Finnish education: How it prepares students for a tech-driven world
Finland and Korea also share a focus on teaching technology in the classroom. For example, they are among the very few countries in the world to have incorporated coding into the national curriculum. This focus on IT education is hardly surprising, given that the job markets of these two countries depend on technology-driven industries. Korea’s recent development has focused on AI systems, cellphones and smart household appliances, while Finland’s labor market is increasingly fueled by IT and engineering consulting industries.
Three lessons on how to Finnish first
“Education should be equal for all”
For Jari Lavonen, a professor of Physics and Chemistry Education at the University of Helsinki (UH), the cornerstone of Finnish education is equality. Formal schooling is free for all from kindergarten to university, with books, meals and all educational materials fully funded by local governments. Socio-economic status does not come into play in accessing public education provision, and private education is almost non-existent, he explained. The little private education that does exist, is more for the support for those who fail to keep up with the average standard of academic achievement, as opposed to excelling in certain areas. All teachers receive mandatory training to cater to the needs of students with learning disabilities.
Finland also treats students equally when it comes to their academic capabilities. Rather than segregating students based on performance, public schools teach students of all competencies together in one class. In order to ensure that both top performers and those who need extra support can thrive, teachers encourage advanced students to assist their peers, creating a positive cycle of support.
“Creativity is a tool for students to realize their own world”
Kaiju Kangas a professor of technology education at the UH, is one of only two professors in Finland specializing in craft science education. As the name suggests, this subject allows students to take a hands-on, project-based approach to learning by building, making and designing products. The subject is taught in all Finnish schools based on the country’s strong tradition of the “Maker Movement,” where people highly value DIY over hiring others to solve their problems. Craft science is mandatory in every elementary school, with the number of teaching hours dedicated to the subject decreasing as students enter high school. The subject trains students in two key components – teamwork and the application of theory to real life.
Teamwork is vital for the Finns to stay competitive, according to Professor Kangas. The country has just five million people and is surrounded by regional superpowers such as Sweden and Russia that once colonized the country. Therefore, Professor Kangas stressed Finns’ ability to work together as critical. This incentive also informs why Finland chose to develop its economy based on social democracy, with a welfare system where every taxpayer receives strong education and healthcare support. In contrast, Korea’s neoliberal system propels a robust private education industry and a mostly privatized higher education sector.
“The Finnish way is the integrative way of learning language”
Sari Ylinen, a researcher in the Department of Education at UH, is a linguistics specialist working on second-language acquisition through web applications. Her work has garnered attention because it proves how proficiency can be achieved in second languages without private tuition. One striking difference between Finland and Korea is that most fluent English speakers in Korea have lived abroad or invested huge sums to attend private English-learning institutes to hone their skills. A 2016 report published by Statistics Korea showed that the average expenditure per household on major academic areas – Korean, English and mathematics – was around $200, with an increase of 0.6 percent in 2015.
Meanwhile, in Finland, many students attain English proficiency without special assistance outside of school. According to Ylinen, the secret to training people to become multilingual, is to take an integrated approach. The segmentation of language learning into grammar and vocabulary as well as reading, listening, writing and speaking tasks is less strict in Finland. In fact, students learn in natural ways such as by watching English-language movies or TV shows without Finnish dubbing, or by practicing English conversation with friends, without worrying about mistakes at first. The need to learn English is similar in both Korea and Finland, as these countries’ unique native languages are not widely spoken abroad.
Snapshot of Finnish college classes
To observe Finnish university classes, Ewha Voice visited two classes at the UH relevant to Finnish-Korean IT Education comparison: “Introduction to Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence”, an elective course in the department of Cognitive Sciences, and “Contemporary Korea”, also an elective in the Cultural Studies Department. Both courses featured a mix of lectures and audiovisual material, as well as student and lecturer-facilitated discussion.
Unlike the stereotype that Finnish students would be outspoken in class in all environments, students in the AI class were much better at engaging in fierce debates among themselves in small groups. However, when asked to speak out to the entire class, only a few raised their hands to lead the discussion.
The situation was similar in the “Contemporary Korea” class where students thrived in group discussions based on their weekly assignments. Close to half of the 90-minute class was dedicated to elaborating on the latest Korean issues that students found in English-language Korean media.
A feature of both classes was that professors played music while students were engaged in discussions. During the AI class, university lecturer Anna-Mari Rusanen played a song titled “Self-Control” when students were discussing the notion of cognitive agency.
