Malaysia’s teaching curriculum: Incorporate distinctive features of Finland’s education system

Malaysia has much to learn from Finland, where primary school teaching is one of the most sought-after careers, observes Benedict Lopez.

Like quality healthcare, good education is a basic human right for everyone in any part of the world.

Globally, Unesco, in collaboration with other UN agencies, is at the forefront in the development of education standards within the context of the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All targets.

Developing countries like Malaysia have made significant strides in their education systems since independence. Malaysia’s education system was ranked well internationally for more than a decade after independence, when our literacy rate was only 50 per cent.

Ironically, when our literacy rate is now around 94.6 per cent, our ranking has been dismal in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for member and non-member nations. Pisa ranks 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.

Malaysia was ranked 52nd out of 76 countries in 2015. Asian countries like Singapore (1), Hong Kong (2), South Korea (3), Japan (4), Taiwan (4) and Vietnam (12) were way ahead of us.

Malaysia can look to a country like Finland to gauge the reasons for that country’s prominence in education. With Finland’s many positive attributes, it is no wonder its education system has propelled it to a premier position on the list.

Finland’s sophisticated education system

Since the 1950s, the industrial and economic development in Finland has been based on an investment-driven economy, primarily based on the manufacture of machinery, engineering and forestry-based industries.

The late 1980s marked the beginning of the specialisation of production, trade and research and development in the Finnish economy.

The emerging knowledge-based economy coincided with the opening of the country’s economy and deregulation of capital flows. Transition into the knowledge-based economy has moved the Finns up the value chain. In the late 1970s, Finland ranked at the lower end of the OECD countries in research and development intensity.

Against this backdrop, Finland embraced a new vison centred on an arduous education curriculum, a Master’s degree requirement for all teachers and three teachers per classroom, with two focusing on teaching instructions and the third assisting students who are struggling academically.

Today, teaching today is among the respected professions in Finland, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career, basically due to the rigid selection process and the working conditions in the profession.

With teachers emerging from the country’s top 10 per cent and stemming from this competitiveness, it is no surprise that Finland has a 90 per cent retention rate for teachers, who continue in the profession throughout their careers.

Autonomy is given to teachers on the modus operandi of the curriculum and teaching methods to be employed. Principals, being teachers by training, teach as well as administer the school.

Modern teaching styles are adopted to better meet the needs of the labour market. For instance, team work, social skills and critical thinking are needed much more in today’s society instead of learning things by heart in traditional school subjects. So teachers need to adapt their styles to incorporate the new skills together with the traditional subject areas.

Respect is a two-way street for Finnish teachers. While it is crucial for teachers to influence and motivate pupils, it is also equally important for teachers to gain the respect of society through their tenacity in meeting evolving needs.

Students are encouraged to expand their horizons, instead of the tradition of sitting docilely in rows in front of their teachers, just listening to lessons and waiting to be questioned. Intellectual discourse in the curriculum is a continuous process for a student in a Finnish school.

A collaborative approach is practised, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems, while simultaneously improving their communication skills. The average Finnish student learns four languages, including English.

Changes in the teaching syllabus next autumn entail a new basic education, which places emphasis on students’ individual roles in active and interactive learning and on teachers’ skills. Teachers and principals are given the opportunities to influence the extent and pace of the changes in their schools.

Long-established education practices are being phased out and being replaced by what the Finns term as “phenomenon” teaching – teaching by topic. Subjects like history and geography will no longer be required for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper secondary schools.

A teenager studying to be a restauranteur will take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include modules like mathematics, languages (required for foreign customers), writing and communication skills.

The focus of universities in Finland is in tandem with the country’s objectives: concentrating on research, innovation and technology while implementing the national strategy.

The Finnish Union of University Professors and the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers have worked in partnership and drafted their vision entitled ‘Universities For the Benefit of Finland’ this spring, whereby universities work is correlated to research and development.

Finland today is at the leading edge of curriculum design to support creativity and innovation. The duties of academics include being involved in research and development and design, and this provides an environment for them to elevate their intellectual creativity.

Navigating this course has contributed significantly to Finland churning out the desired personnel for different sectors of the economy. Well-known Finnish companies like Nokia, F-Secure, Neste Oil, Cargotec, Marimekko, Fazer, Stockman and Kemppi have been able to source their preferred staff from among the graduates of many notable Finnish institutions of higher learning.

Inexpensive tertiary education for Malaysian students

Education in Finland from primary school to university is free, and until 2016 tertiary education has also been free for foreign students.

From August 2017, foreign students from non EU/EFA countries will have to pay a university tuition fee of €1,500. Current living expenses in Finland are around €7,000 per year, and students are required to purchase health insurance to cover medical treatment of up to €30,000.

Students are permitted to work for a maximum of 25 hours a week during the semester, but there are no limits on working during summer and Christmas holidays. Finland is definitely a relatively inexpensive country to pursue a tertiary education in comparison to many developed countries.

A few years ago while on an official visit to Helsinki, I was requested to assist a Malaysian student who had come for an interview at a Haaga Helia University in Helsinki. This student is now in his third year pursuing a degree in ICT and was one of the fortunate foreign students privileged to receive a free education. His father recently told me that he only spends around RM3,000 a month for his son’s living expenses.

It is a pity that when it comes to tertiary education, we are fixated on countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand only when, for many years, countries like Sweden and Finland offered free quality university education to foreign students.

When I was based in Stockholm, I tried to pass the word around to many people in Malaysia about the free university education offered to foreign students in Finland, but regrettably I did not receive any response from anyone back home.

Integrating with the Finnish concept

Finland has implemented a successful education system as a result of the foundation laid down by the government working in partnership with the relevant stakeholders.

The country’s education system is comprehensive and designs the paths into different areas (vocational, upper secondary, polytechnics, universities), tailored to meet the needs of students and to ensure they adapt well into working life, in harmony with Finland’s goals.

Delegations from Malaysia have visited Finnish government agencies such as the Finnish National Board of Education, the ministry of education and the Centre for International Mobility (CIMO). They were briefed on the objectives and directions of the Finnish education system. Malaysia should integrate the salient aspects of Finnish education into our education system.

Quality education yields quality human capital, which is a mandatory requirement to sustain our economic growth and aspirations. It is also critically important for us as we march forward to become a developed and high-income economy and as a measure to sustain our competitiveness in an ever-challenging globalised world.

Reference: “A short history of educational reform in Finland” by P Sahlberg

I would like to acknowledge the painstaking research undertaken by my Finnish friend for this article.

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Benedict Lopez
Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. During the course of his work, he covered all five Nordic countries. An eternal optimist, he believes Malaysia can provide its citizens with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime.

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