Education in Shanghai (and Finland): Open Tracks and Diversity

I was last week in Shanghai visiting universities, schools and educational authorities. Shanghai is an interesting places because of various reasons. The area is in a middle of a huge changes in many sectors: from economy to urbanization to education. In basic education it is already in the world class (PISA results). In the mainland China, Shanghai is many ways a potential “game changer” in a nation of 1.3. billion people and finally maybe the change factor for the rest of the world, too.

If I’ll compare the basic education in Shanghai and Finland it is amazing how similar the systems are. Both emphasis equality, open tracks, teacher training, as well as teachers and schools autonomy. All this is done by combining these priorities with fact-based centralized planning.

In this kind of system equality does not mean only equality of opportunity but also an attempt to invest resources to those individuals and schools that are recognized to lag behind. The system is not rewarding those who are performing well with extra resources, but rather leveling the differences in the performance of the different units. This does not mean that all schools are finally equal: some schools are still better than others, but the differences are not that great.

In an open tracks educational system there aren’t dead ends. This has been one of the primary elements of Finnish system. Also in Shanghai they have organized schools, vocational schools, colleges and universities the way that avoids dead ends. When a student (or her/his parents) at the age of 16 decides to go to an vocational school to become a plumber, it does not mean that he or she may not later become PhD. From all the educational tracks there is always a way to move to a higher level. This makes the system open but also diverse many ways: different people with different educational, professional and vocational backgrounds meet in different steps of the educational system. In its best the system provides platforms for students to teach and learn from each other.

To be honest I am not very well informed about the current state of teacher training in Finland but I did now check the degree program and requirements for the degree. The program has a lot of pedagogy and learning science but also surprisingly lot of didactics and didactics of different school subjects. An important part of the teacher training in Finland are the Teacher Training Schools where students are practicing by giving classes and taking part in the daily work at the schools. In addition to providing a real-world context for students, the schools also work as places for further education for in-service teachers and “living labs” for educational research.

I of course did not get a full picture of the teacher training in Shanghai, but there was something that got my attention. I was told that the teachers training includes many cases — best practices and different examples — on how to teach different things. It remind me of the case method largely used in business schools. It is also an example of practicality: why should we invent our own, when we can just look for the best practices and use them?

When it comes to PISA success of Finland, teachers training is always mentioned as one of the key factors: teachers are highly educated, the profession is culturally respected and reasonably paid. This seems to be the case in Shanghai, too.

In a couple of meetings we also discussed about the future of education. What kind of skills and competences we need? My hosts in Shanghai told that they are now closely looking the problem solving skills and feel that they are not necessary very good in it. I am afraid that there aren’t system that are very good at teaching problem solving skills.

In Shanghai there are 20 million people. In Finland 5 million. Our culture and history are very different. When thinking the idea of open tracks and diversity in education, I started to wonder how do they contributes to people’s well-being. They definitely do, but very differently in Shanghai than in Finland.

I think in Finland openness and diversity should be our national policy, our own 5-year strategy. Even if we practice it, at some level, like in our educational system, we are not very open or diverse society.

Finland is a strange combination of technocracy and commonsense. The fact-based decision making where we try to calculate all possible factors and then do a decisions, have brought us far. It has worked-out because traditionally in the local level there has always been the autonomous actor (e.g. teacher) who have then made the commonsense decisions.

Today — because of more advantaged IT (and surveillance) systems — it looks that some people in Finland would like to remove the element of using commonsense from all the levels. I think these people should study some Chinese philosophy.

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