AS I open the door to the classroom, a typical Finnish Math lesson is under way.
The classroom is divided into four stations with desks and chairs arranged in a cluster to accommodate 10 students in a station. There are ice cream sticks and macaroni in one, and small tubs in red and blue in the other.
Forty pupils, divided into four groups, are engrossed in activities with their new teachers of the day, oblivious to observers in the room.
The Finnish education system has been making news since its outstanding PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results in 2000 and so much has been written about the system.
Its ability to produce high academic results among children, who do not start formal schooling until the age of 7, have short school hours, long holidays, relatively minimal homework and no exams, has long fascinated education experts around the world.
Recently, the Finland embassy in Malaysia organised a half-day demonstration of Finnish teaching and learning approaches in conjunction with its 100th year of independence. It was a chance not to be missed to see for myself what takes place in a Finnish classroom.
The lessons, ranging from English, Math to Music and Crafts, are conducted by Tiina Malste, a teaching expert, and Emmi Herler-Westeråker, an experienced teacher from EduCluster Finland. It is followed by a reflection session in the afternoon for the observers.
The one I observed was a Maths lesson conducted in English for 40 Year Two students at SK Taman Megah in Petaling Jaya.
Among the widely accepted explanation for Finnish success include Finland’s focus on teacher-student interaction and the demanding teacher-education system. Finnish education has a national curriculum, often revised, but how the teachers implement it is up to them. Their teachers are trusted as professionals and given a great deal of responsibility with flexibility on what and how they teach.
I was curious not only to observe if their lessons were any different, but also how the two teachers handled these eight-year-olds, who came from a different education system.
During the lesson on that day, both teachers, although not anxiously pacing around the classroom, had their eyes on the pupils. It was clear that decisions made during the lesson were with a common objective: to ensure that the child learns.
One of the basic principles of Finnish education is that the child comes first. Every pupil and student has the right to educational support from highly competent teachers and the child’s potential should be maximised.
To foster the potential of every child, a teacher must be alert and observant.
Malste, during the reflection session, said student individualisation meant the teacher was aware of each student’s behaviour and emotional state. It helps that in Finland, teachers generally stay with the same class for at least a couple of years.
As like any young children, some listen, while others don’t, during the lesson. Many times, I noticed that the teachers had the firm, no-nonsense approach similar to the traditional, teacher-centred classroom instruction. Yet, most of the time, they were gentle and approachable.
It was as simple as when the time was up at a station and the pupils needed to move to the next one. Both teachers made sure that they queued up and moved in an orderly manner. Another example was when Herler-Westeråker explained a math concept on the board.
One girl, who was sitting at the end of the table, was distracted by the pupils in the next station and was not paying attention. Realising this, the teacher moved the pupil quietly nearer to the board to bring her focus back to the lesson.
What’s also interesting was that each child got his or her own math practice exercise on small laminated card that the teacher had prepared earlier to pace the pupils and track their progress. The pupils used ice cream sticks and macaroni to complete the tasks on addition.
When one child got the right answer, the teacher would give him or her another piece of card to attempt. When a child did not get the right answer, the teacher would decide if the child needed more help.
In Finland, students are not categorised based on their abilities. Teaching is adjusted to serve the mixed abilities in a classroom. Effective teaching is more important than the size of the classroom. Teachers must be aware of their students’ levels and prepare the tasks accordingly.
Earlier, the lesson started with a brief instruction for these pupils on what they were going to do at each station for an hour that day. Only two out of the four stations needed thorough instructions with some teaching but the other two got the students working independently.
A teacher’s instructions are vital to deliver an effective lesson. It is easier to manage when pupils are divided into smaller groups.
Overall, the Finnish classroom demonstration was engaging and interactive. It was good teaching made perfect with a lot of thought and planning prior to the lessons. The chance to observe it provided an exhilarating insight into teaching.
So, what is the difference between the world’s best school system and ours? Naysayers may argue that demographic and cultural differences between
Finland and Malaysia make comparing education policies pointless.
Finnish Ambassador to Malaysia Petri Puhakka says there is no one-size-fits-all model to educate the young. General principles and methods are said to be universal and applicable in most teaching and learning situations. However, one must consider the elements related to that specific community and culture.
At the end of the lesson, the teachers gathered the class and for about five minutes, the 8-year-olds reflected on what they learned earlier.
The question written on the board was simple: How was the lesson? The answers provided by the pupils were self-explanatory: “We worked together”, “Puzzles were great and challenging”, “We used our brain and also fingers”, “We solved problems” and to sum up, they added: “ It was fun and we got to do many things”.
The writer left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom. As NST’s education editor, the world is now her classroom