Daring to learn in Helsinki

Charley Rogers attends Dare to Learn in Finland's capital, and finds out how the world's happiest country maintains its passion for lifelong learning

‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.’ This popular proverb could easily be related to the ethos of the Finnish education system.

The incredible vision of the Finnish people and their world-leading education system was showcased this year at Dare to Learn, an event that emphasises ‘learning as a lifestyle’, held in Helsinki from 18-19 October. This year’s event was the second iteration of Dare to Learn, and welcomed over 4,000 visitors representing 50 different nationalities over the two days.

CEO Akseli Huhtanen described the four long-term goals of Dare to Learn as:

 – Making quality learning accessible to everyone worldwide

 – Raising learning as a popular public topic

 – To create a ‘capital of learning’ 

 – To connect different sectors to discuss the important topics of learning

A common theme in all four of these aims is the focus on collaboration and learning rather than education. It became evident throughout the two days of the event that learning was what attendees, speakers and exhibitors were driving toward, rather than focusing on the bureaucracy and business of education.

One of the esteemed speakers of the event was Finnish Minister of Education Sanni Grahn Laasonen. Addressing the view of education in her country, Minister Laasonen commented that: “Teaching is very highly regarded in Finland. Universities select only the best students to be teachers. They are given a lot of freedom and trust, as they are so well trained.”

To become a teacher in Finland takes around seven years, and requires a Master’s degree. On the other end of the scale, basic education for children lasts only around four hours per day, and all schools are publicly funded and publicly run. Those that are used to a six or even six-and-a-half-hour school day may baulk at the idea of such a short time for children to be at school, but it clearly works. Speaking to Marianne Huusko, Finland’s Ambassador for Education Export, she confirmed that the system works, and that the proof is in the pudding: “The gap between the highest and lowest performing schools in Finland is low,” she said. “Reading differences are at about 6%, whereas in the UK they are at 23%, and 30% in the US.”

So what is it about the system that makes it so special? You could argue that high taxes and a small population is the reason that Finland has such great education. But the way learning is integrated as a building block of Finnish society is what makes this small country a world-leader in education, and in happiness. For example, Finnish education is not under the burden of rankings or systemised inspections, which gives teachers much more space to experiment with curricula and learning approaches. This freedom is also extended to the students, who are not subjected to standardised testing, but are graded through portfolio-based assessments and competencies.

Akseli Huhtanen

During my time in Finland I was lucky enough to visit Omnia College, a vocational FE institution in Espoo. The college trains post-16 students in vocational subjects such as housebuilding, carpentry, fashion, and business and administration. Despite being a popular destination for school-leavers who prefer to follow a vocational career path (around half of 9th graders choose this path, confirmed Marianne Huusko), 50% of Omnia’s students are adult learners who are often already in work. Many of the learners at the college already have a BA or even an MA degree.

There is not a hierarchical view of academic and vocational learning in Finland as there is in the UK. As Marianne explained, “There is no dead-end in the Finnish educational system. Vocational learners can still go to university afterwards if they like.”

It helps that all higher education in Finland is completely free, and that even if you’re an adult in a full-time position, there are subsidies to help you pay for courses that may help you with your job, or even just interest you. There appear to be no barriers to learning in Finland, and technology plays a key part in its success.

Mervi Jansson, CEO of Omnia Education Partnerships explained that digital skills are a large part of the vocational programmes taught at the college, and that much of the administration of the grading-by-portfolio system relies on technology, such as the blogs that have been introduced to courses such as landscaping, in order for the students to track and document their learning process.

Omnia College

However, nowhere is entirely perfect, and Mervi did confirm that the gender gap in STEM subjects is also an issue in Finland. To try and overcome this, Omnia actively pushes gender equality in STEM, and tries to focus more on STEAM, to ensure a well-rounded education.

But it’s not just students that receive training in digital skills. Eight years ago, Omnia began digital citizenship classes for teachers, and much of the way they prepare their courses is done through technology. For example, one of the key factors in the ethos of education at Omnia (and, it appears, across Finland) is flexibility. Each student receives a personal study plan, and those who choose to split their learning between college and work, or learn entirely on-the-job, are required to have a work-based learning mentor, a relationship which can be maintained online.

Work-based learning, then, is also very highly regarded in the Finnish system, and companies are more than willing to be active in partnerships with schools and colleges. Omnia’s General Director, and former Deputy Mayor of Espoo, Sampo Suihko, explained that there are 2,500 companies involved in the everyday working of Omnia, and that SMEs are extremely important in employability in Finland. Omnia works with these SMEs to grow through human capital, and entrepreneurship is a part of all courses at the college.

Many of the adult learners at Omnia are also retraining, due to a desire to change career, or even because of redundancy caused by digitalisation and automation. On the importance of retraining for a changing and increasingly digital economy, Sampo said: “Nobody should be marginalised in Finland. We are a small country. We need everybody.”

This sentiment sums up the approach to learning in Finland, and is both encouraging and inspiring. Education isn’t about testing and league tables, it’s about learning. And that’s how it should be.