Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saudis Could Take Lessons from Finnish Schools!

It's not a big secret that people think the Saudi public schooling system sucks. Even the Saudis complain about the system all the time. Some have called it one of the worst in the world. It's mostly bashed for being tied to rote learning and for an over-emphasis on religious studies but the criticism doesn't stop there.

Recently King Abdullah has made an effort to start improving the Saudi education system. He launched the public education development program: The King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Project for Developing Public Education.
The project consists of four parts: developing teachers skills, developing curricula, enhancing school activities and improving school environment. The Saudis have also been looking to other countries for examples and models of effective and productive education systems.

Saudi-Arabia and Finland are now planning to work together to reform the Saudi schools.

Finland on the other hand is seen as a major international leader in education. Finnish students have topped OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) consistently for a decade now. Newsweek announced in 2010 Finland as the best country to live in the world and had a special mention for the best country for education.

So what is the secret behind the excellence of the Finnish student's performance? What could the Saudis learn from the Finnish model? There is no a simple answer to the question, one must look at all the aspects of the Finnish education system and take parts of it to integrate into the Saudi system.

Here's a few lessons for the Saudi schools:

There are huge differences in the style of learning-Saudis are taught to listen to the teacher and memorize-while Finns are encouraged to find out for themselves and work in groups. This stimulates creativity and social skills.

Naturally the curriculums are very different. The Saudis concentrating on memorizing Quran and learning Hadith, while Finns have a more balanced variety of subjects. There's a lot of science and mathematics but also physical education and arts subjects keeping the learning experience more interesting and rewarding.

I recall looking forward to the physical education classes, we had them three times a week. We would learn different sports and it would be a break from sitting on the hard wooden benches all day. Arts class once a week was also like the highlight of the day. We had to use your imagination to create what the teacher presented.

One key to Finland's success is keeping the schools relatively small and "home-like". This means that pupils will have mostly the same teachers from grades 1-6 and they sometimes stay in the same school building until 9th grade. The compulsory schooling for everyone is until 9th grade. After that they can choose to go to higher level schools-and most choose to do so. The pupils and teachers all get to know each other well and it builds a good atmosphere and sense of togetherness.

I had the same teacher for most subjects the whole time I was in elementary school. He was more like a father-figure to us and we looked up to him. When we came to school we took our shoes off at the door and hung our jackets on the wall just like at home. We had our own clothes on, no school uniforms.

A surprising fact is that while pupils around the world enter formal schooling at five or six, in Finland children enter school at seven - and then only for half days. They also have longer holidays and Finnish students have the least educational hours of any industrialized country yet they are academically among the most successful. Short hours are especially important in the early years of schooling, not to overburden little pupils to the point where they start disliking school or are too exhausted to do homework.

As a kid I had many hobbies after school. I played the piano, danced ballet, played basketball, went to cooking and sowing classes and was on a swimming team. I can't imagine having the energy to do all this after long hours of school. 

The shorter time spent at schools also places greater responsibility on families. An important ingredient in Finland's high achievement in reading and writing is a strong culture of reading in the home. Parents often read to their children and there are excellent public libraries. Finland's 15-year olds were judged to have the highest standards of literacy in the world:

One of the best memories from childhood are my parents reading to me every single day before going to bed. We barely watched TV and I wasn't even that interested because of my enthusiasm to reading. I would rather spend time at the library with my friends.

All teachers in Finnish schools have Master's degrees and they are given freedom to choose their methods of teaching and books. In other words the teachers are trusted by parents and by government officials. Society views them as a valued professionals. In Saudi teachers have to strictly follow a certain curriculum and always use the same books.

I remember my high school biology teacher very fondly. He was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject that we never had a dull class. Sometimes we would go on trips to the forest, lakes or nature reserves where he would show us all the different plants and animals. These were valuable lessons that increased my love for nature.

The Finnish public schools are all free and do not pick their pupils according to grades. The performance of students from one school to another is uniform so it doesn't become necessary for parents to choose which school to send their children to. Special needs students are not sent away to separate schools and everyone is given an equal chance at succeeding.

