Having faith in teachers, less rigid syllabi and replacing competition with cooperation are some of the secret ingredients of Finland’s successful education recipe, according to two pedagogy experts.

While the world has changed a lot, the education system in some countries has not adapted at a similar pace, Elina Harju told this newspaper.

Flanked by her colleague Johanna Järvinen-Taubert, the two noted that the Finnish system, although not perfect, seems to have done something right to keep up with these changes.

Ms Järvinen-Taubert and Ms Harju, who work for a private company sharing best pedagogy practices with educators worldwide, started off as teachers.

They were interviewed after meeting some 100 teachers and senior leaders from Church and private schools on the invitation of the St Joseph Paola School headmaster Kenneth Vella.

While Finland does have a national curriculum, teaching methods are left up to  the teachers, they pointed out.

When syllabi were too detailed they did not allow educators any autonomy, Ms Harju said.

In her country, she added, teachers and headmasters were highly respected. Decisions were taken by educators and experts in the field, rather than by politicians.

Ms Järvinen-Taubert brushed aside suggestions of a Finnish education utopia.

Our children are the best readers in the world. So even though they academically start very late, they develop good skills

“We do have homework, but much less than in most countries. We believe that children should not have more than half an hour worth of homework.

“And we do have exams, but not national standardised ones. Assessments, which are also up to the teachers, are carried out throughout the year.”

Instilling a sense of cooperation, rather than competition, is important, especially since employers look for cooperative, rather than competitive, workers.

Asked about compulsory schooling, Ms Järvinen-Taubert noted that first graders were aged seven and these, together with eight and nine-year olds, have four-hour schooldays. The older the students, the longer the school day.

Once school is out, the younger ones can attend afterschool clubs until their parents get back from work. However, students are taught how to be independent from the early years, so those aged 10 and up just go home after school.

There is also compulsory pre-primary schooling for six-year-olds, however, the learning is done mostly through play. Instead of focusing on reading, writing or mathematics, teachers focus on skills that the students would need in order to do well at school in the following years. These include teamwork, communication and social skills.

Throughout the interview, the two kept referring to research, which seems to back up every aspect of the Finnish education system. Science showed, according to Ms Järvinen-Taubert, that the brain needed to be developed enough in order to be able to absorb academic material.

When it comes to learning languages, focus is on dialogue, rather than forced reading. Once children show interest in a language, they could then be encouraged to start exploring it through books.

“It’s not too late to grasp reading at the age of six and seven. Our children are the best readers in the world, according to international tests. So even though they academically start very late, they develop very good skills.”

So how did the Finnish system come this far?

In 1972, Finland introduced a comprehensive nine-year education system, which was gradually updated throughout the years. In the 1990s, Finland went through an economic crises and the country had to do away with anything that was not an absolute necessity.

One of the first things they got rid of was school inspection. Some were afraid that lack of monitoring was going to negatively impact the quality of education, Ms Järvinen-Taubert noted.

On the contrary, when the first Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were out at the turn of the century, Finland topped the list.

This took many Finnish by surprise. “Finnish people were quite convinced that it had to be a mistake,” she joked.

Since then, the curriculum has continued to be adapted from year to year.

“We are not saying that everything is perfect. We do have challenging students and demotivated teachers… but in Finland, when there is a problem, educators look for a solution,” Ms Harju said, noting that one of the current issues that the country was facing was lack of motivation among male students.

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