Petri Puhakka: Finland is World's Best in Education, but be Wary of Full Emulation


Petri Puhakka: Finland is World's Best in Education, but be Wary of Full Emulation

Finland ambassador to Malaysia Petri Puhakka tells AWANI Review’s Luqman Hariz that the country dubbed `the Land of a Thousand Lakes’ took time to be the envy of the world in the way its kids are taught and consistently turn out tops in global scholastic stakes – but he cautions attempts by other nations to adopt its methods wholesale without taking into account local sensitivities.

Cliché alert – the importance and significance of education can’t be overstated.

And it is for this fact that for millennia, countries and peoples have been arguing about the right way to approach, implement and enforce the education system.

But above all the noise, one country seems to have quietly nailed it – Finland.

Time and again, the education system of this little Scandinavian country with 5.5 million people is widely considered the best in the world.

It didn’t happen overnight of course. It was in the late 1970s, a time when the US was embroiled in a messy war in Vietnam and the European Union was still taking shape, that Finland introduced a revolutionary education system which eventually became famous for its innovative style and unorthodox approaches.

Even five decades ago, this nation saw the need to diverge from every other in the world, when they decided that their education system isn’t going to be about grading or exams. And so until today, students in Finland are not measured or graded at all for the first six years of their schooling life, and are not required to go through any mandatory exams until they're 16.

The pupils are encouraged to learn instead of being tested and put in the ranking order. The basic principle in Finland is that we look at the pupils individually

“The pupils are encouraged to learn instead of being tested and put in the ranking order. The basic principle in Finland is that we look at the pupils individually, where they can excel and where they need to improve their skills,” says Puhakka in a recent interview with AWANI Review.

Teachers meanwhile, only spend four hours a day in the classroom, take two hours a week for “professional development”, and have master’s degrees – which the government fully subsidizes.

Total freedom is also given to schools and teachers to dictate co-curricular activities.

“It’s up to the individual teachers to decide which methods to use to reach the targets (that the government has set). I understand that that’s different from the approach here, but then, you need to have the trust towards the teachers.

“When you have the autonomy to decide what material to use, it inspires the teachers,” says Puhakka.

But as admirable as the Finnish education system may be, have we been misled to think that it can work just as well for us? Can the Finnish education system, with all its pomp and glory, actually work with Malaysian kids?
“That’s hard to answer,” says the ambassador with a sigh and a slight change in tone. He went on to cite one example; that the Finnish education system is single-streamed. This means everyone goes through the same type of school.
“Here you have different types of schools; you have the Malay schools, the Tamil schools, the Chinese schools, it’s kind of hard to combine all of those (streams).

“You can try to fit in the approach of all those streams, but of course that would be a challenge,” he says.

His answers may persuade some of us to rethink our desire to blindly emulate the Finns. We all tend to forget than Finland, and a few other countries with similar education systems, are mostly homogenous countries.

Malaysia couldn’t be more different. This is a nation where the racial composition is so diverse that even attempts to teach children Science and Mathematics in English in vernacular schools, have met resistance (and even legal action).

”Well, it has worked in our system,” says Puhakka.

It sure has. By 2009, Finnish students were ranked second in science, third in reading and sixth in math worldwide. 66 percent of Finnish students go on to higher education, the highest in Europe. And 93 percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the US.

“It might work (in Malaysia) but it would need to be adjusted,” he says.

Fair enough. But even if Malaysia wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) try to emulate the Finns’ model 100 percent, how long would it take us to develop a Malaysian model that holds to the same standard?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with similar reluctance to commit a clearer answer. He reminded us, even the best took time.

“We created our present system in the late 70s, so it’s taken us about 40, 50 years,” says Puhakka “With enough resources and time to think of the best methods, you might need half a generation because this is something that’s not done just like that,” he adds.

The path of Malaysia’s education system has been an eventful one in its own right. And like in a lot of other countries, it has not been without its trials and tribulation on its way to achieve perfection.

Right from the colonial era Barnes Report which failed because it couldn’t get the agreement of all races, to the more successful Razak Report of 1956, to the (in)famous PPSMI in 2003 that got so much objection that the government was forced to scrap it nine years later.

More recent examples include the Dual Language Programme, an initiative launched in 2016 to also encourage learning Science, Mathhematics and STEM subjects in English. There’s a good chance that the road will be just as bumpy moving forward. But that is a good thing, because the constant debate and arguments show that we care about what (and how) we teach our children.

To quote another cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was the Finnish education system. And neither will ours be. It will take time, perseverance, grit, and a lot of trial and error.

But if the past 60 years is anything to go by, we Malaysians will do just fine. And we’ll reach that promised land one day. Whether it will require us to just fine tune the little things like learning Science and Mathematics in English, or make monumental changes like merging all school streams, only time will tell. Yes, that was another cliché.

“Well, it’s a worth a try. You never know what kind of results you would get if you haven’t tried it,” says Puhakka.