The schools I went to were always a walking distance from my house. That didn't mean I was always on time though!

One thing I consider as equally important in the success of the system is the school meals and 1 hour lunch breaks in the canteens. Finland was the world pioneer in providing free school meals since 1948. A balanced meal gives the pupils energy to perform for the rest of the day. Lunch consists typically of fish, chicken or meat, fresh salads, vegetables, rice and potatoes, freshly baked bread and milk. The meals are tasty and nutrient rich and students thus become conscious of healthy eating habits and learn to choose the right foods.

I remember how they wouldn't let us take our own food in elementary school, but instead the kitchen lady would hand it on to your plate in the food line. That meant sometimes you got much more than asked you for! Our teacher would sit and eat with us and supervise that we ate everything. With some foods this became a problem to finish it up. I especially hated spinach-soup days!But looking back this was a good practice.

Students stay in class for 45 minutes at a time and then go for recess. Pupils will put their shoes back on because they are required to step outside for a break. Only temperatures below -20c might give the OK to stay inside for the breaks. I think this is good to get fresh air and to stay sharp in class.

One of the best memories from school are all the fun games we used to play outside, be it in the sun, the rain snow or autumn leaves. We were always outside enjoying the fresh air and getting some exercise while at it.

Another great aspect of the Finnish schools are the school healthcare nurses. Students can turn to them in confidence with health issues. These nurses also implement the national vaccination programme and act as counselors if needed. They give valuable health education to children. The schools also have enjoined dental clinics and dental hygiene thus becomes compulsory. These are all of course free of charge and available to everyone regardless of background. Some schools have a psychologist and a physician visits for check-ups.

The healthcare nurse was always a person we could turn to if we had problems at home or in school. They would always lend a listening ear. Having the dental clinic at the school was good for regular check-ups but ask any kid and they will disagree!

These are some of the components to the succes of the Finnish educations system. A school consists of many separate parts that come together to promote positive learning experiences.

What the Saudi system could change is the separation of girls and boys of younger ages. The children should be allowed to study and interact together. There is no harm to that even from the Islamic point of view. This way boys and girls would be able to learn better social and communication skills with each other and not grow up to view the other gender as "alien".

The curriculum of Saudi elementary schools consists of 31% Islamic studies. Isn't that a bit too much especially for a young child to absorb? Not everyone is going to be an Islamic scholar. Saudi-Arabia's schools have the least amount of maths and most religious studies compared to all other GCC countries. Surely religious studies could be cut down to the amount of for example Kuwait, the leading GCC country in education.

The responsibility of teaching religion should be partly shifted to homes to enable more time for other important subjects at school. The model of Finland's pupils reading at home could be copied by Saudi parents to achieve more Islamic knowledge for their children. It surely wouldn't do harm for the parent to child bonding experience either.

Applying all the above mentioned components to Saudi schools would need a lot of work, time and of course big funding. Most of them could be possible to implement. However the secret to the Finns success lies not only inside the schools but outside and in the homes too.

The question is do the Saudis really want to change their ways and would the same system work in Saudi-Arabia as well as it does in Finland?
The Saudi culture is very different from the Finnish one in many aspects.

Some change is definitely needed to keep Saudis in the competitive labor market and to transform the country into a more independently developing nation.


Anonymous said...

The Finnish education system is excellent! Some people in Finland might complain about some things at schools but if they went to live abroad and see the education system in other countries, they would learn to appreciate how the things are in Finland.


Safiyah said...

Looks like Finland has a really good education system, mashaAllah :)
In Belgium, where I live, the education has a good reputation too, but I think its focus is too much on performing well. Children usually go to kindergarten from the age of 3 (although this is not obliged) and start their real fulltime education from the age of 6 or 7, with homework steadily building up. Meals are not free, and we don't usually have nurses present in the schools.

I agree with the points you make about Saudi. I think that religious education should be present, so that children can learn about their religion, but I don't think it should interfere with other important subjects like maths, science,...
And then the students who are really interested in religious studies, could follow a separate course where the accent is really on religion.

