Sunday, September 27

The Finnish Education System Rocks! Why?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
- Nelson Mandela


A couple of weeks back (16th September), I attended a Future Learning Finland one-day seminar & networking session. Finpro had invited a few dozen people from Malaysia for this session. Their goal was basically to share and market their world class Finnish education system and related educational products and services, and also gain more insight into the current and future learning trends and needs in Malaysia. Basically, it was an opportunity to learn, network and explore potential educational business/collaboration opportunities with each other.

Though, how come they invited me of all people? I found out during the seminar that one of the Finpro consultants had actually discovered me searching for information about e-learning in Malaysia. I suppose they saw me as a good source to find out more about the current and future e-learning trends in Malaysia. Anyway, whatever reason, I was just happy to be part of it, and make some noise.

But before sharing with you some of the things I learned about the world class Finnish education system, I would strongly recommend that you explore Amran Noordin's excellent 6-part series, where he compares Singapore and Finland's schooling models (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6), summed up nicely in his diagram below:

In short, Singapore and Finland have become world renowned for their education systems, but interestingly they have achieved their success using quite different approaches (to say it mildly!). To get the juicy details of both, please read Amran Noordin's 6-part series mentioned above.


During this one day session of sharing, networking and exploring opportunities, I learned a lot (and scribbled a lot of notes, too) about why Finland's education system is so good (well at least according to them and many others around the world).

The first clash of cultures (Finland and Malaysia) started even before the learning session began. The main representative from the Ministry of Higher Education (MOE) came 30 minutes late, and the seminar could not start before he came.

If you don't know, Finnish people in general are very time conscious, and you should have seen how stressed out they were waiting for the main dude from Malaysia. Since we started 45 minutes late, most of the Finnish presenters swooshed through their presentations, and made a point reminding the audience that they will be on time, and not overuse the time been given. In short, even though they were extremely polite, I could see on their faces and body language that they were rather pissed off with the scheduling being put to shambles due to the initial delay.

Though, I found out later that the MOE representative actually had to attend another meeting earlier in the morning, and was delayed because of that. But, keep this in mind, especially with Finnish people (and Germans, British, Americans, Japanese, etc.):


Yeah, and if you want to present and convince Finnish people, please use research data and findings to back up your ideas and proposals. It was also interesting to compare MOE's presentation about Malaysian education with Dr. Heikki's presentation about the Finnish education system.

While the MOE's presentation talked about vision, mission, and some current student mobility programs (the objective was probably more to market the Malaysian education system, rather than tell the full story), the Finnish counter parts covered basically everything about their education system, including a few centuries, current and future scenarios, and reasons why its education system evolved that way, and the secrets behind its current success. Although, it was comprehensive, it was told in a very constructive and time-efficient manner.


Based on what I saw, Finnish people strive to be very efficient in whatever they do, and that includes giving presentations. No swimming here and there, just get to the point and solve the problem. We have a lot to learn here, as we often let our emotional feelings and ego take control, and forget about solving the real problem.

If you ask me, I felt most of the presenters lacked a bit in terms of exciting the audience with what they had to offer. In layman terms, they were a bit stiff, monotonous, and perhaps too efficient in delivery (the initial delay is probably one reason). Don't get me wrong, they were very well-rehearsed (like a program), but you need some emotional outbursts and connections to really touch the audience (well, at least me!).

Oops, let's get back on track...

What is the secret to Finland's success (5.3+ million citizens only)? NOKIA! Besides that?

Basically, due their tough environment (just look at their neighbors and climate!) and limited natural resources (except for large forest reserves), they have had no choice but to invest in educating their brains (Just like Singapore!).


Here are five reasons, why Finnish people have been, and are successful:
  • Quality education with equal opportunity
  • High level of investments in R&D for technology development
  • Good regulatory framework and efficient public service
  • Open economy: competition has to prevail
  • Social model: social market economy, welfare society

As we are talking about education in this post (and blog), I will limit my observations and reflections to that next. If you want rough notes regarding the rest, click here for more details.

