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Raising the teaching-learning bar: Could the Finnish way help Nigeria?

The learning workload for children in Nigeria seems to be high. Children spend upwards of seven hours  in school. After normal school hours, they start lessons. Most  get home around 6.00pm, worn out and still have homework to do before going to bed. They wake up early the next day and the cycle continues. Weekends and holidays are not left out so children have no  time to rest, play and be children. Despite all these, many perform woefully in external examinations.

A paradox indeed! On the other hand, Finland, a Northern European nation, is ajudged the best in the world educationally and they do the exact opposite of what obtains in Nigeria. In a documentary on Finnish educational system, American documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, said: “Children spend comparatively little time at school, don’t get homework and yet receive one of the best educations in the world.” In this report, Vanguard Learning looks at what makes Finland’s education system tick and what Nigeria can learn from it.  Excerpts:

By Ebele Orakpo

Teacher learning
Teacher learning

BACK in the days, Finland schools sucked. When they tested the kids among world kids, both Finland and Austria were down the list of nations. Finland didn’t like that so they tried some new ideas and in no time, Finland shot to the top of the world, their students were number one!

Finland students have the shortest school days and the shortest school year in the entire western world. They do better by going to school less,” said Moore.

How they did it: Finland’s former Minister of Education, Ms. Krista Kiuru said: “They do not have homework! We reduced the homework we give to students. They should have more time to be youngsters, to enjoy life.” Playing is part of education: Kiura told Wise Education Conference in Qatar in 2014 that  “the most important thing in early childhood education is making sure kids have enough time to play. Children do not play to learn, they learn while playing.

In early education, we teach kids to be life-long learners because they learn to learn.” Anna Hart, a first grade teacher said “the kids could climb a tree; but while climbing, they find out things about different insects so they come to school the next day and tell me about it. Mrs Jennifer Che, Manager of Sustainability Outreach Programs, American University of Nigeria said the Finish system is unique . “It has not even been contemplated in Nigeria. However, in Spain, we have Montessori and the Waldorf Schools, both of which follow the Finish example.”

Worrisome: Prof. (Mrs) Joanne Umolu, professor of Special Education and Director, Open Doors for Special Learners, Jos, described what obtains in Nigeria as disturbing. “Finnish schools don’t start teaching reading until the children are around seven years.

Concept development

Here, they start at age two and three! I am very worried about how schools are pushing children too fast. Why must a Primary One child use Primary 2 books? The system doesn’t reflect the fact that primary education is for skills building and concept development – not just cramming ‘knowledge.’ Children need time to mature and the opportunity to be creative – not just copy notes. I’m very, very disturbed about this,” she said.

Secret to success: In her contribution, Mrs Jane Olatunji-Hughes, consummate educationist, who holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology, said: “From what I know of Scandinavian schools, the children start school at around 7 years of age and learn to read within three months.

“They learn in their mother tongue. That is their first secret of success. The second is that they have many pre-school years in nurseries that emphasise skills development so that by the time they go to formal school, they have social skills, emotional stability, physical coordination and strength, well established concepts of number, volume, space and time; ability to sit still, listen and concentrate.

“Nursery staff are facilitators rather than teachers. They observe their pupils and provide the stimulus needed for each individual child at the precise level needed.” Striking a balance: In Finland, children don’t spend more than 20 hours a week in school, including lunch hours. The younger children spend three hours on Mondays, four on Tuesdays, it varies,” said Hart.

Striking a balance

Comparing school calendar from different countries, Mrs Peju Okungbowa of the American Christian Academy, Ibadan noted that “Nigerian students are not going through anything peculiar. The only challenge with some schools is striking a balance between play and academics or being skilled at inculcating play into learning.”

Crowded curriculum: In Nigeria, children are in school for upwards of seven hours and then there is after-school, holiday and weekend lessons, leaving them little or no time to rest, play and be children. Umolu says parents are partly to blame because they want to rush their kids into secondary school at age 8 and 9 and so, the schools feel under pressure to push them. There is no Primary 6 in private schools in Nigeria.

Such nonsense! It is not just too much workload on the kids, but it is the type of workload. We get kids in our reading clinic who are bright but have been failing because they never had the opportunity to learn to read at the time they were developmentally ready.” It is believed that if basic education is gotten right, all other things will fall into place. According to Kiura, “reforming early years was a priority for the Finnish government. The Finnish system draws teacher candidates from the top 10% of graduates, trains teachers well, and lets them design the curriculum around very lean national standards.”

Way to go: Mrs Okungbowa believes that the after-school classes or holiday lesson is not the problem but  what is done in after-school. “The typical Nigerian school needs to understand that play is a framework for learning. It doesn’t always have to be about learning Math or other subjects.

After-school classes can be geared towards raising a total child. Sporting activities, music, arts, structured and free play can be the thrust of our after-school programs. “The objective of homework is to reinforce what was taught at school; therefore it need not be an overload on the child. Just some few practice questions will suffice.

Frustration and failure

There should also be room for inquiry-based learning, where students are in charge of their own learning.”Effects on children: Okungbowa said the overall effect of this lack of balance in school’s scheduling “is that the students become bored and weary of learning because it’s like they are being hit on every side.They are not able to internalize and apply what they have learnt before they are faced with another task so we produce students who only know the theoretical but deficient in the practical facet. ”

Said Olatunji-Hughes: “Giving work that is too difficult leads to frustration and failure to learn. Work that is too easy leads to lack of interest and failure to fulfill the child’s potential. In Nigeria, I was head of three separate nursery and primary schools in Lagos, Bukuru and Jos. Providing a suitable pre-school environment was difficult.  Educational toys were not readily available. Books suitable for younger children were usually imported and culturally inappropriate. Local books were mostly written by people who had no idea about how young children develop and used both language and content that was too adult.

“Creative teachers could improvise materials if they were given enough time and money.  Most of the teachers that we were able to recruit lacked adequate training in the needs of young children. The education colleges mostly laid emphasis on training teachers for higher classes. Authoritarian and top down methods were not good for our young children. Money was a big problem for us.

The ideal pre-school class should have a ratio of one adult to 10 children. We often had to have classes of 50 children in order to meet costs when parents could not afford to pay high fees. I believe that Finland invests a lot of money into its educational system, to provide the best training of nursery staff and to develop suitable learning materials.”

In Nigeria, we are saddled with what is in essence still the colonial English system.  Currently in Britain, the politicians are trying to interfere in schools to make them more rigid and formal but they are being countered by a well trained and committed force of teachers. The trouble is that too many people believe that by pushing children harder, they will get better results, and education is becoming highly competitive.  It’s like the arms race. And it’s just as counterproductive.


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