it? How do the breaks in Finnish schools look like, what do children and teachers do during them?
Pasi: True, regular breaks between lessons is an important part of Finnish school culture. Again, due to relatively large amount of autonomy that schools have in Finland, school days may be differently structured from school to school. The common rule is that for each 60 minutes at school, students should have 15 minutes for themselves to play, meet friends, or simply take a moment alone to reflect and recharge. In most primary schools this is organized so that a lesson last 45 minutes that is followed by a 15-minute break in the schoolyard. In secondary schools, lessons can last longer, up to 75 minutes, followed by longer breaks respectively. Whatever the practice is, systematic breaks separating lessons in school is seen as an essential element of good learning and wellbeing at school. My own experience is that in most Finnish schools, students have learned to understand the value and meaning of these regular breaks during the schooldays. Teachers trust their students in making the most of this unstructured, free time that is made available for them each day. Students will learn to take more responsibilities of their own actions in school if just let them do so. It is noteworthy that these breaks are also time to relax and get ready for another lesson for teachers, and perhaps to have a cup of coffee or tea with their colleagues in the teachers’ lounge.
Alyona: How do you assess the role of digital technologies in the educational process? Where do you think their implementation is really necessary, where, on the contrary, they do more harm than good?
Pasi: This is a big question in Finland and elsewhere. I think that during the pandemic we have learned to appreciate the presence of and access to digital media and technologies. Without them remote learning from home would have been much more complicated. In general, I think that educational technology is a thing that is ‘over-spent and under-used’ in many countries, including in Finland. Surveys and studies over and over again show that although schools are connected to the Internet and they have all the gadgets and facilities, teachers don’t make too much use of them in teaching and learning. Finnish teachers often think that they can’t find good enough pedagogical reasons to use technologies more in teaching. At the same time, teachers have experienced that most young people already spend too much time with their computers and smartphones every day, why is it good for them to have even more screen time at school? My own research is showing that excessive time that young people spent with their digital gadgets has led to distraction, less time outdoors and physical activity, and perhaps most importantly declining sleep time. My research shows that most teachers in Australia and Canada, for example, believe that more than before students come to school tired, troubled by new social and emotional challenges, and therefore, not ready to learn. Technology is a great enabler and savior, but it is also distracting, disrupting, disconnecting and putting wellbeing and health at risk if not handled with understanding and care.
Alyona: Is it possible to discuss curriculum and grades with students: isn’t curriculum panning the job of the teacher? What topics in general are permissible in conversations of the “teacher-student” format, and which should be prohibited?
Pasi: Think about this: Why it is so that it is only when students study at the university, they are allowed to pick up their own topic of interest to learn, find ways how to work on those topics of interest, and write about them as you see best? Why do we have to wait until one gets to work on her PhD before we trust that she is capable to have a say in what to learn and how to study? I think, as most teachers in Finland, that we should give children more responsibilities to say what they are interested in learning, what might be important for them, and how to study those things to understand and remember. If you take a look at current early childhood national core curriculum in Finland, you will realize that already before formal schooling, Finnish children are expected to have a right to express their own interests regarding learning. In current Finnish school this ‘student voice’ and engagement in their own learning is an increasingly important aspect of teaching and pedagogy. It is not just about certain topics that they may choose to study but also about their overall goals of education that is important. In Finland, just like in most other countries, deeper student engagement, ownership and commitment to learn are some of the biggest challenges today. Involving students more, as is done in Finland’s every upper secondary school today, is the most promising way to make education better and more interesting to all students.
Alyona: What role, in your opinion, does physical activity play in the educational process? What percentage of educational institutions have already joined the “Schools on the Move” program? What other countries besides Suomi have similar projects?
