Features | Society | East Asia

What Finland Can Teach China

A focus on daycare rather than rote learning is why Finnish students have some of the best global test scores. Chinese students might be more creative if they took a leaf out of their book.

I’ve just finished a week visiting Finnish schools, and on my last day, while touring Finland’s best high school, I ran into China’s vice minister of education, who was spending the day in Helsinki looking at what China can learn from the world’s best K-12 school system.

If the vice minister were to ask me what parts of Finland’s education system I thought China could and should emulate (he didn’t) I’d tell him there were two things.

First is Finland’s pre-kindergarten system, in which children as young as nine months-old can attend until they are six. In each class, four university-educated teachers supervise about twenty children as they play sports, eat meals, and sleep together. This voluntary and pay-as-you-can daycare may seem costly, but it’s the best investment a society can make if it wants to ensure equality of opportunity for its children.

That’s because this daycare system helps close the achievement gap between rich and poor kids. Researchers at the University of Kansas have reported that by the time they are four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children raised in well-educated families, and this is as true in China as it is in the United States. Because Finnish children spend their day talking with and playing with university-educated professionals, it empowers them with such a large vocabulary that when they do start school they learn more quickly than their Western peers. 

More important, this daycare system takes children who might be from violent and volatile homes, and puts them in a safe and predictable learning space.  Research has found that children whose parents can’t be trusted to put food on the table (or to even just be present) will develop long-term issues with self-esteem and self-control, leading to poor test scores and relationship issues. 

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The second thing that I think China can emulate is Finnish education’s emphasis on empathy, which starts at daycare.  From the moment they enter school, Finnish children are taught to help each other, and to appreciate difference and diversity.  Students as young as 14 years-old can define for me that empathy is “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and knowing how he or she thinks and feels” because they’re taught that by their parents and teachers, and given the space to develop it by playing with their friends, dating, and working part-time. Cultural sensitivity is as much a national pride as self-reliance and Nokia, and English textbooks emphasize tolerance as much as syntax.        

Empathy is an education imperative because Finns want first and foremost a polite and orderly society. But empathy can also lead to an innovation economy. It permits Finns to work together, and to understand and access foreign markets. Emotional intelligence also often leads to creativity, something that China is desperately searching for now

Unfortunately, China’s vice minister of education didn’t see Finland’s focus on equity and empathy while he was in Helsinki.

The school where I ran into the vice minister’s delegation is considered the top school in Finland, producing many of the nation’s doctors, lawyers, and professors.  It lets in only the nation’s best students, focuses on preparing them for the college entrance exams, wins more international science and math competitions than any other school in Finland, and offers the elite International Baccalaureate program. 

In a chemistry classroom, a teacher told the vice minister that her students did at least two hours of homework a day (most Finnish high school students I’ve spoken with don’t do any), and the vice minister paid the students the highest compliment:  “I only wish that Chinese students could work as hard as you!”  The students laughed proudly.    

The student council president joined us during the tour, and asked me what I thought of the school, and I said that the school seemed too academic and too conservative. He replied that the problem is that Finland’s college entrance exam rewarded rote memorization.  Once he and his classmates graduated from high school, they had half a year to memorize five thick textbooks. There was so much new information to memorize that everyone in the school had to pay good money to learn test-taking strategies from cram courses. (An alternative to all this is to do what most Finnish students actually do, and just not care.) 

Then and there, it dawned on me the irony of the situation: The Chinese vice minister had traveled nine hours by plane to find himself in a Finnish school that most resembles a school he could have just walked to from his office.

There was one major difference, however.  The vice minister asked the principal if the school had an entrance examination, and the principal replied that the 180 students were admitted each year based on their grade point average in junior high school – and that’s it. 

And that’s it?  For any one who’s worked in Chinese education, this answer can only raise more questions: What do you do about guanxi (network of relationships)? How do you know their GPAs are real?  What if 10,000 kids apply with perfect school records?  

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What the vice minister didn’t understand is that most Finnish parents would rather have their child drop out of school than have him or her attend an institution that motivates students to chase high test scores.  When a junior high principal heard I was about to visit Finland’s best school, she blurted out, “That school has five suicides a year!”  That, of course, wasn’t true, but during my visit when I asked a teacher if the school was as truly stressful and competitive as people say, she replied, “Well, not so much as ten years ago.”              

After the vice minister and his delegation left, I had a roundtable discussion with students, and they told me they were concerned that Helsinki was cutting back funding to high schools, including theirs. That means that, during high school, they will no longer take courses at the University of Helsinki, and advanced level physics and math. They told me that Finland’s success on international tests like the PISA was making the country complacent.

I didn’t tell them this, but I think that Finns care about the problems of elite students even less than they care about PISA. What the Finns fundamentally believe is that the best students have so many advantages that they don’t need any more, and that’s why Finns are cutting back funding to their elite schools, but not to their daycare system.       

This is an attitude that China’s vice premier would have benefited from hearing. Unfortunately, because of the school he visited, he could only come away all the more convinced of the deep-rooted Chinese belief that national school systems are secretly like China’s if they’re any good, or secretly want to be like China’s if they’re not.