What Finland wants to learn from Australian schools

By Mervi Kaukko

Finnish schools do well in international rankings, but few Finnish teachers, parents and students really care about it very much. Finland cares much more about the wellbeing and happiness of their children. As I am a teacher from Finland, currently working with schools and universities in Australia, I have experienced this first hand. Generally, teachers in Finland care more about how their students are faring in the world rather than how the world feels about their students. Tom Stehlik explained this very well in a post on this blog as ‘pedagogical love’.

So you might wonder what Finland can learn from Australia when it comes to working with children. But it is what you do with refugee children specifically that drew me to Australia. I came to Australia from Finland to learn more about how you settle refugee students in schools in ways that makes them happy.

I knew Australian schools do something extraordinary with migrant students because Australia, together with Canada, lead the way in supporting the feeling of belonging and wellbeing of its migrant students. I also knew that Australia’s history in resettling large numbers of refugees is much longer than Finland’s. As Finland is now becoming a home to many more refugees due to the global refugee crisis, I thought that Finland could learn important lessons from Australia. I am not talking about Australia’s truly shameful treatment of the asylum seekers who have been detained on Manus Island and Nauru, but in its progressive ways of resettling refugees.

Despite the well-documented issues of settling refugee children into schools into Australia, there is another story. I wanted to find out what Australian schools did in the learning journeys of their refugee children that made them feel supported in their schooling and at the same time look at what Finnish schools were doing to help their refugee children. I do this in collaboration with Jane Wilkinson at Monash University, building on Jane’s previous work exploring refugee students’ success stories.

Asking the children about their learning journeys

We started exploring stories of refugee education by asking teachers in Australia and Finland to nominate ‘successful’ students with a refugee background. Teachers were asked to consider success in the broadest possible sense, including academic achievement, school wellbeing and a range of ‘flourishing’ that is difficult for a researcher to see but might be easy for an engaged teacher to identify.

We then asked the nominated 45 students (25 of whom were in Australia and 20 in Finland, between six and 17 years of age) to draw a picture of their school journey before and after their migration, marking moments when they had felt happy or successful in their learning, and to identify key people who had played a role in their learning journey.


After that, we interviewed the students based on their drawings. With our guiding questions (What happened here? Who helped you here? How did this make you feel?) the children talked about and around their moments of success, helping us understand what had made a difference in their educational journeys. This data was complemented by classroom observations and interviews with teachers and leaders in the schools.

Significant moments were not always at school

As we anticipated, children’s learning journeys were not limited to schools. Significant moments took place at detention camps, rainforests, reception centres, mosques or homes. First steps of the journeys were mostly painted in dark colours; dangerous sea crossings, dead family members, fear and abuse were common themes. However, all these educational journeys had taken an upward direction. Much of this was explained by what Tom Stehlik wants to see more of in Australian schools. To me it was various forms of pedagogical love: the different ways love appears to exist in schools.

Messages from the refugee children in Australia and their teachers

What we found at one Australian primary school in a disadvantaged neighbourhood is a good example of how pedagogical love is happening with refugee children in some Australian schools. The school does not shine in its NAPLAN results, which is not surprising considering that 90% of the students speak English as an additional language. Rather than teaching for the test and improving the results artificially, there was an explicit attempt not to do it. Instead, the school invested in caring relationships, safety and belonging, believing that they are prerequisites for learning.

One of the teachers told us about her approach in working with a young refugee student:

He needs mothering, he needs fathering, he needs socializing, he needs – so, it’s yeah, positive reinforcement, prizes and I’ll use the word love because I think that that’s what they need, ultimately.

This teacher showed her love by spraying magic mist over her sometimes-restless group. It was insignificant that there was just water in the spray bottle; the love effect was immediate.

Another teacher learned to do a Sikh boy’s hair so that he could go to a school camp, and a third teacher organised support for a mourning child who lost her beloved cat. All teachers showed their love by not only teaching the curriculum, but also being available for the whole child. The was not done at the expense of students’ academic growth. We work on prioritising the wellbeing of children without sacrificing high expectations of learners, as one of the educational leaders noted.

This did not go unnoticed by their students. One of the girls recalls her early experiences in the school:

My teacher was very nice, so like, “Whenever you need help, put your hands up.” And I was like, why? She was like, “Put your hand up and say ‘help’.” I was like, ‘help’, every day; I was just checking her that she would come or not.

Another special mention goes to a teacher who:

was also nice. She was kind. She made me calm down. When somebody bullies or fights, she made us calm down. Not with a ruler but because she was kind.

One boy summarises what many of the students communicated in different ways:

In this school, in this school they don’t actually hit, they actually help, so that’s what I wanted.

It is about pedagogical love

Paulo Freire wrote in his Letter to Those Who Dare to Teach:

It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving in. In short, it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented and well-thought-out capacity to love.

Almost a century earlier, a Finnish scholar Uno Cygnaeus noted that:

Every teacher has to blaze with the spirit of sacred love. Sacred love that does not seek its own, that does not look at the present but the future; love that can even punish when considered necessary. That kind of love towards pupils has to smolder in a teacher’s heart. That kind of teacher’s love affects the whole school in a protecting way.

I think teaching without love is possible, there are many examples of that, but as Finnish and Australian, as well as other international research, has shown time and again, teaching with love makes more sense. Pedagogical love (and common sense!) requires that teachers do not hit, that they are available, care, and that they show it. Successful teaching depends on relationships so concerns with relationships need to come before any concerns with performance, efficiency or “excellence”. It means that teachers and leaders engage in their work holistically, with their own whole persona, thinking what makes sense for each individual student at that moment.

As love-rhetoric sits awkwardly in the present day educational discourse, the word can be rephrased as warmth, engagement or positive school climate, all of which can be reduced to love; the quality of relationships between people in the school, or at least, to a niche where love can find root and grow.

NAPLAN cannot measure this essential part of schooling

Bringing love into Australian schools would require working against the grain of Australia’s current strict, performance-based guidelines. Standards and measurements overlook (if not kill) love. NAPLAN does not measure student or parent satisfaction, wellbeing or the quality of relationships. The MySchool website does not show how happy or engaged students are. Neither does PISA. No standardised test can really capture what goes on in schools, how students feel and how well teachers do their work.

I don’t know what is behind Finland’s PISA success, but trusting teachers’ interpretation (rather than tests) on what does and should happen in schools might be one reason. There is no shortage of excellent, caring and loving teachers in either Australia or Finland, but a system like Finland’s with less concern with standards, and so much less testing, leaves teachers with more time to do what they think matters for their students.

I am not suggesting there would be a single reason behind any refugee student’s educational success or wellbeing at school, but I believe pedagogical love plays a major part. I think Australia’s politicians and policy makers should be paying much more attention to the growing bank of research evidence in this field.


Mervi Kaukko and Jane Wilkinson from Monash University will be presenting today on their research ‘In this school they don’t actually hit, they actually teach’ at the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra.

Dr Mervi Kaukko is a researcher, teacher and teacher educator from Finland. Mervi has been a visiting researcher at Monash University since July 2016. Her research, conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Jane Wilkinson, explores educational practices which support refugee students in school. Mervi’s previous research focuses on global education, unaccompanied minors, children’s participation and children’s rights. Mervi starts as a lecturer at Monash University in 2018. Mervi is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.


The theme of the 2017 AARE conference is ‘Education: What’s politics got to do with it?’ There will be over 600 presentations of current educational research and panel sessions at the conference which runs all this week in Canberra. Journalists who want to attend or arrange interviews please contact Anna Sullivan, Communications Manager of AARE, or our editor Maralyn Parker,

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