Pasi: Play is critically important for children’s wellbeing, health and learning. Especially unstructured outdoor play, as Bill Doyle and I make clear in our book “Let the Children Play: Why more play will save our schools and make children thrive”. However, what has happened across the universe during the past two decades is steady decline of children’s daily playtime. Especially free play outdoors has become increasingly scarce. We need to bring back free outdoor play to all children in our schools and homes if we seriously expect that learning and wellbeing in the future will flourish. In this respect, all Finnish schools today must have at least an hour of free time for all students for physical activity, move and play. Many other countries are now addressing the lack of play and physical activity and putting forward projects and measures to turn that course to more play and physical activity. Scotland is making great progress nationwide. Iceland is another great example of a play nation. Other Nordic countries have also been successful in restoring more children’s active time in schools. Other countries must follow. It is especially important now during the pandemic when children’s health and learning are challenged by so many other things. Finnish teachers confirm that play is the cheapest and most effective way to improve quality of education and wellbeing of each and every child.
Alyona: What are the components of the concept of “harmonious classroom environment”? How to achieve it?
Pasi: Harmonious classroom environment is one where all disturbing or threatening elements have been removed and friendly spirit brought in. In Finnish classrooms today you can witness rather informal and friendly personal relationships between students and teachers. They communicate openly trusting one another about issues related teaching and learning but also about things that may go beyond them, like social or personal challenges that my hinder learning. I think that trust between teacher and students is perhaps the most important single element in having harmonious classroom environment in Finnish schools.
Alyona: In the book “Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” you write about the absence of final exams in the school system. What advantages and disadvantages of this aspect would you highlight in a couple of phrases? Is this possible in Russia?
Pasi: It is true that in Finland there are no annual end-of-school year tests or other external standardized tests, but there is one, we call it Matriculation Examination, that takes place at the very end of upper secondary school. All other student assessments are done by teachers and used as they see most appropriate. Again, this is due to Finnish authorities and parents trust teachers and schools in judging best how well students learn and what needs to be done to improve these learning outcomes. Real benefit of not having external tests and relying on teachers in grading their students is that it allows schools and teachers to better focus on real learning. It also makes education system much more flexible and resilient, as has been proven by the pandemic that disrupted all education systems around the world. Early evidence suggests that education systems, like Finland, that are flexible, creative and based on teacher professionalism and trust are able to cope better and with less harm to children the COVID disruption has caused in most other countries.
Alyona: In your book you write about three paradoxes in Finnish schools. Please describe some of them for our readers.
Pasi: The first paradox is: Teach less, learn more. It means, first and foremost, that there is no causal link between how much instruction students are expected have at school and what do they get out of it. In other words, if you think that by teaching more or longer students would learn more or better, you should think again. International data and research evidence clearly show that there is no positive correlation between these two variables. Based on this evidence and support by common pedagogical wisdom, Finland has chosen the way to keep the instruction time to children in necessary minimum and focus more on quality of teaching and learning during instruction time. Interestingly, Singapore and some other high performing education systems have employed this same paradox: teach less, learn more. This same rule applies also to homework that can only benefit student learning if it is done purposefully and clearly linked to students’ interests and what they supposed to learn.
Alyona: How to combine individual learning paths, so popular in Finnish schools, with compliance with international and national educational standards, or is it like a utopia, an oxymoron?
Pasi: First, there is no such thing as ‘international standards’, that is a myth. Certainly, in Finland the key driver of national education policies and the core curricula at the different levels of education is commonly agreed national understanding of what the purpose of education is. In Finland school education focuses much more than elsewhere on supporting personal development, learning and growth of each and every individual student. In this sense, individual learning paths and common national goals of education are complementary to one another, not mutually conflicting. Again, allowing students study more based on their individual talents, interests and aspiration requires that they are trusted by adults, and that teachers are trusted by the system to make the best out of that personalized arrangement.
Alyona: What can Finland learn from other education systems?
