Exclusive: The myths of the Finnish educational system


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A discussion with ALINA CRISTIANA CIRJA, project manager, founder of the Romanian-Finnish School in Bucharest.


How did the Romanian-Finnish Schools come to life?

It was an initiative of the Bucharest Christian Centre in 2008 and came amid a stringent need in the educational system at that time. We didn’t start with the intention of setting up a private school, it was rather a community educational project. We paid a visit to Finland and got in contact with the Finnish education system and we were impressed by it as it was defined by the people in the street as being the best thing that happened in their country. So, it was accessible not only to experts by also to common people.

When we came back in Romania we began to prospect the market and we reached MEP Ramona Manescu, who was in the EP committee for culture and education and that time, a committee headed by a Finnish, Hannu Takkula. So, the educational project started in March 2010, a team of the European Parliament came in Romania and was impressed with our association’s organization and facilities and we signed a partnership with a group of Finnish schools from Turku region.

The question was on what the school’s profile is going to be and we decided that a Romanian school would be the best choice, going with a Romanian curriculum, but with Finnish input, to observe the Finnish educational training, methodology and philosophy.

Since 2010 up to now, teams of teachers from Finland are constantly visiting us to help us implement strategies or exchanging ideas.

Obviously the system was very popular and we now have 470 children studying here. We have a kindergarten, primary school and middle school. We also plan to expand the activity and set up a high school.

What would the Finnish input involve?

It refers to the method enforcement, to the teaching line, how contents are delivered, to the organization of the school space, training courses and above all, it’s about the vision on what the class management should be.

For instance, our teachers enjoy pedagogic freedom, meaning they also assume the responsibility of endorsing the individual growth of each child.

How many teachers do you have? Are there foreigners among them?

No, we don’t have foreign teachers; overall there are 60 people involved in the school activity, administrative staff included.

You mentioned about expansion, a high school…what is the stage?

It’s a Romanian-Finnish community centre. At present we are expanding the space with two more buildings besides the two existing ones; it will be a building for the middle school classes and a sports hall. For one of the extremely important element of the Finnish education pattern is integrating and using sports as a way of attracting children to school but also a way of developing and supporting performance.dsc_0407-2

It’s a EUR 6 M investment for these two new buildings based on the association’s own funds, but we also searching for donors and investors. But it’s lobbing…(laughing) As for the deadline, we plan to conclude the first floor in 2017, because there is no more room for children who will be enlisted, the demand is high. 2018 is the estimated completion deadline of the whole project.sc-finl-1

You were saying on the school’s blog that education is not a speed race but a marathon….

It’s a concept forwarded by our colleague from the Finnish founders, professor doctor Jukka Kangaslahti, who used to say that, based on his 50-year experience in the education reform, things cannot be changed overnight. If I look at Romania’s experience, unfortunately the biggest issue is that we are constantly revising things, laws, curricula and we don’t wait for their results, to se what is good and should be kept and what should be removed. Doctor Kangaslahti had the Finnish reform in mind when saying this, a reform that started in 1970 from an extremely important idea, namely the political consensus. They agreed to have only technocrats in the Education ministry, to have non-political ministers appointed and who would stay for a 4-year mandate. The ministers were not allowed to change what their predecessors did but they had to continue and to improve the work.

Yet, if we look at Romania in the past 20 years or so, we see very short, tumultuous mandates, closely linked to politics and not focused on the educational factor and unfortunately, we cannot pretend to reap the fruits of something that we haven’t planted.

A first thing that we have to take over from the Finnish model is this patience to wait and see the results of a reform.

There is a high number of NGOs and associations lobbying on this for about 20 years. But lacking a political decision, many of them gave lobby up and started to implement the educational projects all by themselves, as private initiatives for they couldn’t fight a mastodon that is the educational system in Romania.

Yet, in my view, Romania’s national vision should start to correlate and we already have the European pattern at hand, we already have a set of values but we have to establish our education priorities until 2030, to know where we want to get.

Of course, things are not clear, coherent. But I dare to think that the sums of our private initiatives will start to generate effects.

Corporations already provide their employees with training courses to form abilities, universities start to be more open to collaborations with the high schools, middle schools.

There are such initiatives but maybe they deserve to be more publicized, maybe they are not so spectacular, that’s why they don’t get so much media coverage. However we insist to believe that what our school and its pupils are doing at the community level is changing the district’s look. If these initiatives are taken step by step, I think the whole process will multiply countrywide.

How the Finnish educational pattern is received by children and parents? Is it viable in Romania?

It is very viable because the current European context for the jobs of the future needs two big abilities: collaboration and negotiation. Or, the Finnish system is doing precisely that: it comes and teaches the child these two notions on a regular basis. We trained our teachers to constantly “think outside the box” and to enforce this type of education focused on the child. We have no limit in delivering the material so that they understand it.

