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Monday, October 7, 2013

Setting Up a Finnish School in the Home

The issue of private tuition has again come to the forefront after a senior education official pronounced in parliament that the Singapore education system is "run on the basis that tuition is not necessary". Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education, added that schools provide "comprehensive levelling-up programmes" as well as remedial and supplementary classes to support weaker students. In the days that followed, mainstream and social media agencies were abuzz with reports from parents and students alike, many of whom disagreed with Ms Indranee's assessment of the education scene. They argued that private tuition is already a multi-million dollar industry, and that its very existence disputes notions that tuition is unnecessary.

From the perspective of an educator in Singapore, I can understand the comments made by the Senior Minister of State, especially since it is the responsibility of the Education Ministry to teach our school children. However I cannot ignore my concurrent role as a parent of two young children. A parent would always want the best for his or her children. As such, since the Singapore state places such a high priority on grades and assessments, it is only natural for parents to also desire private tuition, especially if such an endeavour is seen to improve the academic standing of their children. The private tuition scene in Singapore is therefore a direct response to the grades-directed approach of the education system, which emphasises success for those who perform well in the key national examinations.  

Consider an alternative education system. 

Finland in the 1960s possessed an education system not unlike the Singapore system today. There was a standardised national test for children at the age of 11; and from there the top 25 per cent of students would be streamed to expensive private schools. 

But things changed drastically in the mid-1970s, with the scrapping of private schools and the postponement of the national streaming examination to the age of 16. Among other changes were a reduction of class size to 25, and the removal of standardised tests, allowing teachers to assess students based on their own tests rather than on large-scale examinations. To raise the teaching standard, pre-school teachers were made to undergo a three-year degree course; while teachers in the primary and secondary schools had then to study for a five-year programme ending in a masters.

Today Finland is one of the leading experts in the field of education, with international assessments ranking the Nordic state as one of the top in the world in terms of student performance in reading, mathematics and science.

And hardly anyone in Finland understands the alien concept of tuition.

[Source: "Learning - the Finnish WayThe Sunday Times, 29 Sep 2013]

In a recent Facebook update, my lovely wife declared, "Ideas, ideas, ideas! Looking forward to our next 18 years of homeschooling. School can and will be fun!" 

We are serious in our decision to homeschool our children. And we are intending to take a leaf from the Finnish.

Painting. One of Z's favourite activities.
He is seen here learning about different paint textures.
In Finland, pre-schools operate according to a play-based curriculum, which experts believe to be the key towards unlocking cognitive development in children. For instance, Finnish Professor Lasse Lipponen says that such a curriculum stimulates "physical, social-emotional, and creative development". The Helsinki University educator also insists that free play nurtures creativity and independence, and that children must decide which game to play, what the rules should be, and also wait to take turns.

I recently talked with my wife on the state of our homeschooling programme, and what future direction it could take. We acknowledge that for us, things are still at the very beginning, and that there could be many options ahead we could consider. However we would like to proceed with a literature-based curriculum that encourages creativity and independent learning, coupled with lots of opportunities for learning through play.

Why a literature-based curriculum? 

Numerous studies show that there is a strong co-relation between reading and success in life. Reading not only develops a child's vocabulary, grammar and knowledge of the world around, it also helps a child to think logically and has a positive impact on brain development. And it is not enough to only relegate reading to the school-going years. In fact, it is crucial for children to be exposed to reading as early as possible. An interesting article examining the impact of independent reading on academic success can be found here.

From our perspective, a literature-based curriculum can encompass as much breadth and depth as we choose it to have. In this sense, we choose from a wide-array of "living books" (defined by educationalist Charlotte Mason as books that are written by a person who not only possesses a passion for the subject, but who chooses to write it in a conversational or narrative style). We are then able to expound on the book, using it to teach as much or as little as we choose.


Matching terrain types in the book with
personal experiences from Z's Japan trip.
My wife has been doing extensive research on what type of literature-based curriculum to use during the next stage of our homeschooling adventure. We have so far been using the Before Five in a Row series, intended for early childhood education. The series has the stated intention of opening up a child's world of learning through great books and creative play. Our 3-year-old Z has been enjoying his learning thoroughly, and we believe that he has gained much from the experience. 

For instance, one of his favourite books is We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. Sue capitalised on our recent Japan trip, pasting photos of places that Z had seen, and used these photos to teach him about the different terrains explored in the book. She then took advantage of the book's themes, to explore the alphabet and to teach Z that "B" is for "Bear". While preparing for the lessons I helped to do research on the different types of bears, and in the process spent quite some time getting side-tracked and learning many things about bears on my own accord! 

The verdict - the lesson was a resounding success and our son was able to recite many lines from the book for a period of time. He was also able to appreciate the different aspects of terrain, and point them out to us during our regular hikes. During such moments you know you've done something right, and it only inspires you to want to do more!


Z's interpretation of the "deep dark forest",
with the blue skies depicted above the green trees.
The crux of the Finnish education system is that it promotes play at the heart of pre-school education. Finnish educationalists emphasise the concept of "free play", during which children are free to craft their personal learning experiences. This is in sharp contrast to the concept of "purposeful play" practiced in Singapore, which involves teachers guiding children to make meaning out of their experiences. In addition, Finnish children do not start learning formally about alphabets and numbers until the age of 7, unlike Singapore children, who are drilled in the concepts as early as they enter any early learning facility.

We are still in the process of setting up our home such that it encourages a conducive environment for free play. This is especially difficult given the constraints of a small living space in Singapore. We however take our children often to the various parks, and in the process hope that they learn to craft their own personal play experiences. Z has in the meantime developed a strong love for make-believe play, often offering to buy food at our in-house "supermarket" and to cook meals for me using his toy cooking set. And his favourite experiences building blocks involve the construction of a huge water-play playground, not unlike what he experiences while at the zoo or at the Science Centre.

Our homeschooling journey is only at its infancy. What we hope to create, however, is a happy learning environment where our children can play to their hearts' content, setting the pace for their own learning experiences, while at the same time enjoying the company of other friends who are also walking with us along the same path. In our school there will be no homework and no tuition. After all when children choose to learn and enjoy what they learn, there will no longer be any tangible need to "drill" them into achieving academic success. We believe our children will excel naturally in such an environment; and they can then use whatever extra time they have to pursue any personal interests they may develop. 

In the words of my favourite educationalist Charlotte Mason - 

“The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”