In the Korea class, Professor Logie played newly released K-pop songs “After You’ve Gone” and “Fire Up” just before beginning the class. The music was soon turned back on when students started group discussion on diverse issues including comfort women, the training of music performers and labor union protests in Korea.
“There are Finns who are quiet, but they can be good at group work,” Logie said. “Frontal [lecture-style] teaching is not a very productive method. However, work in small groups and discussions can lead students to work.”
He mentioned that part of the promises of Finnish education had been exaggerated in international media, and that it has become an inseparable part of the national brand image.
“Nonetheless, there are certain elements of Finnish pedagogy which work,” he said.
One part of this would be the amount of freedom that is given to students in terms of attendance. In both classes, students freely walked into the room even after class had begun, and the instructors had not taken note either.
“Attendance is casually regulated,” said Tobias Bachmann, a master’s student majoring philosophy who is taking philosophy of AI. “It is thought to be the student’s right to decide whether to come to class.”
Students in both classes also signed up based on their interest in the class, rather than being tied to graduation requirements. Most classes at UH are open to both undergraduate and master’s students and students are given the freedom to choose classes flexibly, which is in contrast to the Korean reality, where many students must design their course schedules based on recommended courses to meet degree requirements.
“I took this class because I found the philosophy aspect of the course interesting even though it was challenging,” said Wing Yee-fan, an exchange student from The Chinese University of Hong Kong who is taking the AI class.
Both classes went beyond the relaying of searchable information, and excavated deeper philosophical lessons as well as repercussions of Korean social issues. For instance, the AI class dealt with how AI may be superior in one sense, but not in others.
“We talked about how easy it is to design AI to play a logical game,” said Lea Kosonen, a master’s student majoring data science in the AI class. “However, it is difficult to design AI to imitate human behavior such as picking apples from a tree.”
Students in the AI class also had to think on their own about philosophical problems such as what the notion of autonomy is and cognitive agency is. The class went beyond the importance of technological development, and provided the chance for students to explore the ethical dilemmas when using technology.
Similarly, the Korea class went into great detail on how the Sewol Ferry disaster led to the impeachment of the former president Park Geun-hye, exploring the connection between these two events. Logie showed a documentary film titled “Diving Bell” to explain how the former government had lost trust, since they could not take appropriate measures when the Sewol Ferry disaster occurred
As a scholar of Korean studies with interests both in the contemporary issues and historical aspects, Logie explained how he studies Korean issues.
“I try to visit Korea about three times a year,” Logie said. “I usually spend a lot of time reading or buying books at bookstores or at the national library.”
He also shared his thoughts on social problems in Korea.
“It’s not that particular social problems only occur in Korea,” Logie said. “It’s just that Korea’s problems seem to be more extreme. For example, kids being addicted to phones is not only a matter in Korea, but they just seem to be taken to the extreme there.”
One big difference between Korean and Finnish university classes was the grading system. Bachmann shared his thoughts on the system at the UH.
“Students are not so worried about grades……many classes are evaluated in terms of pass or fail rather than quantifying their grades,” Bachmann said. “Students also have less pressure about dropping out of class, as they can choose to walk out at any point during the semester, without receiving any [bad] credit for the class.”
Mixed Reality Hub, integrating technology in the classroom
As well as capitalizing on their inclusive education system, Finns are increasingly focusing on integrating technology in the classroom, in terms of both pedagogy and content.
The Mixed Reality Hub (MRHub) at the UH is an innovative example of how this can work. The lab combines virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology to create mixed reality applications that can be used in applications from sales and customer service through to teaching.
Osmo Mattila, a postdoctoral researcher at the center showed how VR headsets are being developed to teach forestry, which is a traditionally important industry in Finland. The technology can be used to teach students how to plant and manage forest resources in VR, as opposed to actual forests. Students can select the virtual environment for their learning, with landscapes available on both Mars and Earth. They can either follow lessons that have been pre-recorded by a teacher or create their own lesson plans by recording their virtual moves into the system.
As with all innovations, another researcher, Jani Holopainen, stressed that there is no guarantee that VR learning will be the “next big thing,” though they are making strides in developing creative ways to integrate technology into the classroom.
“No one knows whether VR or AR techniques in the classrooms will be mainstream and used by all, but nonetheless it is important to explore the various technological possibilities out there”.
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