Besides free and universal high-level education from comprehensive school to university (6% of GDP directed to public education), Finland stresses also equal opportunity for all, irrespective of domicile, sex, economic situation or mother tongue. Teachers are required to be trained in dealing with low-achieving students, as well as students with disabilities and learning difficulties.

The fact that education is free, including travel expenses,
welfare services, accommodation, books and other school material, means that students can focus more of their time on learning, rather than all the other distractions that might come with it.

However, besides all the student rights to this and that, students also have three main duties that they must fulfill, which are to attend classes,
obey discipline, and complete their courses and programs. I suppose most education systems will have something like this documented, but in Finland it is strongly emphasized, and it is probably working better there than in most other countries.

They are really proud of their students'
PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) achievements, where they are ranked number one in the world in most categories. To be honest, I had never heard of PISA before this event (Except the Italian one!). How ignorantly ignorant can you get! I am still learning!

Interestingly, a teacher must have a master's degree to teach in Finland, and also have a lifelong learning program mapped out for them. They emphasize a lot on lifelong learning, and it is kind of embedded into the their learning culture.


More importantly, the teacher
profession is highly valued in Finland, meaning more people with the right attitude, mindset and skills will apply for such jobs, and in the end you will get better qualified and passionate people educating the future people of the country. I suppose that is why the Norwegian education system (where I studied), especially the schooling system is really crap (hopefully better now!). I remember most of my teachers as miserable creatures, who had failed in what they set out to be in life.

For example, my music teacher really wanted to be a singer (But her voice was horrible!), and due to her failure we students had to suffer. She really hated our guts, too! I had a gym teacher that used to throw his huge key chain after us, every time we pissed him off. He even threw a hammer after one student, but luckily he missed. If you wonder why Norway until today cannot create and innovate globally renowned products and services like the Swedes and Finnish dudes can, I suppose their lack of appreciation, dedication and emphasis on education is one reason for that. But then again, Norway is blessed with all sorts of natural resources (especially oil and gas), and therefore is one of the richest countries in the world. I can't imagine what Norway would be today, without their oil and gas. Let's get back to Finnish education...

In contrast to Singapore (
please read Amran Noordin's articles. Links above!), Finland don't rank students or schools, and they don't emphasize on standardized nationwide examinations that drive students, teachers and parents nuts. I suppose Singapore's model is good for nurturing a competitive mindset, and encouraging students to work hard (and memorize everything you can think of). However, I believe the side effects are too many, and we need to question whether they are really preparing students for the 20th century, or for the 21st century (now and future)?

I personally believe (based on my shallow understanding) the Finnish education system has managed to infuse discipline, hard work, and competitiveness, but at the same time also infuse the right balance to nurture critical skills required for the 21 century, which include communication, collaboration, creativity (innovativeness), critical thinking, problem solving, digital literacy, flexibility, adaptability, global care/awareness, and emotional intelligence.

In addition, the Finnish education system is rather decentralized and schools are given a degree of freedom (independence) to develop their own curriculum. The problem with having a centralized system and curriculum, is that if you get it wrong, the whole country will suffer. Also, with a top-down model, it is difficult to quickly innovate and spark changes to the curriculum that is needed to deal with the increasingly disruptive learning world that we are experiencing today. However, in a decentralized system, schools can easily change and adapt as they learn, and also they have more freedom to explore and try out new things, without needing to worry about ranking of this and that.

Actually, ranking of schools and students is a disaster (if you ask me), if you really want to encourage universities, colleges, schools, students, and teachers to openly share, learn, discuss, reflect, and collaboratively innovate. It can be done, but it is very difficult because of our internal urge to be the best, or be better than our neighbors. In the world of sports, I can understand it, but for education I believe that might not be the best solution to move forward.

