From HGSE to FinlandBy Wunderkind Life Finland Team
Student Group Explores Secrets Behind the Success of the Finnish Educational System
Just as magnolias were starting to bloom in Boston during spring break, a group of six Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) students, accompanied by an intrepid middle-school teen reporter, bundled up and headed off to the wintry wonders of Helsinki, Finland. The team consisted of seven members, master’s students Rebecca Conklin, Susan Joo, Trea Lynch, Tracy Shih, Tracy Tan, and Julianne Viola, and Joo’s nephew, 15-year-old Colin Park from Dexter School, an international student from Korea. Their mission: to experience firsthand the daily lives of the people behind the highly successful Finnish education system.
Although hailing from different backgrounds and programs at HGSE, the seven-member team was drawn by a common fascination with the Finnish system, one that sees its students consistently score among the world’s best on the OECD’s PISA exam, despite requiring the fewest number of hours in the classroom. The HGSE team was seeking an opportunity to visit schools and speak with students, staff, and policymakers, in the hopes of distilling the secrets of Finland’s educational success.
“There is a lot of information out there on the successes of the Finnish system. The issue is that more times than not, the only people who are hearing about it are already in circles of education,” says Conklin. “We wanted to bring this experience to a much larger audience, and hopefully start some new conversations in new circles about what we can learn from the Finnish system.”
The 10-day trip to Finland in March was a pilot experiential learning trip organized by Susan Joo, also known as Sujin by her colleagues. She is the founder of Wunderkind Life, an education start-up launched during her academic year at HGSE. Joo arrived at HGSE at the beginning of the year with specific goals in mind: to develop her youth mentoring initiative, Project Zeal, and to build a preschool/kindergarten in Korea. The influential forces of the HGSE student community, faculty, and academic courses have led these projects to take new directions under the umbrella of Wunderkind Life, an organization that seeks to bring out the child prodigy (wunderkind) in every individual, guiding each person in discovering and cultivating a passion that drives meaningful learning and social change in communities.
Joo announced the idea for the Finland trip at the beginning of the spring semester and mobilized quickly thereafter. Despite a short runway of five weeks, the team managed to build a packed itinerary, drawing on contacts in Boston, Singapore, and Finland, and even via “cold calls” on the online professional network LinkedIn.
“For me, it became a meaningful journey, getting to know and challenge my esteemed colleagues on an intimate level by inviting them to use this pilot trip as an opportunity to develop a passion or a skill in the spirit of creating a personalized, engaging experience,” explains Joo. “I came on board as a photographer and others joined as either writers or photographers, but everyone contributed unique talents and wore different hats as creative leaders, essentially guiding our team toward a successful learning outcome and engaging in valuable self-reflections at the same time.”
Joo further reflects on how her year at HGSE motivated the idea for the experiential pilot trip, specifically citing the learning opportunities led by Visiting Lecturer Bruno della Chiesa, Senior Lecturer Kay Merseth, Lecturers Todd Rose and Mandy Savitz-Romer, and Assistant Professor Stephanie Jones, as well as the mentorship of Special Studies Program Director John Collins.
“The Ed.M. is a short, one-year program, but there is something special about the HGSE community that inspires people to dream bigger and achieve meaningful goals throughout the year,” Joo says. “This is why I would like to strongly encourage future HGSE students to begin the year by asking others about their passions. I guarantee that these dialogues will not only serve as springboards for a series of exciting, collaborative research projects, new intellectual conversations and workshops, and first-time events, but may lead to meaningful relationships and trips that could potentially change their lives, careers, and communities they seek to serve.”
What the team found in Finland was that the sum of the Finnish system is greater than its parts, and that at the heart of the system are deeply embedded values that are echoed throughout Finnish society. Whether they spoke with policymakers at the Ministry of Education, professors at the University of Helsinki, principals, or students, the team received the consistent message that education was meant to prepare one for living life well — to love learning, to live healthily, to ensure everyone has an equal chance of success within society.
Many of the Finland Team’s takeaways can be found at the Wunderkind Life website, which was established in February and has attracted almost 2,000 views since its launch. The website is a building block for a longer term project for the group: a photo essay book meant to capitalize on the writing and photography skills of the team, set for press later this year.
Prepared by master’s students Tracy Tan, Technology, Innovation, and Education; Rebecca Conklin, Human Development and Psychology; Julianne Viola, Education Policy and Management; and Susan Joo, Special Studies Program; with input from Tracy Shih, Language and Literacy; Trea Lynch, Special Studies Program; and Colin Park, Dexter School. Photos courtesy of Susan Joo.