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Finglish- A year at Qatar Finland International School

Neel Shah's picture

Most of you with a keen interest in education will have heard of the Finnish educational phenomenon. A country of 6 million people who have produced an education system which is regularly punching way above its weight and is considered one of the best in the world.

Most articles you see on the internet talk about the Finnish education system as a whole. A wider perspective on what the whole country is doing. What I’d like to do is offer an alternative view from an outsider, a snapshot of an international and truly global school with a Finnish flavor.

In many ways we aren’t a typical Finnish school. Firstly because we aren’t covered in snow, ice or complete darkness during the year and secondly because of the nature of our truly global community. Students are enrolled from over 50 countries and as well as the core group of Masters Educated Finnish class teachers, we have staff from a dozen other countries. Class sizes are small. My largest class this year is 21 students and the maximum capacity of a class is 24 (not including the children of staff).

How would I sum up the Finnish approach from my perspective working within the British system? Asides from the copious amounts of coffee being brewed in the staff room and the occasional parcels of licorice from Finland, on the surface level, if you were to come to our school for a day, you may see a lot of things in common with other international schools. However, if you look beneath the surface you begin to see what makes this school different to many others.

Every teacher has a great degree of flexibility to interpret the curriculum in a way that best suits their students. In fact, a new curriculum is being introduced in Finnish schools from this September and we have all taken part in a curriculum redesign to help apply this in an international school setting.

What’s noticeable is the lack of fear factor in approaching management at the school and a great deal of trust is put into teacher’s ability to do their jobs professionally. It is this atmosphere that leads to a teaching staff who go to school with full confidence in their abilities each day and this really shows with their classes.

Something else that’s been very noticeable is how the school really makes an effort to combine cross-curricular themes. It’s often talked about in the UK as an ideal and a benchmark and a great idea if you can do it. The reality is the pressure of OFSTED inspections means this may happen when the inspector comes to town but for the rest of the year is strangled beneath a pile of paperwork and other issues.

It is incredible what can be achieved if you trust your workforce to do the job you’ve employed them to do. It sounds like simple, common sense but seems to be a viewpoint that isn’t applied as often as you would expect. Our school is living proof of what can be achieved if you put your faith in your biggest assets.

At QFIS, this really happens on a daily basis. Just to name one of dozens of examples, healthy eating as a topic in grade 3 was taught via the means of fruit arrangement portraits in art, the calorie count in science and students using their photography and creative writing skills to talk about their individual lunchboxes.

This is all well and good but if you’re a prospective parent, I’m sure you want to know what the children get up to all day. Some people may have told you that students have a break after every lesson and are never given any homework or tests. If this sounds frightening to you then it should because that’s not the case at all! However, it is true that children at the school get 2 half an hour breaks as well as a lunch break and 15 minutes in the afternoon. It’s also true that children are not given excessive homework. Yes, it’s true that students will not have a formal assessment in Finland until the age of 17 but the onus is on the teacher to provide continual feedback on student progress across the year.

It seems counter intuitive that students being given less work to do at home and less study time at school would be core components of a successful strategy, but it’s a proven part of the Finnish educational philosophy that has reaped huge rewards in terms of student achievement. Compared to any other school I’ve worked in, students come into lessons more alert and focused, having had the chance to stretch their wings and let off steam during the day. I’ve also noticed the quality of homework I receive is of a high standard as we’ve emphasized quality over quantity.

As with many other progressive schools, we consider ourselves ‘student centred’. It’s a nice phrase that gets thrown around a lot in education circles but is often overlooked in the quest for higher test scores and other external pressures.

In practice, we do try to accommodate learners as much as possible. For example, we have several students who are very active to say the least. One solution to support them in their learning is to allow them to sit on something akin to a giant ball. It makes little noise and doesn’t obstruct the rest of the class but it has had an enormous benefit to those students who struggle to sit still in a formal classroom setting. In many respects, physical activity is a key theme across the school, with station work a regular feature of conventional pen and paper subjects like maths.

The student population at our school are a lovely bunch. It’s a wonderful experience to have seen students speaking barely a word of English at the beginning of the year and then overhearing them bossing around their friends on the playground a term later. They are also a technologically savvy group, as comfortable with Ipads and computers as we are with a pen and paper. Despite not considering myself as old or ancient when I started here (at the age of 31) I am one of the old fogeys who didn’t know what a Youtuber was or how to build up an army on clash of clans. Some of them also looked bemused when I shared a time before the internet and had to repeat myself when I explained that people used to have one phone in their whole house that was glued to a wall.

Bearing in mind our Finnish teachers are teaching all day in their second or third language, they make it look far easier than it actually is and provide a valuable perspective for non-native English speakers as they once went through learning the English language in the same way themselves.

The answer to the question ‘What is the Finnish approach?’ I must admit, still eludes me. It’s a conversation that’s come up numerous times with my Finnish colleagues. Everyone I ask, I get a different answer. Although my favourite answer comes from a famous Finnish proverb: ‘Toimii kuin junan vessa’.Roughly translated in English it means that ‘It works like a train toilet’. For those of us used to the state of British intercity trains that may not seem like much of a compliment but in Finland it represents a clear and concrete ideal we are working towards. An efficient and well run school that does the job it sets out to do.  It’s a wonderful expression that encapsulates the inherent practicality and common sense of the Finnish people.  I will end on one final Finnish proverb which best sums up how we treat each other in the school community and for me, the most important value of all.

Niin metsä vastaa kuin sinne huudetaan.

(The forest answers in the same way one shouts at it)

- Neel Shah, English Language Teacher in Qatar-Finland International School