Finnish System, As Told By A Senior Finnish Educator
I had a chance meeting in London with a Finnish gentleman who is in charge of Finland’s Mathematics curriculum. I had read about Finland’s education system. I had referred to it in one of my blog posts. A Singaporean living in Finland read my post and then contributed a comprehensive article comparing our education system with Finland’s.
Despite what I already knew, it was useful to be able to clarify my knowledge of the system with someone who is actively implementing it. He shared the following:
(1) There is only one curriculum, for both fast and slow learners. Unlike our system with many branching points into different academic streams and school types, Finland has only one system and one curriculum for all.
(2) Students of mixed abilities are put into the same class. This is deliberate because they do not want students to be labelled. He said, “otherwise, later in their lives, they would remember that they were branded as ‘no-good’.”
Teachers learnt to deal with the situation. He said, sometimes a teacher aide or another teacher will be there to help the slower students. It does call for a more creative way to organise the classroom to deal with this. Teachers have great empowerment to organise their classrooms and to make individual learning plans for each student. (An internet article quoted Finland’s Minister for Education stating that the average class size for all grades is 21 students. Every teacher must have a Masters qualification. The teaching profession is highly respected.)
(3) At age 16, when students finish basic education, there is NO national examinations. The results from schools are used for entering into academic track or a vocational track.
(4) Finland acknowledges that they only have people (5 million of them) and trees, with no oil and other natural resources. So they believe that education is very important for their economy to keep competitive.
(5) For the system to work, it had to get the support of the community and parents. Everyone must ‘buy-into’ the system and make it work, and they have. (A Finnish resident told me the system is a WON -Whole Of Nation approach. Parents do take active involvement in the lives, thoughts and well-being of their children.)
Despite going against the conventional practices of many other countries, we see that Finland is able to produce top scores in international tests, as well as create globally competitive companies (think Nokia, Angry Birds).
Bottom-Friendly Versus Top-Conscious
What struck me the most in that conversation was the concern that those at the bottom will feel that they are no good. The labelling may destroy their self-worth. I thought to myself that this is a very gentle system.
While Singapore also provide good physical and teaching resources to the academically less abled, such as good facilities in the ITEs, the philosophy behind our system and Finland’s are poles apart. We have a competitive system that consciously sieve out students based on examination scores at regular intervals. We pick up the top to set students apart so we can push them with more challenging curriculum. We select the gifted at 9 years old. We classify students by subject ability at 10 years old. Then comes the PSLE at 12 years old, which is essentially a big sorting exercise. We now have Integrated Programme (IP) schools, Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools and regular schools that offer Express stream, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams. Even amongst these regular schools, years of school branding and ranking exercises have moved schools into bands according to their Cut-off Point based on PSLE T-Score.
From an organisational point of view, sorting out students allows curriculum to be more targeted and resources to be channelled more efficiently. However, it creates a highly stressed and competitive society where tuition is the norm. The academic score of the student determines greatly what will happen to the child: the type of schools, the choice of academic streams and even to some extent, the career opportunities. Those at the top can choose from a good range of scholarships, which then determine their career paths. These sort of pressures are applied to children from a young age, often before they can fully appreciate the importance of doing well in examinations.
Does such a system create disparate talent ponds? If so, where will this lead us to?
Handling The Academically Weaker Students
The announcement of the setting up of the two new specialised Normal (Technical)-only schools has set me thinking. Will this lead to further segregation of the top and bottom?
I tried to understand the reasons behind these specialsed schools. I spoke with several Normal (Technical) teachers and former students about the challenges of being in this stream. The teachers explain that there are only 1 or 2 Normal (Technical) classes per level in a school. So there is little pooling of resources unlike in the Express stream where there can be 4 to 6 classes per level. So when it comes to setting examination papers, the Normal (Technical) teacher has to set them, while in the Express stream, teachers can take turn to set the papers. With the specialised schools, this wouldn’t be a problem.
There can also be facilities to focus on the technical nature of the courses in the specialised schools otherwise not available to regular schools. A teacher told me that some schools are not even able to offer the Design & Technology subject for Normal (Technical) students due to insufficient teachers and lack of workshops. Some Normal (Technical) students may be interested or gifted in performing or visual art but the school does not have the facilities nor expertise to cater to the students. While I do not have details of the programmes that will run in the specialised schools, it may now be possible for these schools to offer specialty courses.