I don't really see a problem in primary school being mixed, as I seem to remember that my female classmates and I were mostly thinking "yuk, boys!" during that time anyway :p

Nice post! I think your blog is very interesting :)

Layla said...

@ Maria
You're right some people complain although they should be grateful for being so lucky to study in a Finnish school :)

Thanks for your comment and welcome to my blog!
I like your idea of having a chance to focus more on religious studies if the family so wishes. There are schools in Finland for example that put more emphasis on maths or arts. That way families have some choice already when the children are young what they want to focus on.

Mohammed Alsadoon said...

Hi, I just found this blog and as a graduate (victim?) of the saudi education system I hope I can offer some unique insight:

I lived in Canada for some of my childhood and one of things that I didn't like was the mandatory art classes (manifested in Music mostly).

When I arrived most kids have had a lot more practice and even though the teacher separated me from my class and graded me differently I hated it. When I went to high school I found out that I had to take another mandatory arts class! JOY! I had a choice between music and drama, give that I had stage fright and couldn't act to save my life I chose music again. I hated it but at least the teachers had pity on me and gave me 50% so I can pass when I was sure I had failed miserably. Till this day I cannot play a single note on any instrument despite two years of musical training.

This had the opposite effect they were intending, I grew up (and still do!) to disdain the arts and emphasize religion. I longed for the accessibility of religion, anyone can become religious but not everyone can be musically inclined. To this day, I am still a great supporter of movements to abolish arts classes and use the money freed up to invest in more scientific schooling for children.

As for working in groups, I hated it more than art. In most schools, teachers divide the groups so that they are "balanced" and that all the smart kids aren't stacked in a simple group. This lead to most groups depending on a few individuals who had to pick up the slack of their group mates because they all got their marks together.

I also recall reading an article in Canada about how in the 80s, girls were lagging behind boys in Math and Science so reforms were enacted such as more group work and word problems (as opposed to technical problems) and by the early 2000s, boys had regressed as girls advanced and this was due to group work being against a boys psychology (Macho Man syndrome?)

As for religious studies, I like them but they really are required to be toned down. They go into way too much detail and are too time consuming. Malaysia has the right idea, muslims there learn the basics in school proper Wudu, Zakat and prayers and the like.

Whew! Finally glad to have that off my chest. Hopefully, you find my rant somewhat interesting.

P.S High schools in Saudi Arabia have three different tracks: Scientific, Literature and Religious. Each track is chosen in the first year of High School (year 10) and effects what he can enter later in life (Ie, most engineering schools WANT SCIENCE, Most religious institutions require religious track...etc)

Layla said...

Hi Mohammed and welcome to my blog, Im glad you found it!
Thanks for your comment, I found it very interesting.
You have a good point about how not everyone is musically talented, and that everyone can become religously "talented".
Perhaps music and arts classes could be more voluntary subjects, and not forced on people because like you say it doesnt seem you learned much from those classes and could have spent all those hours learning something more beneficial.

However I must mention that music has been widely studied in the learning progress adn found to be highly beneficial. For example autistic students can greatly benefit from musical learning.But it has to begin at an early age. Like in your example you were thrown in the deep end. But perhaps if you had some positive experiences from earlier you could have enjoyed it more.
I do recall back from elementary school in the states that I did not enjoy those classes at all, even though I had some musical talent, but the way the classes were arranged I found a nightmarish experience!In Finland I enjoyed music class and found them to be like a nice break in the middle of the day. I remember having an hour or two a week.

Regarding the religious studies, I think we don;t have good quality religious studies in Finland. What I mean is we only learn about different Christian sects. Other religions are briefly mentioned, and ISlam is portrayed in a negative way. Now that I know what Islam is really about, it upsets me how what they etach about it in Finnish schools is so wrong!And especially, all the things they left out. No wonder we have so much prejudice toward muslims in Finland!Its really a shame.

Anyways I hope you haven't suffered permanent trauma from your music classes :)