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Wednesday 12 December 2012 Letters
Finnish education
The secret of its success

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Letters responding to: Why Finnish school lessons are useless, by Eero Iloniemi

Although I agree with Iloniemi that just numbers, tests and statistics are not enough to capture the whole picture of children’s education, as an Italian scientist living in Finland I disagree with the two hypotheses raised in this article specifically:

1) Orthography
2) Low penetration of minority groups

Italian is another language written exactly as it is pronounced and – excluding big regional cities like Milan and Rome – the penetration of minority groups in schools is as almost as low as in Finland.

According to Iloniemi’s hypothesis, Italy should be the third best country… but it isn’t. Also why does Shanghai score first in many tests?

I guess Chinese is not exactly written as it is pronounced.

As a scientist, I suggest that it would be important to quickly test an hypothesis with a counter-example and only when you fail to disprove an hypothesis, you might be actually approaching truth. However, thehypotheses were easily confuted, hence strong titles such as ‘Finnish school lessons are useless’ are merely evidence of biased thinking.

Matteo Bianco, Finland/Italy

I read Iloniemi’s article with great interest. I am a Finnish educator and I recently returned from Seoul where I held several lectures and workshops about the Finnish education system and especially English language teaching - part of the ‘cottage industry’, as Iloniemi calls it.

Iloniemi’s brings up the frequently heard arguments of phonetic language and homogeneous population as key drivers behind the success of the Finnish and Korean education systems in the international comparisons. I am not saying that these factors would not contribute to the success, but I feel it is necessary to point out a few weaknesses in Iloniemi’s argument.

Phonetic languages, like Finnish and Korean, might be easy to read, but the cognitive process that attaches meaning to ‘a combination letters’ that forms a word is the same in any language. Comprehending abstractions and true meaning is a process that requires maturity and thought processes which are the same regardless of the native language a child speaks or reads.

The mechanical ability to ‘read’ is not a guarantee or a definition of an advanced cognitive process, understanding and ability to use language. Children in England start school much earlier and a bigger percentage of them are confident readers by the age of seven when the Finnish children are just starting school. Finnish, with its 14 grammatical cases, is also considered a very difficult language to learn.

Another well known argument and explanation for education success Iloniemi mentions is homogeneity. It is true that in Finland the education system is only beginning to learn how to cope with multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic student population. In some schools there are children from over 20 countries and sometimes the children who do not speak Finnish at home make up nearly 30 per cent of the entire student population. This may well be true in Korea as well.

I have had the opportunity to follow the discussion about education here in the UK during the past year. I have also visited a large number of schools across the board, from the very expensive public schools to the state schools located in extremely deprived areas. Without any exceptions the head teachers and staff in schools in the latter category say that the students of Asian, African or Eastern European origin top the academic charts. These students are motivated, or in some cases pressured to succeed academically. The schools struggle the most with English students (of Caucasian origin) who lack motivation, support from home and have a poor attitude towards learning.

It is clear that in some European countries it is the immigrant population that contributes in a positive way to the international comparative studies by bringing up the national average, not lowering it. Therefore I strongly disagree with Iloniemi that the homogeneity would be a decisive factor in good placements in international comparisons.

There is no ‘education miracle’ in Finland. The success the Finns enjoy today is a result of political consensus, continuous development, decisive actions and the fact that education is still valued and perceived as important in our society. Education has played a key role in Finland’s relatively rapid progression from our agrarian past through industrialisation and urbanisation towards internationalisation and the knowledge society. In other words, education has helped the individuals and the society out of the forests and fields into factories, cities and onward into offices, development laboratories and abroad. The devastating conflicts and wartime hardship also left their mark on the nation. The developments in Korea are very similar in many regards.

Sirkku Nikamaa-Linder, UK


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