This sounds logical and good. I feel the downside will be the congregation of all the students with weaker abilites. There is the lack of role models for the students to look to. There will not be higher academic scoring students in the school for the lower scoring students to aspire to emulate or compete against. Will there be strong negative influence if some are involved in gangs or are not motivated to study? Will these specialised schools suffer from negative labeling by the public?
Some of the students come from challenging family backgrounds and some are involved in gangs as early as in primary schools. An entire gang may now move from the primary school into the same secondary school, which may create challenges to the management.
Northlight school has been cited as an example of how putting low academic ability students together had helped. I have had the privilege of visiting Northlight several times since its formation. I had also interacted with its students through running a short programme there once, and another time with Assumption Pathway school. I saw two types of students in these schools; one with genuine learning disability and another who may be bright but lacked motivation to study due to family background, gangs or other reasons.
From my viewpoint as an observer, I consider Northlight to be a success. I saw cases of genuine turnaround for some of the challenging students. In my opinion, Northlight succeeded for two main reasons (there may be other reasons).
Firstly, I saw it had a motivated and nurturing team. Teachers opted to be transferred to the school knowing full well the challenges they will face. There were more teachers wanting to teach at Northlight than there were vacancies. They had to be interviewed to be selected to teach there. It was the first school of its kind then for those who have repeatedly failed PSLE. That motivated teachers who genuinely wanted to change lives. The founding principal, Mrs Chua Yen Ching had a proven record of nurturing students from challenging backgrounds.
Secondly, Northlight started on a clean sheet, unencumbered by expectations of academic passes, existing curriculum, etc. These students had repeatedly failed PSLE. They could not enter any secondary school. The only road for them then was out in the streets. The school could plan the curriculum they felt was appropriate for the students. There were no suitable textbooks to use. Teachers had to develop suitable teaching and learning materials from scratch. The curriculum was tailored to fit the students, instead of rigid alignment to the standard curriculum in mainstream schools
It is not easy to repeat Northlight when you start to replicate with several more specialised Normal (Technical) schools. When we start to expand schools at the lower academic ability levels, it is not easy to find enough principals as well as motivated teachers with the required virtues and calibre for the betterment of these type of students. There will be pressure on the specialised schools to show that they can deliver better academc performance than that achieved by Normal (Technical) students in regular schools. Unlike in Northlight, these specialised schools will follow a national curriculum where there will be academic examinations at the end of 4 years of study. I fear competitive benchmarking may turn these schools to become too results oriented.
I spoke with a friend who was a former Normal (Technical) student. He eventually graduated from the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore. I was intrigued by what turned him around. He was expelled from school at secondary three for behavioural issues. A nurturing teacher counselled him and arranged for him to enter another secondary school. Spurred by the teacher, he found his determination and motivation to study hard, and made it through university. I wonder how many gems like my friend we had lost in our eagerness to filter children according to their abilities. By labeling them early in their lives when some were not ready for examinations, we may have lost some of them for good.
Teachers do make big differences in students’ life. In specialised schools, we will need many teachers like that one that transformed my friend’s life. I hope in meeting performance indicators in the specialised schools, teachers will not forget to nurture the students to grow their self-confidence and create in them the motivation to do well. I hope these specialised schools will be given lots of autonomy like in Northlight to design their own curriculum and execution, and even through train directly to ITEs and polytechnics. This will enable these schools to focus on devloping students rather than to meet examination performance indicators.
Are There Alternatives To The Current Normal (Technical) Scheme Of Things?
I wonder if we can find a way for Normal (Technical) students to continue to be in regular schools, allowing integration of these students with those in the Express and Normal (Academic) stream.
If we do not have specialised schools, then what can we do to improve the situation of Normal (Technical) at regular schools? That was my concern when I posted a supplementary question to Minister of State Lawrence Wong in parliament recently on this issue.
I think the issue of resources can be partly solved by working the existing schools cluster system. There are currently 28 clusters, with 10-15 schools in a cluster, each supervised by a cluster superintendent. While schools do currently have some form of collaboration within a cluster, I found that it is rare, if at all, for schools to set common examination papers. It is also uncommon for students to go to another school to use specalised resources or facilities. How much collaboration takes place within a cluster is left to the schools to decide, and I feel collaboration can be deeper. If regular schools continue to run Normal (Technical) classes, there could be more enforced sharing of resources, including having common examination papers. There could even be sharing of programmes so that courses requiring specialised facilities or teachers can be centralised in one school. Under the current setup, is difficult to expect schools or even the cluster superintendent to initiate this on their own. If this is important, a stronger push by MOE has to take place to make more sharing happen.
