Thursday, 18 December 2008

More thoughts on visit to SGSS

A few very clever students were honest and sweet. Amongst many others, the favourite opening line of some presentations was 'I love your blog' and 'your blog is very meaningful' - which can't be more sincere - followed by a stark, powerful remark that 'your blog is boring' (with some helpful and constructive suggestions for improvement). I tried to humour them a bit and it was a lot of fun talking to them. Sorry if it is boring, i'm really very bad at cracking gags and promoting something - advertising is the one job i can never do i think.

Many of them actually engaged in the substantive issues esp cookery lessons, English education, art classes, student counselling, etc - but surprisingly nobody talked about equality which I think is the SINGULARLY MOST VALUABLE part of Finnish education. It is entirely due to the neglect and sloppiness in my organisation and presentation of the blog and only natural how they ended up getting attracted to the ones with more pictures.

I was surprised how much attention they showed to details in my blog - what an amazing ability to be able to pick up everything and describe it all accurately. It was very clear they had had a good read - thank you.

I was even more surprised when a good few of them had questions for me AND expressed their opinions about what they had read on my blog as well as their own education. I really hope this will help them to think about what kind of education they want for themselves, and GO FOR WHATEVER THEY WANT TO ACHIEVE :)

Some thoughts after a visit to my beloved SGSS

So I stepped foot in my alma mater again and this time I had some really interesting interaction with students from 2B, 4D and 5D. Firstly thank you Kristina for giving me the opportunity to come back and share, on top of your support and insight all along. I came with an 'official' purpose to respond to feedback on my blog and a secret informal twofold motivation of inspiring some of my juniors in my limited capacity and seeking a personal answer that might better inform my own future.

(Yes perhaps contrary to what the students might have thought, my real aim was not to talk about finnish education at all - rather i wanted to get everyone to think about what kind of education they would like as students - and that the defects in the system can to a large extent be remedied by putting in more effort themselves and knowing where they are heading towards.)

And I left SGSS feeling impressed by the promise I saw in many students I met. As much as I am naive at heart, I wish to draw on the wisdom from naruto manga how responsibility should be entrusted to the young generations - with full trust in their ability to surpass the previous generations. I certainly feel that many of them are capable of surpassing their predecessors if they apply themselves to it.

I also saw a lot of life in the young faces - they remind me of the many different stages i have been through, and how my attitudes and beliefs have changed over time. (though my look has remained as young and annoyingly immature as ever). I long for that carefree spirit, the determination and the goal I once had.

Boys and girls, I walked out realising I had learnt a lot from talking to you. I got many interesting and sincere presentations and questions from you. I genuinely appreciate all the effort that everyone has put in and thank you all for bearing with me. And your feedback has been stimulating - I seriously struggled to answer. Quite a number of you really led me to explore further and articulate my ideas much better. Thank you :)

Monday, 15 December 2008

Lakes in Finland

isn't it amazing to capture the two birds perched parallel to each other.

nice little fountain jet little flowery greeting thing which accentuated the lake just right - unlike some massive jet in G that distorts the view lol.

This is a pic i took on the night of Mid-autmn festival (+ or - one). The time for reunion, you know, and i was away. So a bit of homesickness there, and it didnt help to see a sweet sweet couple.

I just love lakes. They are purifying. Just a breeze blows away my troubles and sorrows.

In the moment

I was captivated when this woman stood there watching the lake for what must have been at least 10 minutes. That seemed to represent something about the Finns. While everyone was jogging, cycling, walking quite briskly by, she stood there alone absorbed in her world, in the moment.

She reminded me of the old lady's daughter (lunatic) walking back and forth in the lobby 50 times before she would leave the entrance. They gave a very pungent smell of urine, so it was quite a nuisance. At first i only thought they were really sad and this old mother had to look after a daughter who had gone insane for some reason. And gradually I began to realise that I was not very different in many ways - how my life goes in circles and i never seem to move on.

Art and design in Finland

Just random snapshots of what I have seen for myself. Helsinki is a growing capital of design with a very high density of design boutiques and art galleries in a tiny place.

See for yourself how dense it all is in the map.

Chinese art gallery run by Ms. Teng Yue (Link to be attached later)

There's creativity everywhere.

There are loads of galleries:

This is really the foundation of the development of the arts and culture.

Build a strong foundation AND build on that strong foundation - English language education

Another key to the success of the Finnish system is its primary education I think. The primary system there focuses on inspiring students to develop curiosity and interest in learning different subjects and getting everyone up to speed. With an inquiring mind, students are likely to go further into their interested areas and welcome more inspiration. Otherwise weaker students can easily get frustrated because they go through a poor primary education and start secondary school realising how little they know.

From my personal experience, that marks the key turning point for many students' academic paths. Some people used to tone it down by saying that would be one other transition - for those people who don't make it, they just start to fall behind, further and further.

