Ever since the quiet and soft-spoken nation of Finland was placed in the spotlight because of its educational system thanks to its PISA results, the whole world has been wondering what makes Finland so good in education.
I got my first answer without even asking. “We are very good at reading! People here learn to read even before they go to school,” a young Finn told me. To me, it seems like a reasonable answer and also a very good explanation of what makes education here as good as it is. The funny thing is that we were having this deep conversation about education twenty minutes after we had met at a rooftop party on a sunny Saturday just hours before a music festival. From the moment I arrived in Helsinki, I have heard all about how quiet and reserved Finns can be. Every time I really had the chance to talk to someone, however, I found myself around curious people who were genuinely interested in developing conversations on complex topics.
After the rooftop pow-wow with Finns, all of us being in a festive mood and talking about their perspectives on education, I heard Jari Lavonen, head of the Teacher Education Department at the University of Helsinki, speak about the entrance tests to teacher education. He mentioned that to select 300 out of the 3000 applicants trying to get a study place to become teachers, a sort of reading test is given first.
That didn’t surprise me. Candidates are invited to participate in a profound discussion about a book published months before. In the words of Mr Lavonen, this procedure helps to find “motivated candidates who are able to read and not memorize things, but really understand them”. This is only the first step in the process of becoming a teacher here. The whole admissions process takes about six months. As Jari Lavonen explained, in Finland everything related to education is based on long-term plans and policies which do not change every time different politicians take office in the government.
Education is a serious topic for the Finns, but it is developed in a way that students are encouraged to cultivate their own critical thinking and creativity. As a result, the Finnish education system seems to produce laid back teenagers and young adults who can discuss topics ranging from the sauna culture to politics and education, all with well-balanced arguments while maintaining their composure in low tones of voice.
On our visit to a school, I asked a 16-year-old if he had too much homework. I was expecting the standard answer I get from all teenagers I know. The boy just looked at me and said: “We don’t really get mandatory homework to do here. Teachers show us extra tasks and we can do them if we want. But it is a good way of improving your knowledge in a subject, so we do it”. Apparently, even 16-year-olds here get what education is all about: less about trying to standardize everything and much more about comprehensive understanding.
Photos: Mohammed Alfaraj, Bruna Passos Amaral, Oriol Salvador Vilella