From Competition to Trust – Why the relaxing education gives an edge to the Finnish

Alys Lo and Queenie Fung

Finland students enjoying the lesson

Tests, exams and more tests. This has now become the basic concept of what school is in Hong Kong. As students ourselves, we can surely feel the immense workload that is weighted upon our shoulders every single day. Have you ever thought of having less number of school hours but receive better results? Finland is the country that can fulfill your dream. To figure out the secret behind their success in academics, we will have to look into the key in their education system.
Surprising Statistics

In spite of all our efforts in education, let’s look at our results. According to the PISA, programme for international students assess-ments, Hong Kong stood 3rd in both science and mathematics, and 4th in reading and not as good in generic skills like critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills. Finland, on the other hand, stood 2nd and 3rd in Sciences and Reading respectively. Compared to students in Finland, it is very unfair to us. How come we work harder and for longer hours but end up doing similar to them, instead of being better? The answer lies in their studying environment.
The Key Word is Trust, Not Competition

In places like Hong Kong, the UK, US and many of the countries around the world, education is built around the idea of competition. It is generally believed that competition between schools and students can lead to improvement as students are motivated, in other words, pressured, to work and study harder. This is just the opposite of Finland. “Trust” is the word that builds up their entire education system.

Finland students learn through playing

In Hong Kong, we compete in everything we does, from the marks of each test paper to our position in the whole form, fighting for the valuable chances of getting into the so- called “A” class. In fact, is this really so important? As for students in Finland, the answer is a definite no. In Finland, there is nothing like a “talent class” or a “normal class”, instead, students are divided equally into classes with 20 students each. Instead of tough competition, this teaches the talented students to accept diversity of classmates as well as to learn through teaching others what they comprehend. Their education also aims at providing students with a stable learning environment. For example, both primary and secondary schools are combined in order to prevent students from having to adapt to a new learning environment, which keeps them from performing perfectly in academics. Students will have the same teacher throughout primary school so that teachers can have a deeper understanding of their pupils and know what is best for them. As for the ratio between students and teachers in each class, although we have more students in a class in Hong Kong, we only have one teacher for each subject within in class, whereas in Finland, they can have as many as three teachers or even more in just one single lesson.

The provision of additional teachers is to help those who fall behind in a particular subject and attend to students in need. This actu-ally reflects on their Finnish philosophy with education that those who struggle in certain subjects should never be left behind.

A Finnish teacher playing happily with students

Relaxed Parents and Relaxing Education Mode

Besides their basic studying environment, here comes the part that Hong Kong students are most jealous of —- the relaxing study atmosphere in Finland. Parents are usually under the perception that the earlier children start learning, the smarter and better they will become. K1 officially starts at around 3-year-old, we can even see four-year-old kids starting to learn the piano, the violin, drawing, English or even a third language. Nevertheless, now is the time for us to prove this wrong. In Finland, school officially begins at age 7, with pre-school just a year before to help children develop social and interactive skills. Instead of studying about somewhat boring things like reading and mathematics, students are encouraged to pay attention at other people’s needs and interests to have a positive attitude towards people, culture and environment. They learn about animals, nature and the cycle of life. The ultimate goal of all these is to provide opportunities for students to gradually increase their independence, to become adults who are capable of taking care of them-selves and making responsible decisions. Their education system believes that with the focus to learn how to learn, children will become more eager to start school and give them motivation to have an active attitude in learning. The first thing that students in Finland learn is to relax. Unlike us in our perfectly ironed school uniforms and polished black shoes, they take off their shoes the minute they arrive at school, running along the corridors, even in their bare feet. We will never be able to guess what their first lesson is. It is neither a reading session, nor an assembly, but just free time for students to relax and enjoy themselves. In contrast to our fixed hours of lesson time each day, high school students in Finland have flexible school hours, depending on the courses or the number of years to finish the course they have chosen. Schools encourage students to discover knowledge by themselves. In other words, schools are more than happy to allow students to do self-study. They trust students as long as they are able to finish the syllabus required. By designing their own study timetables, they develop generic skills like time-management and problem-solving. In Finland, students feel that school is their second home, not only does students have such close relationships with their teachers that students are allowed to address them by their first names and they are even known as “school mothers”, but all students are also given the opportunity to help with chores around the school during breaks and lunch hours, such as helping in the canteen and library. By doing all these, students can experience learning in a relaxed way, school is no longer a place for stressful and boring studying, but a big family that encourages them to explore knowledge.

