Lessons from Finland
Namibian Sun journalist Jemima Beukes (JB) sat down with Iina Soiri (IS), a Finnish social scientist who has worked in Africa for about 20 years and has extensive experience in African affairs and policy matters.
06 November 2019 | Education
IS: What I have heard and understood is that Namibia is still very unequal and the education system is divided between those who come from a more educated and privileged background, who can afford to invest in education and whose parents can help their children to grow, and those who do not have this. Then we have some area where the basis for education is already challenging. Early childhood development has not been invested in at all. So you enter a system that is in essence already very unequal when it comes to the quality of the school environment, the quality of teachers and the environment in general. Children must walk long distances to school and maybe go to school with nothing to eat and there is no school lunch, even if it should be provided according to some programmes. In summary the inequality, low quality of teaching methods and challenging learning environment and their living circumstances are some of the biggest structural challenges. In Finland we have a learner-centred education; everything starts from what the learner needs. I think here the tradition is more authoritarian. The teachers are not really adapting their models and are not really taking into account the children they teach.
JB: What are you doing differently in Finland?
IS: What we did in Finland a long time ago was to ensure that we had equality and that anybody had access to education, independent of their background. We invest in teacher education and not only that, but their motivation. A teacher is one of the most influential adults in children's lives. It is not an easy nut to crack when it comes to how you educate the cadre of teachers who have those pedagogical skills and motivation. It has of course been quite a short time since Namibia started the reform since independence. The fact that you invest one part of your budget in education and the results are still rather wanting means it is not about money. It is about how you make those small changes where you assure there are conditions and learning environments and teachers will also have the opportunity to teach what they wish or specialise in. The classes are also very big.
JB: Early childhood development policy remains untapped in Namibia. What role can it play in our current dilemma?
IS: It is always difficult to adapt something that was born out of other circumstances. I think there are a lot of issues that are here that are not in our system. You have very diverse family structures, so children grow up in a community, which is very positive. But in Finland we require that even the early childhood teachers are qualified, so it is not anybody that can teach a child. When Namibia adapts from Finland, it would demand us to adapt it together. Co-creation is very important and not losing the inherent positive sides within the Namibian system. The problem is that some family structures are broken and often some children are not allowed to be children and have to take on too big responsibilities because of the circumstances. It is important to ensure that children have access to a space where they learn in the natural way, guided by an adult who can take responsibility that these children feel safe and are well fed, and one who is able to nurture the child's natural talent. Make children read. Reading is very important. Reading text and narrative is very important for linguistic knowledge. And the availability of reading material is very important and that adults themselves show an example. We have the biggest library system in the world per capita and it has assured that our nation is very literate.
JB: In your view, how must Namibia adjust her system in order to align with the fourth industrial revolution and the local job market?
IS: The big problem is that nobody knows what the future will be like. At the moment we need to learn the things we need to survive today's society but also the things we do not know, which do not exist yet. Who knew about mobile phones twenty or thirty years ago? We did not even know that we would send photos with mobile phones. What is important is adaptability: that you teach children to learn; that you inspire children to enquire, to experiment; that you encourage children to be naturally curious. This is exactly what inspires innovation. Children who sit in a crowded classroom feel constrained, even their thinking is constrained. You need to give them environments where they can learn and try. The 4IR is not only about digitisation, but about sharing space, property and transport like ubers. It has a lot to do with climate change; we know that traditional living is challenged, especially in a country that is so dry. You have to find ways of recycling and children must be at the front. The curriculum needs to take this in consideration and to change the mind-set of the people in a positive way.
JB: What can we do to stem the flow of school dropouts?
IS: We heard from an education director that the learning environment is not inspiring and that is why children do not enjoy learning. Educating a child is not just a teacher's responsibility but parents must be there. You have to have some kind of community support for the child, and not only academic but allow them to learn to live a life that is safe and responds to their age. Because you have here a problem where children engage in sexual activity rather early, for varying reasons. And they fall pregnant; somebody impregnated them. You have to look at those socio-economic problems. You have to look at what it is that makes school unattractive and the socio-economic situations that prevent children to go to school. I know there was a basic income grant pilot programme, so you could look at some kind of incentives that provide families with support. Family planning education must be available at school to prevent girls from falling pregnant and the same education for boys because they must understand the consequences of sexual activity. Some schools maybe do not have toilet facilities and this results in some girls staying away when they have their period. So you need a multi-sectorial collaboration and civic education to deal with these issues.
JB: Nutrition remains critical for education. Do you think the Namibian government is doing enough?
IS: It is very important. Finland and Sweden are the only two countries in the world that provide free meals. When we were a poor country some fifty years ago, it was often the only meal children had for the day. I do not know if the government is doing enough. But we know from our experience it is very important. You have fantastic ways of feeding large groups of people. But it needs to be sustainable; it cannot be donor-funded. You have to understand the priority of some things. There has to be a national discussion to see if this is a priority.