What Finland can teach China about education
May 1st, 2012
05:00 PM ET

What Finland can teach China about education

Editor's Note: Jiang Xueqin is a deputy principal at Peking University High School and the director of its International Division. The following post was originally published in The Diplomat, a stellar international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region. 

By Jiang Xueqin, The Diplomat

I’ve just finished a week visiting Finnish schools, and on my last day, while touring Finland’s best high school, I ran into China’s vice minister of education, who was spending the day in Helsinki looking at what China can learn from the world’s best K-12 school system.

If the vice minister were to ask me what parts of Finland’s education system I thought China could and should emulate (he didn’t) I’d tell him there were two things.

First is Finland’s pre-kindergarten system, in which children as young as nine months-old can attend until they are six. In each class, four university-educated teachers supervise about twenty children as they play sports, eat meals, and sleep together. This voluntary and pay-as-you-can daycare may seem costly, but it’s the best investment a society can make if it wants to ensure equality of opportunity for its children.

That’s because this daycare system helps close the achievement gap between rich and poor kids. Researchers at the University of Kansas have reported that by the time they are four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children raised in well-educated families, and this is as true in China as it is in the United States. Because Finnish children spend their day talking with and playing with university-educated professionals, it empowers them with such a large vocabulary that when they do start school they learn more quickly than their Western peers.

More important, this daycare system takes children who might be from violent and volatile homes, and puts them in a safe and predictable learning space.  Research has found that children whose parents can’t be trusted to put food on the table (or to even just be present) will develop long-term issues with self-esteem and self-control, leading to poor test scores and relationship issues.

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The second thing that I think China can emulate is Finnish education’s emphasis on empathy, which starts at daycare.  From the moment they enter school, Finnish children are taught to help each other, and to appreciate difference and diversity.  Students as young as 14 years-old can define for me that empathy is “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and knowing how he or she thinks and feels” because they’re taught that by their parents and teachers, and given the space to develop it by playing with their friends, dating, and working part-time. Cultural sensitivity is as much a national pride as self-reliance and Nokia, and English textbooks emphasize tolerance as much as syntax.

Empathy is an education imperative because Finns want first and foremost a polite and orderly society. But empathy can also lead to an innovation economy. It permits Finns to work together, and to understand and access foreign markets. Emotional intelligence also often leads to creativity, something that China is desperately searching for now.

Unfortunately, China’s vice minister of education didn’t see Finland’s focus on equity and empathy while he was in Helsinki.

The school where I ran into the vice minister’s delegation is considered the top school in Finland, producing many of the nation’s doctors, lawyers, and professors.  It lets in only the nation’s best students, focuses on preparing them for the college entrance exams, wins more international science and math competitions than any other school in Finland, and offers the elite International Baccalaureate program.

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In a chemistry classroom, a teacher told the vice minister that her students did at least two hours of homework a day (most Finnish high school students I’ve spoken with don’t do any), and the vice minister paid the students the highest compliment:  “I only wish that Chinese students could work as hard as you!”  The students laughed proudly.

The student council president joined us during the tour, and asked me what I thought of the school, and I said that the school seemed too academic and too conservative. He replied that the problem is that Finland’s college entrance exam rewarded rote memorization.  Once he and his classmates graduated from high school, they had half a year to memorize five thick textbooks. There was so much new information to memorize that everyone in the school had to pay good money to learn test-taking strategies from cram courses. (An alternative to all this is to do what most Finnish students actually do, and just not care.)

Can You Teach Democracy?

Then and there, it dawned on me the irony of the situation: The Chinese vice minister had traveled nine hours by plane to find himself in a Finnish school that most resembles a school he could have just walked to from his office.

There was one major difference, however.  The vice minister asked the principal if the school had an entrance examination, and the principal replied that the 180 students were admitted each year based on their grade point average in junior high school – and that’s it.

And that’s it?  For any one who’s worked in Chinese education, this answer can only raise more questions: What do you do about guanxi (network of relationships)? How do you know their GPAs are real?  What if 10,000 kids apply with perfect school records?

The Sad Truth of China’s Education

What the vice minister didn’t understand is that most Finnish parents would rather have their child drop out of school than have him or her attend an institution that motivates students to chase high test scores.  When a junior high principal heard I was about to visit Finland’s best school, she blurted out, “That school has five suicides a year!”  That, of course, wasn’t true, but during my visit when I asked a teacher if the school was as truly stressful and competitive as people say, she replied, “Well, not so much as ten years ago.”

After the vice minister and his delegation left, I had a roundtable discussion with students, and they told me they were concerned that Helsinki was cutting back funding to high schools, including theirs. That means that, during high school, they will no longer take courses at the University of Helsinki, and advanced level physics and math. They told me that Finland’s success on international tests like the PISA was making the country complacent.