Pasi: Most people don’t know that Finland has been closely following and also learning from many other countries. Lessons learned include the comprehensive school model in Sweden, curriculum models in Germany, school leadership ideas in the Netherlands, and pedagogical practices in the United States and England. I think Finland needs to continue to work with all other countries to keep its education system continuously evolving. There are important innovation and ideas to learn from other Nordic countries. Scotland is another interesting place to get inspired. Finland should ally more closely with education systems in Canada. Russia has, of course, also been an important partner in Finland’s education journey. Especially Russian earlier psychologist and pedagogues like Lev Vygotsky, Anton Makarenko and Piotr Galperin have been, and continue to be, influential. I have traveled extensively in Russia, from Vladivostok through Siberia to Northern Caucasus, Moscow and Saint Petersburg and seen numerous schools. I have a lot of appreciation for what Russian teachers do in their schools for children, but I think our two systems are so different that it is difficult to say exactly what the Finnish system has to learn from the Russian systems.
Alyona: How, in your opinion, has the coronavirus pandemic affected primary and secondary education? Is it possible to effectively teach in an online format, or is the personal contact of the teacher with the students “face to face” critically necessary?
Pasi: The global COVID pandemic has taught us at least the following lessons. One, schools can change quickly if they have to do so. It was actually amazing how quickly in most places, teachers were able to switch from in-person teaching to remote or blended learning. This shows that our schools have much more capacity to transform themselves from traditional teacher-led direct instruction towards more student-centered personalized learning if the authorities would just trust them more to do that. Two, genuine social interaction is much more important in good education than many people thought before the pandemic. The problem with the pandemic disrupted education is not what some people call ‘learning loss’, i.e. how many weeks or months behind certain student are the rest of their peers because they didn’t have access to proper teaching and learning during when their schools were closed. The real problem is lack of daily social contacts with friends and teachers at school. Therefore, it is so important that the time after the pandemic when we don’t need to worry about health issues that much is to make sure that schools are the best places for young people to rebuild their social connections, friendships and love. Three, we have also learned that technology can be a great enabler of different kinds of exploration, experimentation and learning but it can never replace teachers. There is something magical in genuine human relationships that fuels positivity by creating a sense of belonging to the same community in schools. At best, technology and everything that comes with it – including machine learning, artificial intelligence and virtual reality – can add to what teachers do with their students at school. We need to prepare all teachers better so that they understand what the opportunities of technology are in education and what will be lost if teachers would be replaced by robots.
Alyona: What global trends in education would you underline? What are their possible consequences?
Pasi: The pandemic has also brough various threats to education. You may call them also post-pandemic megatrends. First one is declining wellbeing and health of young people, especially mental health. This is such an important issue that it must be addressed swiftly through better integration or education and health policies and accepting that health is a skill that students should learn at school – the essential 21st century skill. Second is increasing inequality in our societies that has led to declining education equity in most countries around the world. When education systems become more unequal it means that there will be a growing number of students who, because of their life circumstances, will not get good and adequate education that they would need to succeed in life. Third is a pressure to run education systems with smaller budgets, in other words, make it cheaper. This may be done by cutting the overall number of teachers in schools and increase remote learning that students do by themselves. It may also happen that primary and secondary education will be streamlined so that they provide all student only a necessary minimum of basic knowledge and skills – everything else will be extra that is available for those who can afford to pay. Another related trend with this third scenario is to downsize initial teacher education by limiting the number of students who are prepared in universities and making non-university apprenticeship-type teacher preparation the main form of workforce creation.
It is probably good to end this interview with a more optimistic note. There are also opportunities for positive developments. I can see that there is a global movement rising that is asking to return play back to children’s lives, as I mentioned earlier. Among them are pediatricians, teachers and increasing number of parents are worried about stress that we are putting on our children. There is also a change, if we can play or cards well, that the status of the teaching profession will become stronger and that teachers will finally be recognized as essential frontline professionals. This doesn’t happen automatically. You and I need to continue campaigning for that by reminding our politicians and authorities about the important role that teachers have had during the pandemic.
Alyona: Thank you!
Published in “The Teacher’s Newspaper” (Учительская газета) on 27 July 2021