For example, If I want to be higher ranked than you, then probably I would want to keep some of the juicy stuff secret from you. Otherwise, you might overtake me, and if the government is nasty, give me less funds to innovate further. However, if ranking is put aside, we can instead focus on transforming the education system, nurturing dynamic learning clusters, and becoming a learning nation together.

Finally, Finland emphasizes big time on research and development (around 4% of GDP), and have interlinked companies with the Universities to collaborate on new innovations. Whatever they do, their approach is very scientific, which of course includes how they are continuously improving their education systems.

The only thing I felt was really missing from this seminar, was learning more about Finland's e-learning initiatives and success stories, which was not really discussed.

So, how can we transform our education system right here?

Here are three (3) small suggestions to consider (more will be elaborated in a future post):
  • Focus less on exams, and more on learning.
    Exams should resemble and test what we want them to learn (authentic). Not how much they can memorize. They need to be able to understand and apply what they learn, otherwise what is the point? Group/Individual project-based exams, using well constructed assessment rubrics would be a good start (peer-assessment next!). And let them use all the tools they need to complete the project, because in the real world we would use the tools necessary to solve the problems and challenges we face. Why just give them a pencil/pen and paper (oh, I forget the eraser)? Of course, if it is a memory test, it makes sense :)

  • Focus more on teacher education, and less on centralized content/curriculum.
    You can have the best curriculum in the world, but if your teachers stink, I 99% guarantee you that you will fail. However, if you have a crappy curriculum, and great teachers, I can guarantee you that you will 99% succeed. Because, the great teachers will transform the curriculum and inspire the students to learn. In short, invest in teacher education, hire the best people to educate, and let them innovate the curriculum as they facilitate and learn together with the students.

  • Focus less on investing on flowers and big buildings, and more on equipping educators and students with the learning tools needed to transform the way they learn.
    The Internet is the 21st century's oxygen for communicating, collaborating, and learning (without it, you or your institution is going to suffocate into ignorance and irrelevance). If you can afford it, spoil the educators and students rotten with learning devices and great Internet access. Provide training online and face-to-face often, exploring with them how they can utilize all these learning tools to transform the way they learn. If you are looking for world class inspiring free learning content, click here for starters. For free learning tools, click here for starters.

Can we do it? Yes, we can! But do we really want to? You decide? If you ask me, my answer would of course be... :)


Waleed said...

Well documented and thought out article. Especially like the focus on the themes (versus actual process) that allows us to compare systems at higher levels.

Agree - it would have been very good to learn more about their elearning platforms. Perhaps a follow-up article?

Anonymous said...

Well said, Zaid!

PDonaghy said...

Great post Zaid, as always :-)
I like the emphasis on student responsibility "to attend classes, obey discipline, and complete their courses and programs".

I do think things need to change and I would agree with your suggestions for moving forward but I don't know if 'everyone' is ready to change yet or even if they ever will be!!

Titi said...

Hi Zaid
Interesting description.
You hope more information of Finnish elearnig solutions.
One interesting place to asks more is url:

TC said...


Congrats on an articulate and engaging post on the Finnish vs. Malaysian education systems.

I am an educator and blogger myself and would like to invite you to contribute your Budget 2010 wishlist for the education sector as a guest blogger on my blog.

Look forward to hearing from you.Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

Dear Textual Confessions (It would be nice to know your real name!),

Thanks for the invitation, but all my reflective posts I do on ZaidLearn (here), or my new ZaidSwoosh blog (, which shares juicy stuff chunked into 5-10 small pieces a week.

However, should I write a Budget 2010 wish-list sometime in the near future, you are free to replicate it, and link back to the original post on ZaidLearn.

Finally, I would like to highlight that this post, was not really about Finnish Vs Malaysian education, but more on sharing some of the great things about the Finnish education system. If anything, it is a "Finland Vs Singapore education" (or Finnish Vs Norway) post.