When I have a group of teachers who do this type of education focused on the child, weaving things around collaboration, negotiation, involving their pupils in the decision-making process, involving a team of experts in the classroom, where the teacher is not the only one sovereign, but parents and the psychologist are teaming up, too, somehow we manage to build a mentality that should be applied to the Romanian system. For we live in a Romanian culture that is not promoting responsibility too much, unlike the Finnish culture where responsibility is fundamental, while attracting notions like freedom, community and also the idea of rules which is perceived differently in Romania (something like rules are meant to be broken), but in Finland this idea says that “the rule helps me advance”.

If we don’t succeed in coherently educating parents and adults involved in their children’s education in this respect it’s very hard to apply this type of education.

Are children more open to this type of education? Or parents? To what degree are parents resilient to it?

Undoubtedly children are more open. Our teachers have a principle: my expertize is the classroom, yours as a parent is at home. I will not intervene in the values that you are promoting at home, for they are personal, but I would like you to respect my values taught in the classroom. What we should do for the child’s sake is to both come with the two expertizes and to team up for the child’s sake. Fortunately, the degree of correct understanding and involvement of the parents in our school is very high, higher than we have initially expected.

We are inviting parent to understand article no 1 of the Education Law that says: if the first beneficiaries of the education are children, the second beneficiaries are the parents and the third ones is the community itself. The word beneficiary changes everything, for when the parent comes next to me not as a customer but as a beneficiary, it’s impossible for him to not understand things the other way. And after all, we are talking about responsible adults who choose to come to us.

How do you tackle the competition concept? For it has been at issue lately, in the way that it’s not very Ok to push the child towards an excessive competition system. Is the result that matters or rather the attitude that is needed to reach that result?

I am strongly fighting the competition system, the result concept. I strongly believe that this concept coming from the Finnish thinking, which says that the only competition of the child must be with himself, with the one of the past and with the one of the future.

When a child is competing with another child this is no loyal competition. We are pushing our children to race too early. As dr. Jukka said, competition is good but when children have already logical and emotional abilities of life.

Or in our system competitions are held since primary school, when the child has no self-image to be comfortable and to understand the difference between 100 points and 90 points. 100 points means that he has learnt a lot, 90 points means he is Ok, he’s done well.

Dr. Jukka used to say that no contests should be held earlier than 7th grade. In Finland there are no scores or grades before the 7th grade. For the 13-year-old child has another outlook on life compared to a 7-8yo pupil who doesn’t know what the others want from him at school. And if he sees he has bad scores, he understands that he is no good.

I am fighting this battle with the parents, with the colleagues for, unfortunately, our national school system tells me “you are a performing school depending on how many pupils attending Olympiads, contests you have”.

Yes, I can agree, there are talented children and they deserve being directed to high levels. But there are also children with another gifts which are not quantifiable in the curriculum, but which will give these children an incredible boost in the day-to-day life.

You also said that pupils should be curious, to get to learn something because they like it, not because they are compelled to. This is theory, but how reliable is this concept in real life? What methods do you apply in your school in this respect?

I noticed this, children are firstly related to the grown up, to the teacher in our case, and the teacher is the one who has to manage to lure the pupil to learning, depending on how he/she organizes his/her teaching line.

I am lucky to have a team of young teachers who are determined to make children adore the subjects they teach.

For instance, if in a normal school the music is not among the most popular subjects, in our school pupils are fighting to join the school’s choir, the school’s music band. Music classes are not turned into Math classes. The PE classes are sacred; our pupils are studying PE twice a week.

There are subjects that we see as important as the mandatory ones, for instance Mathematics, Romanian language or a foreign language, or we see them more important. And in this case children will always find a curiosity in school during a whole day, something to attract them, a teacher, a person to connect to.

What are you searching when recruiting a teacher, besides the usual professional abilities?

I am firstly seeking their determination. I can detect their level of determination when they tell me about their plans before being hired in our school. First of all, the teacher must be attracted by the Finnish methodology and he/she must be able to enforce many of the system’s concepts during their lesson.

We also have a practical test, but practical tests are usually the worst lessons lectured by a teacher, for they do not know the pupils, the system, but if I see at the end of the lesson that children are happy, that they managed to connect with that person even for several minutes, that the job seeker has the capacity of observing the children’s needs and even if he /she changes his/her lesson plan according to the context, this is what I want, I know he/she is the right person.

Can you describe an activity, a lesson lectured after the Finnish pattern?

I can give the example of a lesson I taught, I developed some school clubs that are not in the catalogue as subjects, but which draw a high interest. One of this clubs is public speaking, where I tried to introduce the notion of citizenship education. I once held a lesson on Romanian law and the practice was to set up a lawsuit based on an imaginary fact occurred in school where we had to decide if expelling a student or not. So, we have a lawyer, a judge and based on our school regulation, on the Romanian law knowledge, we drafted the defence, the accusation, a persuasive speech and a motivating end.

