Oppi 2014: Reflections from Finland

Henry Stewart's picture
Greetings from Helsinki and the Oppi Learning Festival - "idea-sparking, assumption-challenging, discussion-starting festival for teachers, academics, education leaders and businesses." Finland is, of course, famous for its educational performance. And, although it has slipped from its worldwide top slot in PISA, it is still no.1 in Europe. Here's some random selections from Day 1.

Lessons from Finland

The scene was well set for me by a meal the night before the conference with Finnish educationalist Sirkku Nikamaa and the head of a mainly white working-class English school on the coast. With no tests until 18, and no inspection regime, there is far less pressure and more time to "just learn and have fun". The aim in Finland, explained Sirkku, is to enable each student to find their passion and their talent rather than a focus on tests and grades.

The English head asked what happened if a student didn't turn up to school. Most Finnish schools apparently use an online system called WILMA, on which details would be entered and parents would be able to see straight away. "But what if it was the parent who was keeping the child at home?". "Pardon?" asked our Finnish friend, not quite understanding the concept.

And as Sirkku put it, its not that private schools were banned in Finland but that schools were stopped from charging for education, with a law passed back in 1963 (co-incidentally on the day JFK was shot). I like that. It feels easier to argue for an end to payment for education than for the banning of private schools.

Finnish facts:

** There is no word for "accountability" in the Finnish language
** It is common to see 7 year olds walking, cycling or catching the bus to school on their own.
** Finnish schools have drying rooms, as children play outside whatever the weather.
** Children have a 15 minute break between each 45 minute lesson

Oppi: A Festival of Education

Simon Breakspear opened the conference with the question "under what conditions does deep flourishing learning occur?". (Possibly not under the current English educational climate.)

Choice quote: "Relationships are the killer app in education"

The Finnish education minister Krista Kiuru followed with open and honest reflections. "Something must be wrong if my childrens' class is the same as my class and my parents class and their parents class." And she was concerned that, in surveys, only 20% of students said they had been excited by something at school that week. But to outsiders like me the system still seemed to be working pretty well.

Choice quote: "It is about supporting schools in challenge, not blaming them."

Singapore welcomes innovation and creativity

Pak Tee Ng, Head of Policy and Leadership at the National Institute of Education, explained how Singapore had gone from standardisation (1965-80s) to local accountability (80s-90s) to diversity and innovation in the last two decades. "Our aim is student engagement and joy in learning", he explained.

A key aim is "teach less, learn more. The inspiration of the teacher is what makes all the difference". In contrast to some other East Asian systems, he claimed there is little cramming. "Our kids go to bed on time." More here.

Choice quote: "Let school leaders focus on trust and working together to improve learning"

On wellbeing and being a friend

Next came a session on happy teaching, creating positive learning environments and building well-being from academic Kristina Kumpalainen. "Happy teaching and happy learning", I tweeted, "well being promotes learning and learning promotes wellbeing. Very true". However this proved too much for one of my followers. @toadmeister tweeted back: "Your twitter account has been hijacked by a fortune cookie manufacturer. Please take action or I’ll be forced to un-follow." Are you still with me, Toby?

More to come on the benefits of happy schools, when I follow up all the references Kristina provided.

Sugatra MItra (famous for his hole-in-the-wall approach and winning a $1 million TED prize) skyped in from afar on the future of education. Children with access to internet can learn anything, he argued, but still need teachers to generate their interest in learning. The role of the teacher: "to be a friend", "a friend who leads students to discover learning, doesn't teach them". This caused some twitter reaction back home from people who felt "being a friend" was over-stepping the professional boundary. Perhaps "be a guide" works better for some.

The first day closed with a truly inspirational presentation from the deaf Finnish rap artist Signmark. Check out one of his videos here. "Stop complaining, start networking".

A big thanks to the Oppi organisers for a truly great event, well worth the trip. Looking forward to day 2..
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 07:26

Henry - thanks for this bulletin. The phrase "killer app" may already be becoming clichèd (eg the Telegraph reviewer of Niall Ferguson's book, "Civilisation: The West and the Rest", described it as a "slightly wince-making phrase") but Simon Breakspear is right about the importance of the relationship between teacher and taught.

This does not, of course, imply being a "friend" which is unprofessional. And a "guide" needs to know the destination and the many possible routes of getting there. Which is why "Holes in the Wall" supervised by any well-meaning adult don't always work. As I said at the end of my thread criticising Sugatra Mitra's idea of "cloud schools":

"Experience alone is not enough, it must be articulated. And a granny is the clouds, primed only to praise, is no substitute for a [properly trained] teacher with feet firmly on the earth."

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 08:03

Henry - as you know, I don't tweet, but I do read the tweet headlines on LSN's home page. So I was rather puzzled when I saw one about "unfollowing". I thought it was LSN warning it was going to "unfollow" Toby Young who's twitter account had been inexcusably infiltrated by a biscuit company (I admit - I thought this was true - these hackers get everywhere) and was using a doctored film poster mocking Toby's obsession with the Blob (aka amoeba).

However, you've now explained it was the other way round. You were the one threatened with "unfollowing" because you pointed out two obvious points:

1 Healthy, happy, well-cared for children learn better than the sick, sad and neglected.
2 Education* is fulfilling.

(By "education", I mean education in its widest sense: "deep, flourishing learning" - Brakespeare's phrase - which combines knowledge and the skills to apply that knowledge in order to reach understanding).

Lisa Pettifer's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 09:21

Sounds like a very thought-provoking conference; I'd love to go to something like that. I would not, however, love to be in a school where 'well-being' and 'learning' are not seen as mutually influential. Another reason to steer clear of the free schools?

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.