How Finland designed its schools around well-being

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Anna Korpi, Counsellor, Education and Science at the Embassy of Finland in Singapore.

While the rest of the world is debating the number of hours children should spend in school, Finland eliminated compulsory tests and student banding systems - all while remaining at the top of global education rankings.

How does Finland make it work? The nation has worked from first principles to consider the point of an education system. “Is it to rank children?” asks Anna Korpi, Counsellor, Education and Science at the Embassy of Finland in Singapore. “What we focus on is that everybody has the capability to survive in the world,” she says. “Whatever comes after that in terms of teaching methods and tools is to make that vision come true.”.

GovInsider caught up with Korpi to understand what makes Finland’s school system unique, and some of the challenges it must overcome to achieve its vision.

Well-being comes first

Finland's education system is designed to put children's overall well-being first. Within this, mental health is a key focus. “We need to make sure that people as a whole develop, and they are well and happy,” says Korpi. “Especially in the early years, this prerequisite of learning has to be there before we go into deeper academic content.”

That is why the starting point for designing curriculum isn’t what or how much to teach, but whether or not children will be engaged and become interested in the world around them. “We want to think about how this learning is relevant,” says Korpi.

Finland helps children to see the relevance in their lessons by allowing them to learn about the phenomena around them, instead of always dividing class time according to subjects. “It is much more natural for small children to look at the world as bigger concepts rather than as physics, or mathematics, or language,” explains Korpi.

Ensuring children’s mental well-being is not just about rethinking the way they learn; it’s also about protecting the learning environment. Finland has implemented a nation-wide policy against bullying in school - an issue that is “very strictly addressed nowadays”.

Finland is determined to tackle inequality, since it is often linked to bullying and mental health issues, says Korpi. The country’s school system challenges the notion that children from disadvantaged family backgrounds will be less successful. “We have a system that tries to bring everybody to a good level no matter your societal background,” she says.

Equipping and preparing teachers

Finnish teachers have an unusual level of autonomy in the classroom, and are free to adjust their teaching content and method to suit the learning paces of different children. “If you have 20 students, you have 20 different learning paths,” says Korpi.

This flexible, student-centered learning approach requires a lot of skill from the teachers to be able to cater to each student’s needs. The country’s teacher education programmes train teachers to become a learning “coach”. “It is not the role of the teacher just to convey information or transfer knowledge,” explains Korpi.

Teachers are trained in developmental psychology and how children learn, so they’re able to monitor their students’ learning progress on a daily basis. They can then give more attention to struggling students. This has allowed Finland to do away with mandatory standardised tests to track students’ progress.

Teacher education also empowers teachers to “have their researcher glasses on” as they teach and to constantly analyse if their methods are effective. They are encouraged to experiment with “small scale innovations” for teaching approaches. They can then share their successes and challenges with other teachers on open Facebook groups.

“In teacher education, there is no way we can equip them all in five or six years’ time to be perfect. Once they graduate, they keep learning and keep developing their own work,” says Korpi.

Tech in the classroom

While schools in other parts of the world have welcomed AI into the curriculum, Finland’s emphasis on teacher-led education means that it has been cautious about employing tech in the classroom. “We are not going to replace the teacher with robots,” says Korpi.

But Finland recognises that there is potential in using tech to create a more targeted learning experience. For instance, a math games programme may allow teachers to give simpler sums to struggling students, and more challenging sums to those who have already grasped the concept. The children wouldn’t know that they have been differentiated, but teachers would still be able to cater to the different learning paces within the same classroom.

Schools in Finland are already working with education tech companies to co-create teaching programmes. It is important to include the teacher’s perspective, instead of using something engineers or gamers have created independently, says Korpi.

Lifelong learning

Finland is no stranger to lifelong learning. There are a wide range of upskilling courses available and people have long since had “an understanding that we need to keep ourselves up to date”, says Korpi.

But there needs to be a “deeper shift” in the current approach to lifelong learning. The changing economic landscape in Finland has seen some industries, such as the paper manufacturing sector go through major restructuring. This has led to a part of the population, who had been trained in a very specific skillset, becoming unemployed.

“We have at the same time both unemployment and labour shortages in different sectors”, explains Korpi. “We need to quickly and flexibly reskill parts of the population to a completely new industry.”. One way to smoothen such transitions, she says, is for companies to be more involved in reskilling their staff, for example by setting training agendas with education organisations and subsidising employee training.

Meanwhile, the government is looking at new ways to validate skills picked up at the workplace, such as project management skills. “You might not have to go to university to learn that, but you could get some kind of official certification,” explains Korpi.

Finland is also exploring new degree structures. “Stackable” models, such as micro masters, could make reskilling a less intimidating pursuit. Instead of having to commit years to gain a new certificate, employees can attend short-term courses and still earn credit on their portfolio.

Finland has shown that engaged students and empowered teachers are more than mere fantasy. Their approach is firmly based in their view on education, that “we are in education for life, not for the test”. While the country has to find ways to maneuver the slow but inevitable rise of tech and a disrupted workforce, its emphasis on student well-being and equipping teachers with adequate skills has given the world something to learn from.