But thanks for reading, the invitation, and your useful comment.


P.S. Why is your name not revealed on your blog? If you really want change in the education system, you got stand up and be a true leader! We have enough gutless pussycats around :)

Unknown said...

Dear Patricia,

I couldn't agree more. But let's look at it another way. Without these stubborn never changing ignorant ego king size fools :) life would be absolutely boring :)

So, instead we should be grateful for their grumpy stubborness and refusal to evolve, because their rejection helps us to continuously work on improving the way we persuade and convince them to move forward and enjoy all the fruits to a more effective, efficient and engaging learning world :)


Unknown said...

Thanks Titi!

Will explore these interesting looking Finnish e-learning links later this week.

Warm Regards,


TC said...

Hi Zaid,

Thanks for replying to my comments. If you do come up with a special post pre-Budget 2010, I would be happy to link to it.

As for my name (and yes I do have one), I agree about the gutless pussycats around that use blogs as an excuse to 'hide' behind ambiguous rants.

But do bear in mind also that some of us mystery bloggers choose not to publish our names to protect our friends/sources or to meet certain contractual obligations, etc.

My chief aim with TC is to spur critical thinking and awareness to move education forward, not to take the credit for myself (enough of that going around too). So if readers have reservations about my identity, well that's ok with me.

I'm glad there are fellow bloggers like yourself with a good sense of social responsibility who don't just toe the line. Keep blogging!


TC said...

Hi Zaid,

Thanks for replying to my comments. If you do come up with a special post pre-Budget 2010, I would be happy to link to it.

As for my name (and yes I do have one), I agree about the gutless pussycats around that use blogs as an excuse to 'hide' behind ambiguous rants.

But do bear in mind also that some of us mystery bloggers choose not to publish our names to protect our friends/sources or to meet certain contractual obligations, etc.

My chief aim with TC is to spur critical thinking and awareness to move education forward, not to take the credit for myself (enough of that going around too). So if readers have reservations about my identity, well that's ok with me.

I'm glad there are fellow bloggers like yourself with a good sense of social responsibility who don't just toe the line. Keep blogging!


Unknown said...

Dear TC,

Thanks for sharing the 'Why' behind the mystery of no name.

Though, in the 'e-learning' blogging world, I just don't know of a single blogger that remains a mystery (name), so I am kind of new to that way of blogging.

But then again, when politics is involved, it probably makes some sense to remain a mystery (whistle blowers).

In general, I suppose we have similar goals (to transform the way we learn), but have different approaches to achieving them.

As for a special post pre-Budget 2010, is simply not my cup of tea (I hate doing budgets and talking about it). So, I will leave it to experts like yourself to do such things.

On the other hand, I will continue to explore learning tools and resources that can help educators to transform the way they learn and facilitate learning. That is what this blog is really about (although, some might not see it that way).

In short, there are many ways to transform the way we learn, and I suppose readers need a bit of all to awaken their minds to the fast changing competitive reality out there :)

Good luck on your blogging adventure :)



Anonymous said...

nice to hear about this Singapore -Finland session.
I agree with your summary in the end of your post about what is most important. I was searching just this kind of thinking in my post with Tarmo Toikkanen's presentation in Galgary.

Still I agree with your perceptions about Finnish people in conferences: we are too effective and boring, can't help :) We come from a small (tiny) country and we must try hard :)

TinaK said...

Good article. Having grown up in Sweden, but now teaching in the US, I'm struggling with the topic of "Education Crisis." It seems to me that what we have here is a cultural and societal crisis. Children and education are not high on the priority list when lawmakers make policy decisions. Research has told us that the Danish people is the happiest in the world. Perhaps because they live in a society where children and family are important, which is reflected in social policies around health care, family leave, unemployment services, re-education opportunities, etc. A high regard for teachers reflects an attitude by a family friendly society, and I can't help but think that this must be an enormous advantage for the Finnish educational system.