“Involving students in their learning to create personal paths and collaboration is helping them, but competition and individualism is getting in the way of learning.” – Finland

Merja Narvo-Akkola is fortunate to be an educator in a country recognized as one of the best at educating its citizens, but she isn’t taking anything for granted. “No one was more surprised by the PISA results and Finland’s relative high standing than the Finns themselves,” Narvo-Akkola has said. In Finland, most students begin compulsory schooling at age seven, and much emphasis is placed during the early years on play, oral language and social skills development. The system has short school days, finishing at 1 p.m., for teachers and students. And there is no system-wide standardized testing.

Narvo-Akkola believes that Finnish schools achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation and equality.
Her own mission is to promote those values as a leader, and to ensure that her city’s schools, like those in the rest of Finland, continue to live up to their stellar reputation. Today, Narvo-Akkola shares with us her views on what makes Finland’s schools special, and what educators everywhere can learn from her country’s approach to education.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I have spent 11 years as a principal and learned that when teachers are feeling good about their work, student achievement and welfare is also good. That got me thinking, what affects teachers’ work welfare? I believe it is collaboration and cooperation. Then I came to the conclusion that the principal has to create an environment which makes peer-learning and cooperation possible. Now I am able to increase teachers’ welfare by training principals to lead their schools to be better places to learn for all.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

By peer-learning at all levels — students, teachers and administration. The main things are trust and respect.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology gives learning totally new tools and ways to participate in one’s own learning, and it makes it easier to communicate, share, build knowledge and collaborate.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

That all students are treated equally, and equity is not dependent on a student’s background.

What is your country doing right to support education?

We have a new national core curriculum, together with teachers and schools. Also, research-oriented, master-level teacher training and a main objective for education of equality and equity.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

All major things are pretty good in education in my country, but we must ensure that in all parts of our country children can get a good education – regardless of their background — and that parents can rely on our public school system.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Sharing and collaboration. Trust and working routines. Good leadership.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Respect and listen to each individual student. Try to involve and motivate them in learning. Avoid competition in learning, share instead (including with your colleagues). Keep it simple and remember joy.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Involving students in their learning to create personal learning paths and collaboration is helping students, but competition and individualism is getting in the way of learning. Learning and growing is a slow process and fast, easy results are not good in education. We have to slow down and let students learn and grow in peace. ICT is a good tool in all that.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Curiosity and hope. More practically, access to the Internet with the help of teachers. The Internet is an open way to all knowledge and communication, and with guidance, it opens the world for all children to learn and become equal.

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About  Merja Narvo-Akkola,
Program Manager, Educational Leadership and Collaborative School Development Programme

Merja Narvo-Akkola (M.Ed.) has over ten years of experience as a principal in a multicultural environment with special education and language immersion. Throughout her career she has had a strong emphasis on the development of schools and educational leadership. She believes collaborative working practices and the use of information technology are the foundation for modern education. Currently, Narvo-Akkola is responsible for the leadership and collaborative school culture development for the City of Espoo. As a part of her responsibilities she is also doing her doctoral thesis. She is a highly respected professional and is also one of the key contributors to the Global Educational Leaders Program (GELP) in Finland.

Birthplace: Vaasa, Finland
Current residence: Espoo, Finland
Education: Master of Education, I have a degree in education (M.Ed), with a qualification as a class teacher and a principal (Educational administration degree) in Finnish education. I have also a supervisor and coach degree and my Ph.D. research, what I am doing at the moment, are in the field of educational leadership and administration specializing in sustainable and collaborative school culture to improve students’ learning.
Websites I check every day: Facebook and a Finnish education website
Person who inspires me most: My mum
Favorite childhood memory: Boating in the Vaasa Archipelago with my dad and scout camps
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Pleasure, to Rome and Naples,
visiting friends
When was the last time you laughed? Why? I laugh very easily and often.
Last time, I remember was at my friend’s 50th party on Saturday after very wild dancing.
Favorite book: All kinds of detective books for leisure.
Favorite music: Latin music
Your favorite quote or motto: Carpe Diem. With a positive attitude, the world is full of joy and opportunities to learn and experience all kinds of marvelous people, happenings
and things.

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