Monday, 29 September 2008

Finnish education project – Keeping Dreams Alive (Overview)

I was inspired to undertake this mini research project primarily because I felt dismayed by the constraints within the society and education system of Hong Kong that have stifled the development of young people and cultural industries. Few people seem to be able to keep up their interests in life or, in slightly cheesy language, hold on to their dreams. This has led to a rather narrow society excessively focused on its financial system, unnecessarily at the expense of its many cultural talents who would have provided valuable input to our economy, as we have seen a thriving world art market notwithstanding the recent financial turmoil. I believe that we need a better education to help more young people in Hong Kong to pursue their dreams and create a more diverse society, and therefore have set off to find some insights as to how this could be done.

With thanks to the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Hong Kong, I paid a visit to Finland—the ‘Daughter of the Baltic Sea’(as you can see in the map in the picture above, it does look like a maiden with one arm), a country not only strewn with 180,000 lakes and a myriad forests but also one with a cultural appeal as it has given birth to talents such as Jean Sibelius, a classical music master, Alvar Aalto, a leading architect and designer, Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin Valley series, Lordi, a rock band with its debut ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ winning the 2006 Eurovision Song contest, the Helsinki Design District, etc. It has also come top in growth competitiveness four times in this decade, although it was one of the poorest European countries fifty years ago. Most importantly, it has one of the best education systems in the world according to the last three PISA studies (although the two recent shooting incidents have been alarming). The combination of a prospering culture and a developed education system would explain why I felt the ‘call’ of the home of Nokia. Whilst I appreciate the creative capacity of Finns largely stems from the prior flourishing culture, I believe that its education system has played an important role in generating the right people in order to maintain this continuity.

I visited three schools in Helsinki and Salo (Meilahden ala-aste, Meilahden ylaasteen koulu, and Moision Koulu) to see for myself how students learn there. I had an interview with Mr. Reijo Laukanen, an education expert who has advised the Finnish National Board of Education for three decades, and with Yolanda Chen, a Taiwanese author who has recently written book about the Finnish education system. I also found out a bit about the cultural industries in operation by talking to artists. After my research and personal experiences through these visits and interviews, I have consolidated and summarised my findings and thoughts as follows. For more details and case studies, please see the posts under category Finnish education project.

To say a few words about the Finnish education system in general, Finland has a highly developed philosophy about people and education which is commendably put into practice. The society values its every member and believes that the education should leave no child behind. There is one socio-economic reason behind this: Finland only has a population of 5 million people and its economy needs everyone. In practice, this means free education for all, including immigrants and international students, with free books and even free school lunch. This entails substantial state input which amounted to 6.5% of the GDP. More astonishingly, unlike England for example, state education is very strong and attains a very high average standard, with a deviation in school performance of less than 5% (PISA), while private education only plays a residual role. Students of different abilities are mixed in comprehensive schools without any banding system. The only streaming and entrance tests are based on the learning needs of students, for example, those with special educational needs or international students who need a different language instruction or an international curriculum. All teachers are required to be holders of masters degrees. Teaching profession is highly competitive as only one in ten applicants gets teacher training, although the pay is not very good at all. Students with poor family backgrounds can have access to good education and are just as capable of developing their potential fully. This is achieved by a firm legal basis under the Education Act.

The society of Finland helps its people to pursue their dreams in four main ways. Firstly, its culture has an established tradition in art and music which creates plenty of space for creative endeavours, and the state supports such industries. There is a Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra set up by Parliament fifty years ago that provides funding for creative and high-tech industries, which is supplemented by Tekes, Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, the Academy of Finland, the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) and Finpro. Finland invests around 3.4 per cent of the GDP in research and development.

Second, the social welfare system which takes up ¼ of the GDP provides security for people. This reduces the financial worries and costs in taking risks in innovative work which is often independently undertaken with little funding and uncertain returns. Third, society values equality and generally respects each occupation in its own right. Fourth, individual is the basic unit of society, which means they generally care more about what they themselves want to do, rather than what they ought to do under family pressure, for example. This aspect is a rather widespread attitude among Western countries.

The education system facilitates the development of the interests of young people in two main ways. Firstly, the system tries to get the most out of every child. It provides free, good education for all so that children’s potential is not compromised by sub-standard education or financial problems. Another distinctive feature is that it discourages competition and ranking when students are still developing until high school, which starts at Grade 10 and encourages every child to learn at their own pace without worrying about others. If a child finishes early, he moves on to the next task; conversely, it is ok for the kids to take their time. This is possible in the classroom with small class size. The underlying philosophy is every person learns differently, and speed is only a difference which is not a cause for celebration. As a result, students who don’t learn as fast are less likely to be discouraged.

Secondly, the system facilitates the development of interests and hobbies. The curriculum itself is very diverse and has a lot of options on the table. The state also supports further education in music, art, design, architecture, theatre, film and various technical industries. The general teaching approach seeks to inspire an interest in learning. As Yolanda Chen suggests metaphorically, teachers show the students ‘first the forest, and then the trees’—meaning that when students get started they dabble in subjects such as languages, art, music, woodwork, freely with hands-on work to explore for themselves, without much emphasis on honing the skills. For example, students learn to speak foreign languages well before they start to learn the grammar and play the instrument for fun before learning the theories. So students are more likely to enjoy what they learn and develop an interest and motivation, which will naturally lead to further pursuit. Interest comes before skill.

More importantly, children develop their hobbies and keep up what they like. It does not matter whether they excel; what matters is they enjoy it as their hobbies, which slowly incorporate into part of the lives of individuals, as well as the lifeblood of society. This is a key factor in developing cultural industries not only because people might develop their hobbies into their own professions, but also that a population of audience interested in art and culture is cultivated, which drives the demand for a flourishing culture.

The implications for Hong Kong are not entirely clear because of the different social and economic conditions here. Whilst reforms are under way, what we could learn from Finland is probably something quite simple, yet fundamental: to value the education of each and every child, and do it from our heart. In Finland, I was most impressed by the attitude of almost all sectors of the system: education board, schools, teachers, students, parents, publishers, political parties—it takes a concerted effort by different parties to create and sustain an excellent education system.