Ask a group of teachers from Saudi Arabia what they knew about Finland before coming here, and they answer with one word: “Nokia”.
Six months ago, one hundred Saudi teachers came to Finland, for a full immersion into the local education system, and hopefully take back some fresh ideas to their own classrooms.
So why would teachers from Saudi Arabia choose Finland in the first place?
“Finland is an interesting destination for many other countries because it has almost the opposite education culture and practice compared to those much better-known education systems” says Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.
“The fact that Finnish children spend less time in school, differences between schools are relatively small, and the teaching profession is very popular among young Finns further elevates education in the list of benchmarking targets” says Sahlberg.
Many of the Saudi teachers come with their families, so in total, more than 400 people arrived in Finland to take part in the programme, and more than half of the teachers are placed in Espoo schools like Etelä Tapiola High School.
They spend their time observing Finnish classroom lessons – although they don’t do any teaching themselves – attending workshops and discussions, and going to Helsinki University classes one day per week. They observe everyday life for students at the school, from class council elections to sports.
And they’ve already been learning some important lessons.
“We noticed two big things, cooperative and collaborative learning; and also student motivation” says English-language teacher Nayif al-Aamry.
There was a lot of competition to land a place on the Finnish programme. Saudi teachers had to have a minimum of five years experience, pass language exams, and an interview as well. When they return, they’re expected to mentor five other teachers in turn, to pass on some of the things they learned in Finland.
Al-Aamry explains that in Saudi schools, the emphasis is on teachers standing at the front of the class, lecturing, and covering the work in the text books “from cover to cover”. He sees that as an opportunity for change.
“The top things I learned here in Finland, and that I would want to transfer to my country […] how to teach our students skills, instead of just focus on content”. says al-Aamry.
He is interested to make learning in Saudi Arabia more fun, particularly through gamification, something he’s observed in Tapiola.
“Students are more motivated here and they have a good desire to study, and to research, and a desire to read more and more” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, the visiting teachers found a lot of common ground between the education systems in the two countries.
Like Finland, Saudi schools are funded by the Ministry of Education, and pupils are provided with their text books and classroom supplies. Education is free, and compulsory until age 18 in Saudi Arabia.
There’s a school meal system in Saudi Arabian state schools that wouldn’t seem completely unfamiliar to Finnish pupils either. Lunches are provided at low cost, but any student who can’t afford to pay gets a waiver.
And in both countries, teaching is considered to be a good profession, according to the Saudis.
One of the main differences the teachers note is that while in Saudi Arabia all aspects of the curriculum are decided centrally, Finnish teachers have a lot of flexibility and autonomy when it comes to planning their own lessons in the classroom
And of course the other major difference between the two systems is that while some children in Saudi primary schools are taught in mixed gender classrooms these days, at high school level there is a strict separation between the boys and girls.
“We were born into this culture, and we are used to it” says Ashwaq al-Khader, who teaches chemistry to girls.
“If we mix it, it is going to be a little bit strange for us” she adds.
Girls’ maths teacher Abeer al-Jhamdi agrees “there is no disadvantage” to their segregated system – although concedes she thinks boys do better at maths.
The male teachers think the same. They all say the boys concentrate more when they are taught together. And they note that separation happens anyway even in Finnish mixed classrooms.
“In classes they separate, they girls are sitting together, and the boys are sitting together [in Finland] ” says maths teacher Abdusalam al-Sulmi.
So the teachers from Saudi Arabia see only advantages to teaching segregated classrooms; while their mentor from Etelä Tapiola High School Marjut Sadeharju sees only advantages to teaching in mixed classrooms.
Turning the question around, neither can see disadvantages to their own systems, although Sadeharju says there are many other attributes that define student success apart from gender – she lists their home life background, commitment to learning and motivation in the classroom as factors.
Finland has spent much of the last decade burnishing its reputation as a country of educational excellence – largely based on stellar OECD PISA Test results.
The PISA Tests are a global study of how 15 year olds are doing in different countries on reading, maths and science.
It’s true that Finland was once riding high in those rankings, but it’s not the case any more.
In the most recent 2015 PISA Test results, Finland ranked 13th in maths – below fellow European countries like Estonia, Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland.
The same results also saw Finland place 5th in maths – again, behind Estonia.
And only in reading did Finland come out the top European country in 4th place, slightly ahead of Ireland and Estonia.
Pasi Sahlberg points out that the PISA results used to be intended as a sort of educational ‘health check’ but they turned into a fierce competition between countries, who try to make changes to their education system just to boost the ranking place. Finland hasn’t succumbed to this impulse, and anyway says Sahlberg, the difference between 7th and 13th place on the PISA rankings “often is statistically insignificant”.
Reading & Budget Alert
While Finnish educators have avoided impulsive quick fixes in response to PISA rankings, the story behind falling reading scores does cause concern.
“One significant problem we have now is rapidly declined reading habits and thereby literacy levels among teenage boys” explains Pasi Sahlberg.
“We are now obsessed about digital leap, coding and flipped classrooms as something that will equip children to succeed in their future lives. There should be clearer emphasis on bring reading books back to daily lives of boys. In my desired school in the future all kids will play outdoors, learn empathy, and read books as a normal part of the culture of the school” he says.
Another concern within the education system has been massive budget cuts, especially from the current government.
The plans to evolve Finland’s education system are “threatened by continuous declining budgets”, according to Sahlberg, who has written several best-selling books about Finland’s education system, and tours extensively internationally talking about it.
“All the planned changes would require increased investments to succeed. More children with special needs without sufficient support, shrinking resources for school and teacher development, and larger class sizes all make success more unlikely” he says.