I have taught abroad in the past in three different countries. I like to think it has given me an additional perspective on my teaching and the confidence to question ideas which are sometimes presented as the last word in pedagogy by someone who has only taught in the UK.
The problem we have when comparing another country’s system with ours is that observers and researchers of another country’s system bring their own prejudices to that task. We all jump with delight if we observe something which seems to fit with our own ideas and prejudices and ignore the things that don’t. Consequently, when looking at Finland, those with a progressive viewpoint highlight the late starting age of formal education, the lack of standardised tests, the relaxed relationships between pupils and teachers. Those with a more traditional viewpoint highlight the greater use of textbooks, greater frequency of whole class teaching and lack of cluttered display work on the walls.
One phenomenon I have observed over thirty years is that those with the progressive viewpoint always try to claim that other countries are looking towards progressive practices in the UK and are anxious to learn from us. When teaching in the Far East in the 1980s I remember reading articles from UK educators stating that the Japanese were anxious to learn from us and move their pedagogy in a more “progressive” direction. The implication was that there was no point in our looking towards them; after all they were looking to us! It is somewhat arrogant to claim that, if other countries are looking towards the UK, then the UK has no need of looking towards them. Incidentally, thirty years on, I see no evidence that Japan has adopted progressive practices, even if their educationalists take an interest in UK developments. Lisa Pettifer’s article in the TES, “A land where teachers roam free” (30th October 2015), seemed another rehash of the same non argument – look at how Finland is moving towards ideas such as cross curricular themes, digital technology and group work! Therefore, the implication runs, we should not be moving away from them ourselves and we have nothing to learn from countries which are generally considered to have a more traditional approach.
I have not visited Finland myself and do not claim to know much about their education system. However, I invite you to try a small experiment. Google Image “British primary school classroom” and look at the seating arrangements in the different images. Then do the same for “Finnish primary school classroom”. Surprise, surprise, it does not seem to be a “sine qua non” in Finland to seat primary children in groups around blocks of tables and (shock, horror!) some classrooms have them in rows facing the front! I’m not claiming that this is a scientific study, or that it proves that Finland generally has a more traditional approach to teaching than in the UK. However, I would suggest that, judging by these images, Finnish elementary schoolteachers have more flexibility in deciding the seating arrangements for their classes than is the case for their counterparts in the UK. Perhaps the absence of a dogmatic approach is the lesson we can take from Finland…..