Assuming we can plan on a clean sheet, we may then ask if there are alternatives for weaker students other than separating them into the Normal (Technical) stream? Students who are less academically inclined may do better with a modular system, including having examinations done at modular level rather than having high stake examinations. Perhaps we can re-look at the entire approach to see if we still need Normal (Technical), or if we can integrate these students into the Normal (Academic) stream. We would then need to find a way to deal with slower learners, just like what Finnish teachers have to do with weaker students. Besides core subjects, perhaps students can choose electives within the stream and have examinations on a modular basis, like how polytechnics and ITE conduct assessments on students. There can also be some elective modules that are more hands-on in nature or can include performing and visual arts.
Through-Train From Primary to Secondary, Anyone?
Another radical thought is that we may wish to explore an experimental school in which students progress from primary school till secondary 4, skipping the PSLE. Some students mature later, and may not be able to cope with high-stake examination stress at a young age. Not all parents are competitive and wish to have their children go through PSLE for streaming into top schools. Having 10 years of education before the first major examination will also allow the school to try out innovation curriculum without the stresses of preparing students for PSLE.
There are currently government aided schools which already have priority for graduating students to enter into the affiliated secondary school. Some of these aided schools have strong character and values education programmes, being linked with religious organisations or ethnic groups. Some have long operating history with strong school boards and staff. They can have a stronger hand in designing their curriculum at the primary and lower secondary level before focusing students for the O levels.
While this may seem unconventional, many private schools locally and overseas already through-train students from primary to secondary. At the secondary level, students are then prepared for the iGCSE or the IB examinations. Some of these schools do well at international examinations. I had the opportunity to observe the operations of some of these schools.
Finland has a system that progresses a student through from primary to secondary in the same school, and at a much larger national level. It does not have any national examinations. All schools in Finland are equally resourced. Importantly, students are not segregated into different types of schools by academic scores. Even within a school, higher and lower ability students are in the same class. It does take a greater level of skill and planning for teachers to handle such classes, but the task is possible.
I feel such a system deserves deeper thoughts. It will not be easy to immediately implement such a system in Singapore. Perhaps we can start with just one school that is willing to go into such a system. I feel that aided schools are strong candidate for this, if they so wish to. It will also take parents acceptance. I believe there will be sufficient number of parents who will want such a system. I would, if I could.
Towards A More Egalitarian System
If I seemed obsessed with the Finnish system, it is because I am intrigued by how an egalitarian system has worked. The specialised Normal (Technical) schools and the increased number of Integrated Programme schools may just be another gradual step that we have unconsciously taken towards a path of greater elitism in our system.
What is the purpose of education? I believe we want the best out of all our children. Our system has become increasing complicated and focuses a lot on the dichotomy of students. Why has it become so?
Each child has his / her unique talents and abilities. How can a system bring strengths out rather than highlight the child’s weaknesses?
Hence, I believe there must be lessons we can pick up from the Finnish system to see how we can better cater to those who are weaker. I like the Finnish philosophy of not labelling those who are weaker so that they will not feel they are ‘no-good’. It gets the student to say confidently, “I, not stupid” (小孩不笨). Yet, Finland’s system did not seem to disadvantage the stronger ability students as well.
A Normal (Technical) teacher shared with pride how one of his student displayed good leadership skills and made it to become vice president of the school’s students council. It gave the student and his peers tremendous pride to demonstrate that those weaker in academic abilities can exhibit strengths in other areas to compete with those perceived as stronger. If we separate these students from the high academic ability ones, this Normal (Technical) student leader will not have the chance to prove himself against the best.
In fact, I believe that stronger ability students can even learn better by mixing with the lower ability ones, as diversity can make the system stronger. The stronger ability students can learn by helping those who are weaker. They may be strong academically, but I am sure there can be other things the weaker academic ability students can teach them. Those who are weaker academically may exhibit abilities in other areas. It makes for better integration, and I believe it can lead to a more caring and cohesive society in future.
It will require deep thinking and research to see how this can work in Singapore’s context. I believe it will be an important exercise to consciously explore a more egalitarian system which yet will not disadvantage the able.