A Finnish school principle and his energetic students

Great Teachers Born out of Respect

Despite all these policies of learning, the secret lies in their high quality of teachers. In Hong Kong, if you ask teenagers what their favourite future occupation is, 9 out of 10 will definitely say lawyers, doctors or perhaps journalists. As for teachers, it is almost the least favorable career among teenagers. This results in a situation that instead of intellectual elites, the ones who are unable to fulfill their dreams as being doctors and lawyers are left to fill up these positions as teachers. However, in Finland, teachers are considered as one of the most highly trusted and respected occupation in the society. The standard of teachers is unbelievably high, they actually require applicants to attain a master degree just to be a school teacher. Yet, it remains the most popular profession among teenagers in Finland, most teenagers will go running to different programs and seminars for teachers, as a result, schools are able to choose the best of the best students among all to become teachers and to be the ones to lead the next generation of elites. This whole cycle carries the education of Finland up hill, producing high standard teachers to be the leaders of society and contribute to the economy, unlike the quality of Hong Kong teachers who is continuously sliding and tumbling down the other side of the hill. The society signifies the importance of training for the profession of teachers. Student teachers are required to observe a large number of lessons, followed by small group discussions. By then, those student teachers are able to discover the key requirements for teaching. Moreover, they are always en-couraged to follow their dreams in being a teacher, never required to change their occupation just because they aren’t as smart. They can all be given the chance and education to be fully trained into one of the professionals. All in all, it’s a social norm in Finland for people to respect teachers, providing motivation for teens to continue the high-standard cycle of education.
Wise Government Investment

Along with teachers and policies in education, we cannot neglect the importance of the role of government investing in this everlasting market of education. The government begins Finland children’s journey of education when they first pop their head out into the world. In order to foster a culture of reading for newborn babies, the government will give each family 3 books, one each for mother and father, and a baby book specially reserved for the child, all included as part of a “maternity package”. In Hong Kong, mothers are only allowed to have a six-week maternity leave, causing most of them to miss out the most important stage of their child’s growth, failing to teach them their first lesson in life which is also the most important foundation of their own growth. However, in Finland, the government realizes how important having a mother to raise their own children is by contributing to the benefits of their future education. The government will actually pay mothers to stay home and provide “home daycare” for the first three years of their child’s life, there can even be a care worker to visit the family to see if the growth environment is suitable for the child. By the time a child reaches 7, publicly funded comprehensive schooling begins, the Finland ministry of education offers quality and excellence of education without selecting, tracking or streaming students, with as many as 45 foreign languages provided. Their network of schools covers much of the area in the rural district, with free transportation to more widely dispersed schools. Better still, instead of owning heavy burdens of debts to the government because of the loans for universities’ fees like most students do in Hong Kong, almost all of the universities in Finland are funded and administered by the local government. This can remove the financial barriers preventing students from attaining high level of education, and instead, encourage them to discover more in this lifelong journey of education.

Interior of a Finland school

Time for Reflection

Despite how much we envy the students in Finland, it is time for us to reflect on our very own education system as well. We might not have all these kinds of “education welfare” measures, but we can be the ones who change our own learning policies. Instead of wishing that we were studying in Finland , we can learn from what we know about the key or their success in education. Perhaps, we can start by respecting our teachers and beginning our self-learning process as our first step up the ladder of Hong Kong’s education level.

Find out the Hong Kong side of the story:


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