In Hong Kong, one crucial determinant is English ability, for the EMI schools (which use English as the medium of instruction). Students who have a weak foundation in English usually struggle to catch up, and ultimately give up because all efforts prove futile and they cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. It is a massive barrier to learning when students are stuck in a world with a mysterious code that they can't decipher.

And many schools simply fail to acknowledge or take enough action to rectify this very simple but far-reaching truth. If the primary education and lower secondary education do not change with a view to helping students bridge the gap, they will continue to lose a whole bunch of students. I remembered feeling very lucky when I was in S1 because my English foundation was relatively better compared to my peers, and that was such a huge advantage. There were things I didn't understand then, but now when i come to think of it, so many students get let down SIMPLY because of this poorly coordinated language policy.

Yes - i blame it on the poor coordination of the language policy, not the language policy itself. I dont see anything inherently wrong about EMI education if it's well implemented. But if it is implemented in such a way that is detached from the reality - in the absence of an English environment and additional support for students, it is a tall order to expect all students to adapt effectively.

As the saying goes, well begun is half done. But poorly begun means the game is half lost. We're losing many students totally because they don't manage to improve their English in time.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Putting equality in perspective

As I read about and saw for myself how the Finnish education and society really put equality into practice, I couldn't help instinctively buying into this realisation of an ideal view to human nature. Yet I also tried to take a questioning approach and to 'put it in perspective' though I haven’t quite formed a conclusion myself. I try to put the following questions to you.

1. What is equality?

I have been told by Mr Laukanen that equality means two things: equal opportunities and fairness. It is this attitude towards equality that leads to the willingness of the State and its people to devote so much resources to education and to creating an equal platform for everyone.

Is it a value, an ideology, a conviction, a belief, an attitude, a policy, a practice as a matter of fact, or even a truth? For me it seems to be a state of mind that pervades the Finnish mentality and society (and perhaps much of the Nordic countries as well).

On a very broad level, equality is an acknowledgement of respect for human beings for the simple fact that we are all human beings – we all deserve the same treatment. It is to go beyond the differences to see the ultimate common identity. There is some inherent difficulty in considering this question – in some way we are just discounting some differences as irrelevant.

In the context of education, I think it means a firm belief that every child is ‘teachable’ and can be a good student if given sufficient attention.

While this may sound a bit abstract, let’s try to translate the concept in more concrete terms. Equality with respect to what? Gender, disability, ethnicity, nationality, class, birth, language? A different way of asking the question is what is a legitimate basis for ‘discriminating’ between people? What is a relevant difference that justifies differential treatment?

In general we frown upon discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, ethnicity, class or birth – those aren’t relevance to the right of a child to receive education. But there are two more interesting criteria which are worth considering.

The first criterion is ability; should students with higher IQ or learning ability be given more resources ie ‘better’ education? The second criterion is nationality; should children of foreign nationality be entitled to receive free education?

2. Why equality? Why not elitism? Equality to what extent?

This blends in with the first question and questions the fundamental rationale behind it. Is equality an absolute goal? What is it that only equality can achieve? What are the circumstances where equality should be overridden by other more important objectives?

Emphasis on equality has its own drawbacks – a most salient one being the neglect over the more gifted students. When teaching time and resources are spent on lifting up the weaker students, the smarter ones are scarcely pushed and therefore not fulfilling their potential. So in some sense equality is a policy in favour of the weaker, and not entirely equally kind and effective for the more able students (in other words, there is no complete equality, and it is really a question of choice).

Countries like the UK, the US, Korea, Japan, China (including my beloved city Hong Kong) have opted for a more competitive environment that fosters elitism. The most extreme example may well be Singapore where there is a very scary streaming system that happens as early as 6 or 7 years – best students get the best teachers and resources. The fittest survive, and everyone tries to be the winner in the race. This competitive environment is more likely to fulfil the full potential of students in the sense that the best compare themselves with the people on the same caliber. And therefore many parents love public schools, Oxbridge and ivy league universities.

In Scandinavian countries, they emphasise the goal of learning is self-improvement, and it doesn’t matter who runs faster. The weaker students don’t suffer a sense of failure as easily as others in a competitive environment. More students are lifted up to a higher standard, which gives Finland a higher average standard of performance. But the brightest kids are a bit bored.

One argument I have heard before is that countries need a group of highly capable people to run the country, and that can only be nurtured through elitism by giving the right amount of resources to the right people. While we may give up a portion of the student population who do not succeed academically – for example, more than 20,000 students out of 100,000 fail all subjects in HKCEE, the upside is we get really high-skilled all-rounded labour who is each worth two persons.

The counter-argument in favour of equality is that by spending more resources on enhancing the ability of the weaker students, society actually saves by preventing a lot of social problems that can potentially arise from an enormous group of people with little or no productivity who are likely to be harbour grievances as they feel stuck in desperation. While it is true they spend a lot of money on educating everyone to a high average standard, they in turn create a generally more productive force which is less likely to pose long term social problems.

