Finland’s education system is the envy of the world. They seemed to have defied gravity with their novel approach of shorter days, scrapping traditional school subjects and no homework to deliver outstanding results. Finland is an excellent example of what a country can do to advance education for children. However, the rallying call of frustrated parents and teachers to migrate to the Finnish model is a bit naïve and simplistic. There are factors, some noted others unnoted, that have come together to create Finland’s award-winning education system.
Finland has small relatively homogenous population of approximately 6 million. Most of our nations across the Middle East North Africa, MENA region have a much higher population; only Libya compares with a 6 million population. The small population in Finland, although the numbers of immigrants has risen, aids in bringing about consensus on what and how children should learn. This consensus is a key ingredient in their education system.
Unbeknownst to some, the transformation of Finland’s education system started over forty years ago. It was a practical decision meant to be a propellant of an economic recovery plan. Schools are to be publicly funded, but run by educators not business men, or politicians; accountability and inspection are the responsibilities of principals and teachers. Private schools are almost nonexistent. The teachers contribute to a national curriculum that sets out flexible guidelines that allow teachers to make adjustments, not a list of prescriptions. The teachers are professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a fifth-year master’s degree in education theory and practice. They receive good salaries and share a “Whatever it takes” attitude. Classes are small and teachers are able to know and understand every pupil’s needs. Additionally, a most important aspect of Finnish schools is equality. Whether a child is from a rural village or a university town, Finnish or an immigrant, they have the same chance for a quality education.
The medium of instruction in Finland is Finnish or Swedish languages. Although foreign language class tutoring has become available, particularly for immigrants, this is not to be confused with the language of instruction. Finnish teachers teach in the language they know and have been educated in. This allows total ease in imparting and explaining information to pupils. Unlike in some countries where the teachers are “encouraged” to teach in a language (i.e. English) which they themselves struggle with. This has hindered many competent teachers in their lessons, affecting their confidence and class presence.
As mentioned above, it was a transformation. A concerted effort over a number of years by government agencies and educators. However, another key ingredient to the Finnish success story is the seldom mentioned parent factor. An excellent education plan alone cannot bring about the intended success without the cooperation and collaboration of the parents. In Finland, the primary responsibility for rearing the child rest with the parents; the school is support. The parents trust teachers and are responsible for how they talk to and about teachers in front of their children. Also, parents depend on the teachers and the school administration, there is no culture of outside private tuition, except on a case by case basis. In Finland, parents must take an active role in their child’s education.
Finland made the hard decisions, rolled the dice on some seemingly unorthodox policies and succeeded, but is this model applicable for all situations? Take for example Asian countries. Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan are all top performers in education, these countries like Finland are homogenous but this is where similarities end. Their education systems are the diametrically opposed to Finland’s, long grueling school days, hours of homework, Tiger Moms, and rigorous competition. How do we choose, given the impossibility of following both?
Take our situation here in MENA countries. We are relatively homogenous, the majority population being Muslim which dictates our cultural habits and norms, but there are circumstances that derail a needed consensus amongst our people when speaking of education.
Although some may disagree, we are still suffering the scars of colonization. The colonization process divided us against ourselves and created a self-deprecating environment. Not only is this harmful to the secondary socialization process of children but it makes coming to a consensus among parents and educators all the more difficult.
Apart from traditional Qur’an memorization schools, we follow a system of education developed during the industrial revolution, created solely to supply human cogs for the ruling class machinery. We prepare are pupils and students to look for work, not create opportunities within our society.
And within this system, we search for answers splintering the education system into public vs. private; English medium vs. Arabic medium; local curriculum vs. Check Point, IGCSE, or IB. This situation, intentionally or unintentionally segregates our nation educationally. What is needed is a consensus on a comprehensive national education system in Arabic language based on what is needed for all pupils across the board regardless of economic status or region. Possibly, the next Ibn Sina could be out selling wiper blades at traffic signals, but we would never find him, due to lack of access to a publicly supported, nationally funded comprehensive education system.
Realistically though, situations do not change overnight, they take courage, dedication, work and effort. As educators and administrators, we must turn a critical eye upon ourselves and learn from our past triumphs and defeats. As parents and guardians, we must display a positive attitude and take an active role in our children’s upbringing and education. We need to provide an education system designed to develop and promote our society, not some other society. A society that cannot commit to provide a comprehensive and progressive education system for all of its pupils, will never have a system of education that benefits its future.
Al Jazar: A Minimalist Approach
On Al Jazar Street in al Riyadh Khartoum, under a large white sign spelling out the word “Al Jazar” in big bold black-lined red letters, is a great little take out for a delicious kufta sandwich. As the namesake explicates, the enterprise is a byproduct…