Our Finnish Obsession

By Kwan Jin Yao

“For most students here, we should aspire to the Finnish or Swiss system, do with less tuition and more time to think out of the box as well as develop the courage to venture forth” (Singapore Should Aspire to Finnish, Swiss Education Systems, Mr. Edward Tay Wee Meng.)

We are familiar with the criticisms levied against Singapore’s education system: that it is too stressful, that it is too competitive, and that the emphasis on rote memorisation and regurgitation for national examinations is unhealthy. In his letter Mr. Edward Tay Wee Meng also pointed to the ubiquity of tuition, that Singapore “has tuition even for sports” (TODAY, Sept. 15). His solution? For Singapore to aspire “to the Finnish or Swiss [education] system”.

Yet, besides a few spurious suggestions on examinations and creativity, Mr. Tay stops short of the details.

There appears to be a predilection to raise the Finnish example in public discussions without consideration for the details of education policies. Last year throughout the Our Singapore Conversation sessions, especially those organised by the Ministry of Education, whenever participants were asked about improvements to the education system in Singapore, “let Singapore be like Finland” was a common reply. But missing in these responses were the “whats” and “hows”: what approaches can Singapore adopt from Finland, and the implications for educators? How can we compare the strengths and weaknesses of the systems? Are we concerned with the elementary and high school system, or the universities?

There appears to be a predilection to raise the Finnish example in public discussions without consideration for the details of education policies.

Specificity matters. Some have called for teachers in Singapore – like their Finnish counterparts – to obtain master’s degrees, even though they have performed well without it. According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey earlier this year, it seems that the large principal- and teacher-to-student ratios are bigger concerns. Some have egged Singapore to emulate the egalitarianism of elementary schools in Finland, but forget the sparse geographical distribution of cities in the latter, therefore allowing for greater diversity within the schools. Some hold Finland’s education system as the gold standard, yet overlook its less-than-stellar performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2012, and that Finland’s polytechnics and universities are going through a period of reform for its economy and competitiveness. Not unlike Singapore, with its ASPIRE initiative.

We do not shun the Finland case study. Instead, we use it more deliberately – and fairly.

Persistence in broad, superficial contrasts, without taking into account characteristics of the countries and the specifics of their education system, will not enrich the discourse. And even as we look abroad for inspiration, let us look to Singapore for action and implementation.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 15 September 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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Ng Eng Han, you've got no right to cite the Finnish education system