Finnish Education Export

This concept of education export sounded strange to me upon first reading the term. The idea that intangible methodologies, personnel expertise, or curricular prowess could, in fact, be sold or traded across international boundaries was baffling. Marimekko? Nokia? Yes, these I have heard of as exports. But education? A week-long pursuit of all things Finnish education in the lovely cities of Helsinki, Kauniainen, Espoo, and Sipoo proved to illuminate the mystery of how a nation could export their world-renowned education system.

Our first visit was to Kauniainen, an upper middle-class suburb outside of Helsinki. As we perused the halls and classrooms to see diligent and astute learners and teachers creating and facilitating learning opportunities that were mostly in the hands of the students, we were met with an overwhelming sense of a community of trust and high expectations. Students were seated at 21st-century designed furniture, using HP laptops for research and word processing. There were Finnish language classes for native Swedes, Swedish language classes for native Finns, and immersion classes for immigrants with a range of other native heritage languages. Language and culture are celebrated, while at the same time the two national languages of Finnish and Swedish were thoroughly embraced as the dominant lingua.

Our next visit was to Espoo, a booming tech and migrant town that is the second largest city in all of Finland. Though Finland still has only a small portion of immigrants whose first languages expand beyond 40 in total, we had the pleasure of visiting a school that had a relatively large population of immigrant students. After a one year intensive program for new immigrants to adjust and assimilate to Finland, these students were immersed into the lower secondary ranks of shop and cooking classes in addition to their Finnish language immersion. Espoo has made concerted efforts to support their newcomers through a mandatory minimum of 2 hours per week of instruction from a credentialed teacher in the native languages of students who speak languages other than Finnish or Swedish.

We had a final school visit to Sipoo, the fastest growing town in Finland. The town of 20,000 was growing at around 600 new inhabitants per year. They expected to double the size of their lower secondary schools in the next five years. These schools were interesting. Reminiscent of separate but equal legislation, two schools sat adjacent, one a Finnish language medium school and one a Swedish language medium school. The Finns were expected to learn Swedish (and English and another language, if they chose), while the Swedes were expected to learn Finnish as their second language, in addition to other world languages. Class sizes were incredibly small, ranging from 12-16 students per classroom. Strikingly, the use of physical space in the classrooms, from mobile desks and tables to collaborative setups, cell phone charging stations to pull down tech hubs, and whiteboard walls and projectors, the equipment and teacher attention accessible to students was unmatched.

Finland, I am grateful to have been able to experience your education export. I now understand why Finnish education schools are growing rapidly in Africa and the Gulf Region. I embrace your trajectory to spread your education research, trust, and model to all stretches of the globe, from South America to Mexico. If there was one resounding theme for the week, besides the what and how of education export, it was trust. I presume we can never underestimate the fundamental notion of trust within an organization or ecosystem in pursuit of building a world-class anything. Principals trust teachers, teachers trust principals, students and parents trust teachers, and the community trusts the system. Thank you for the lessons, Finland.

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