What US Fiscal Woes Teach China

I didn’t tell them this, but I think that Finns care about the problems of elite students even less than they care about PISA. What the Finns fundamentally believe is that the best students have so many advantages that they don’t need any more, and that’s why Finns are cutting back funding to their elite schools, but not to their daycare system.

This is an attitude that China’s vice premier would have benefited from hearing. Unfortunately, because of the school he visited, he could only come away all the more convinced of the deep-rooted Chinese belief that national school systems are secretly like China’s if they’re any good, or secretly want to be like China’s if they’re not.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jiang Xueqin.

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Topics: China • Education

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soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Finland gained strength after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, which allowed it to step out of the Cold War shadow. It joined the E.U. in 1995 soon after its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union became void in 1991,

    May 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      It spends heavily on education, training and research – investment which pays dividends by producing one of the world's best-qualified workforces.

      May 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
      • D.S.C.

        You are so right. Kids are the future. They are the future leaders of the nation. They are the ones that are going to replace the retiring folks.

        May 2, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • J.Kemppainen

      Our education system had nothing to do with the Iron Curtain. In the 60's my dad, as a teacher, was developping (among many others) a system that was uniform and open to all. They were successful. We have a tradition of caring for our children from prenatal care to university degrees... And it works.
      You can tie foreign politics to most everything, but not this one.
      BUT here is the REAL challenge! Giving everything to a child like this creates a notion of easy life to these youngsters. We are creating a generation of youth that now expect the society (and their parents) to care for them for the rest of their lives.AND that's the challenge.

      May 2, 2012 at 2:33 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Finland opened up more for Europe after the Fall of the Iron Curtain and has been prospering since the E.U. membership. I know Finland pretty well. We are neighbours.

        May 2, 2012 at 3:28 am |
      • Tuula

        Even in the 50s and 60s, the Finnish education system was quite wonderful if you really wanted to learn. I went through it and am still grateful for the privilege even if I live in another part of the world now. Thank you, Finland!

        May 2, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • D.Bose

      USSR used to spend heavily on education for all. Education was free at all levels with excellent day care centre for children, elite schools from brightests, excellent universities, with very high standard.
      Finland was benefited from that for a long time along with all East European countries.
      since 1991, Finland perhaps is following Anglo-american system, which even Russia today is following. As a result the academic standards are going down.

      May 2, 2012 at 4:41 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        I think meritocracy is the name of the game almost everywhere, except in Sweden. My experience of learning there was highly inspirational. I learnt not to pass the exams but for the sake of knowledge.

        May 2, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
      • Hannu

        To D Bose: Finland was never part of Sovjet bloc, please read the history. We kept them out in WW2 and our President Kekkonen was a key person to help the East bloc to go down. Pls ask Henry Kissinger of this if you do not believe.

        May 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  2. Dihan

    Nice one learn about...It..Thx

    May 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  3. dory.rama@yahoo.com

    To be honest, I doubt copying Finland's system can help China in the immediate term. Finland is a small prosperous country with vast resources per capita which it can use to provide the level of education that make its sytem produce the best students in Europe. It has been proven that when Chinese cities have similar resources, they can even outscore Finland's, like Hong Kong and Shanghai.

    May 2, 2012 at 2:43 am |
  4. Dan in Hong Kong

    I don't think the author has ever been to China and if so didn't pay much attention. There certainly are not 4 university graduates for every 20 children.

    May 2, 2012 at 4:35 am |
  5. jack

    so beautiful arc. but you can also tech ten child on one techer. I think in china there are more question .but , the edu is will more butter. i believe. http://www.zydairymachine.com

    May 2, 2012 at 4:58 am |

    Finland also can teach a lot US about education.
    Please see the article iBy Paul Frysh, CNN, August 31, 2011).

    May 2, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  7. panda

    they can teach how to take a bath

    May 2, 2012 at 6:24 am |
  8. moola

    good article..nt only china shud learn about finnish system bt usa and countries in africa lyk zambia, if we are to see meanful future development

    May 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  9. Tahir

    Chinese students are very good at all world universities. I think world should learn from china and not from Finland.China is No 1 without loans only due to its great leaders policies.Long live dictatorship.

    May 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  10. medhat

    this site is very good to learn english for free

    May 2, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  11. 100% ETHIO

    In Finland, it's good, Children under the ages of Six, spend most of their time with University educated professionals. But, in China, how many Hundreds of Millions under the ages of Six will spend with University educated professionals? We can not compare, the incomparable.

    And also, the populations of Finland is 5.5Million. But, the populations of China is, as you know.
    Having few Students per Classroom is also, the best way for Students, which Finland could afford, but China can't.

    May 2, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
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