We had the distinct pleasure of meeting Ilkka Kurkela from the University of Helsinki (HY+) back in March at the Global Teacher Prize event in Dubai. The University of Helsinki is amongst the 20 best universities in Europe and within the top 100 universities in the world.

Ilkka is the head of Customized Education Programs of HY+ which focuses on continuing education. We reached out to him for this interview after reading in the news about the ground-breaking training the University is providing to the country of Saudi Arabia tooling it’s local teachers with Methodologies and skillsets from the very best educators of Finland. 

Finland is continuously ranked as having one of the best educational systems of the world.

Here is our interview:

Tell us up to 5 things that makes the Finland education system (when it comes to educating youths) competitively different and as a result secured it’s ranking amongst the top countries for youths to be educated.

Thank you so much for this opportunity. Finnish education highlights at least these issues:

  • Learning is based on interaction and dialogue (instead of traditional one-way communication – teacher->student). Finnish education is learning and student centered – instead of teaching or teacher centered. Highly educated teachers can adapt their teaching according to the needs of different students. As learning is seen as students’ activity, teachers’ task is to find ways to engage students in learning activities. In other words, instead of “delivering” teaching, Finns are concentrated in enhancing learning.
  • Reasonable balance between classroom action and homework
  • Master’s degree is required of everyone who works as a teacher in basic education Finland. Our teachers are thus highly educated and they are trusted experts in their field. – It is as hard (or even harder) to get to study education at a university as to get in to study medicine or law! Teachers’ profession is very highly appreciated in Finland.
  • Learning is focusing increasingly towards real-life cases and examples
  • Mandatory breaks for outdoor-play in schools: 15 minutes of fresh air makes your brain more effective!

Is there a typical profile of a typical teacher in Finland (age, education, salary range, social standing, what draw them to profession etc.)? How does this differ from teachers around the globe?

Teacher’s profession in Finland is highly appreciated. We consider teachers among the persons who are influencing to the most important – our children. The age of teachers vary a lot and their education backgrounds as well. To get a permanent position as a teacher in K12 education, the teacher has to have a Master’s degree. In K1-K6 they are Masters in Educational Sciences. In K7-K12 the teachers have Masters majoring in their teaching subjects (e.g., Maths, Foreign languages, Arts) plus have completed a Minor in Education Sciences (teacher’s pedagogical studies). I guess that in global comparison Finnish teachers are very inspired to change the world for the better by helping out students. Teachers are also very highly appreciated experts. We trust our children in their hands. 

We recently read about Saudi Arabia sending 100 teachers and their families to Finland for teacher training. Tell us a little about this collaboration. 

This is a huge opportunity for both countries to share learnings and deepen cooperation. We have been planning this for over a year now, and we are happy to see the daylight this spring. We have had earlier cooperation as well, but this is the first time when our cooperation is at this scale. We hope to give the Saudi Arabian teachers mentoring in practical schoolwork, knowhow in pedagogical training, and also training in English to traverse the language barrier.

The Saudi teachers coming to Finland are highly experienced professionals, but they still very motivated to learn from the Finnish experience. The ultimate goal is to look for best practices and adapt them in Saudi schools when they return home. This Saudi teachers’ engagement ensures the sustainability in this project. We believe that success in this project will include exchange of ideas, cultural understanding, and pedagogical training. Of course we can offer similar projects for other countries as well.

How long does it take to become a teacher in Finland? Also, what type of continuing education and training are mandatory and voluntary for teachers in Finland and what is the offering at FI? Include in approx. cost of education and if covered by Gov’t or individually.

It takes approximately 5 years to obtain a Master’s degree in Education Sciences at a university. This is required of the Primary School teachers (K1-K6 levels). Secondary school teachers (subject teachers) make their Master’s in their own subject PLUS make teachers’ pedagogical studies (60 ECTS) at a Teacher Education Department at a university.

Professional teachers (e.g., in vocational education) have degrees and working experience in their own fields PLUS Professional Teacher Training (60 ECTS), typically at a university of applied sciences. Ilkka did his professional teacher studies as an online education in one year and really enjoyed it. Kirsi made her studies as a 1,5 year blended learning programme that included 1-3 days contact sessions about once a month.

There are several ways of updating the teaching skills as continuing education. For example in HY+ we have thousands of people attending courses and training sessions annually. Some of the costs are covered by government and some are to be payed individually. If you wish to get to know more I really recommend to take part in one of our Eduvisits –sessions at University of Helsinki.

What are the 3 biggest mistakes being made with teacher training that you are aware of and gotten around/found solutions for with your teacher training system in Finland?

Hmm. That is a hard but interesting question. Let’s see. First, I would say that the biggest mistake that a teacher (or teacher training) can do is to try to “throw the information” AT the students – wrong pedagogical style. The solution to this is rather learn WITH the students. That is why the importance of dialogue is increasingly important. The contents of the lectures/courses are often co-created with the students. One of my good friends gave a TED talk around this issue, Kyla Mitsunaga.

That brings to the second mistake that I believe we have solved. We are no longer in solitary. These days we are very open minded and global minded – we believe that learning together with teachers across the globe is the key to success and developing our teacher training.

Third – we are no longer afraid to use technology in our teaching. I believe that more and more teachers are excited to test out new online learning platforms. This requires courage, something that every teacher should have 😉

Would you consider education export a significant contributor to Finland’s economy? If yes, how? If not, how can it become a significant contributor?

Most definitely! We believe that this is the future of Finland’s success. We hope that the good practices of Finnish education can be spread globally as wide as possible. We are happy to be in part of this process. We believe, that education is the passport to the new global citizens that we are raising. Education can also make the world a better place and enhance social development. Thanks for this possibility!


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1 Comment

  1. Samuel Strann

    June 16, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    Very good information and I hope that the ministry of education can invest in the teachers and principals of this country.

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