Children were able to mix two subjects, two moments in their school activity in one single lesson and I think it had more impact than any other type of speech I could have delivered.

Such things, lessons are frequent in our school. It won’t be odd for you to see the music teacher teaching beats by splitting up an apple and telling the children they are broken numbers, thus also referring to mathematics.

Education is all about the money? Higher salaries are the ones that are mostly serving teachers?

When we talk about salaries, we also have a statute behind. Above salaries, Romanian teachers would want to be respected as experts.

Unfortunately I noticed in our environment that if you are teacher you are perceived as if you chose to be a teacher because you are not the best in the field, and you chose teaching like some sort of backup.

In Finland they have invested in education, first of all in universities to train teachers well so that now in 2016 only 10% of the applicants for the pedagogy faculty in Finland will be accepted. So, not the last 10% but the first 10% of the high school pupils.

If you think that by giving double salaries to the current Romania teachers the education will get improved you are wrong. The respect that teachers need is not only coming from the salary, but is also consisting in popularizing their activity, in enabling them continuous practice in their field, a practice that should be indeed supported by the state.

In my view, the key is at the headmasters. A headmaster who gets involved is negotiating today his status in the local council, is managing and drawing the budget, is motivating his teachers, has an intellectual ability that he can resort to. He must be like a company CEO, for this is what he does and even more. Besides, he is not working with clients, but with children, which is more difficult.

But I wonder how much from the budget is allotted to training and motivating headmasters so that they could move things further on. Things are a little bit shaken up at the top level. We are asking the people in the system to change themselves, but we are not providing them with the right tools. And here I can understand their frustration.

Let’s talk about myths….The Finnish school system will give up homework….

How many myths…this is the strongest one that Finnish pupils don’t have homework and that pupils are doing what they want in school. It’s totally not true.

Yes, they don’t have irrational homework, have project-like homework, consolidation-type homework and they don’t have homework that would need the intervention of a tutor. There is no concept of private lesson in Finland, but because teachers have enough time during the school day to teach his/her subject, and the information is appropriate to the age of a child and to the curriculum classes. This is the reality.

The child is not doing whatever he/she likes in Finland and there is no such system where the child is master and everybody is bowing to him/her. No, the child has the option of choosing to develop more in a certain field, to express himself, to eventually negotiate a position, a statute, but above all, there are the teacher’s main standards and the pupil, the parents and the community are observing them.

There is another myth in circulation….that Finland is not going to have subjects as of 2020, that there won’t be any Math or Chemistry….

It’s also not true. Finland is trying to be ahead trends, we are talking about some studies documented for years. They haven’t taken any decision at short notice. Their main intention is to blur the borders between subjects, meaning that mathematics is not over when the math teacher leaves the classroom, but mathematics can be relevant even in teaching the mother tongue. Chemistry doesn’t start when the teacher enters the class but it may be promoted also by the biology teacher who says “children, you cannot understand the concept of cell if you don’t understand some basic chemical reactions”. So, we are talking about the image of the expert teacher, who is facilitating things, who will present the information to the children not like 50 years ago, but in a different manner, by urging the pupil to have a critical reaction to the way they presented the information.

This is the main approach. We are talking about experts who care about the teaching line, interested in getting results in the classroom, not about bored people who teach from the same old pages.

Finland’s giving up handwriting is also one of the myths?

This is interesting. I discussed with my Finnish colleagues and they told me they have had little price of calligraphy, for the fact that you have a beautiful handwriting won’t make you a better employee. But people misunderstood that. Finnish people are always thinking pragmatically, economically. For there are very few corporation where you go to a meeting with your notebook, all information is now contained on a laptop, tablet, etc.

So, they will not going to sanction a child for he/she has no beautiful handwriting. They say that dropping out calligraphy is a natural trend of the gadget’s intervention, but not that they would have promoted the idea that handwriting would inhibit the child’s growth. On the contrary, studies reveal that handwriting is cultivating the child’s patience, while also generating artistic abilities.

So, this idea was partially understood.

Conventional learning methods and technology will go hand in hand.

Of course, digital handbooks, teaching on smart boards is easier, but this won’t substitute the learning experience through games. I saw in so many Finnish schools self-portraits made by children with their fingers, so it is a country allotting a lot of resources for cutting-edge technologies and for technologizing education, but which didn’t replace the practical activity.

What the child is learning by direct experience, by touching things cannot be replaced by any smart device.

Yes, children nowadays are born with these digital abilities, it’s a different matter, but this doesn’t mean they won’t find pleasure in the traditional game, to play with the leaves, for it’s the same type of sensor activated: throwing in the pile of leaves won’t feel the same as using the touchscreen.

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