To some extent, it is a question of striking a balance between ensuring that everyone gets equal opportunities to fulfil their potential and promoting excellence in the achievement of the more gifted students—that is, if it is possible to have the cake and eat it too. Is elitism mutually exclusive with equality?

3. Is equality practicable in Hong Kong or other parts of the world?

Is society ready? Would parents complain about too slow a syllabus when their children are brighter?

Can the average standard really be raised with a mixing of the best and poorest students? Or would it be the case that the best students become adversely influenced and uninterested in studying as a result?

Are there enough resources for looking after everyone?

Does the massive population of Hong Kong mean that it can readily sacrifice a good number without compromising the future of its people? That is - is equality really necessary?

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Policy of equality

'A central objective of Finnish education policy is to provide all citizens with equal opportunities to receive education, irrespective of their age, domicile, financial situation, sex or native language.'

This is reflected in many ways:
1. Education from pre-primary to upper secondary levels is provided free of charge. For basic eduaction, travel to and from school and school books are free. And a healthy free school lunch (though kids tend to complain about it!)

2. The education standard is fairly uniform throughout Finland - with a less than 5% deviation in the average performance of schools. State or publicly funded schools (which account for 98%) are at least just as good as, if not better than, private schools. That means kids don't have to pay their way in for a GOOD education.

3. The fundamental belief underlying equality is that different children are simply 'different' - there is nothing amazing about high achieving students or it's no shame to learn a bit more slowly. It is only a difference in the learning ability of a student, and that should not change the fact that the child should get adequate education opportunities to develop themselves. I was really impressed when many teachers in Finnish schools share with me their philosophy, which is surprisingly consistent. They don't have a sense of hierarchy between different students, or practise favouritism! The goal of education is simply to help each child to improve. That actually reflects many ancient chinese philosophies 因材施教,有教無類 We hear these terms being bandied about from time to time, but Finnish education REALLY puts it into practice by, for example, devoting more resources to special education classes, giving more resources to children of ethnic minorities to take free extra language classes to keep and develop their native tongue.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Insights from the development history of the Finnish education system: Sharing by Mr Reijo Laukanen

I was incredibly grateful to be able to interview one of the leading figures in the Finnish education reforms over the last thirty years - Mr. Reijo Laukanen, from the Finnish National Board of Education.

I think history tells us how an education system has improved so significantly in 30 years' time, and what contributed to this. I chose Finland as my investigation area partly because Hong Kong also underwent radical reforms for a similar period of time, but the results are starkly different - we are left with a fragmented, unstable system. I wonder what has gone wrong - was it the direction, the implementation method, attitude or everything?

To a certain extent, it all stemmed from a political demand by society – society demanded a better education for their future generations. In 1968, there was a student revolution that led to protests and demonstrations for a right to a better education. It was key to the successful reforms that society was willing to embrace and support a better education system which would involve certain sacrifice. Imagine Hong Kong government raising the tax and claiming that is necessary for a better education system. Finns are happy to pay the tax because they believe in education and see the effective use of such resources.

The Board also appreciated the need to gather support from the ‘soul’ of the system –teachers. Although they radically changed the curriculum and raised the qualification requirement of all primary and secondary teachers to masters level, they retained all the teachers and helped them to meet the requirement in a gradual, realistic way through the span of a decade and different transition phases of change. They provided teachers with in-service training to help them adapt to the new mode of teaching.

More importantly, he showed great respect for teachers and appreciated the need to address teachers’ concerns openly and honestly. I’d say it was this fundamental attitude of recognition and respect that made the reforms possible. Because of this belief, they considered their proposal thoroughly before any rash action – with adequate research of overseas models and consultation of community and education sector, done on a long term consistent basis – they acknowledged the need to hear what others thought and cater the reforms for the needs of the education community.

Another interesting feature is the foresight and long-term consistency in the education policy over these decades. Finnish taxpayers and government have consistently contributed 6.5% of the GDP to education so that the standard of free education can be raised and maintained. This comes with the widely shared belief among different political parties and sectors of society in equality and the importance of education – and this is carried through the civil service which makes the policy reforms.

Education can affect generations of young people in their most vulnerable times. It cannot keep changing and shifting between different policies. I really don’t understand what the HK government is thinking by antagonising teachers and this ridiculous language policy.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Reluctance, by Robert Frost

This poem is fantastic - it will probably capture my feeling when I leave oxford. These days various conversations have set me thinking, and a few lines have hit me quite hard. I guess I only need a bit more courage.


Out through the fields and the woods

And over the walls I have wended;

I have climbed the hills of view

And looked at the world, and descended;

I have come by the highway home,

And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,

Save those that the oak is keeping

To ravel them one by one

And let them go scraping and creeping

Out over the crusted snow,

When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,

No longer blown hither and thither;

The last lone aster is gone;

The flowers of the witch hazel wither;

The heart is still aching to seek,

But the feet question "Whither?"

Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost