When I first came to Finland from Korea, I experienced a type of identity loss I had never felt before. I almost felt that, with my black eyes and hair, it was no longer possible for people to see me as a primary school teacher, a doctoral researcher, and a double master’s in education, but simply and automatically as “Other” or “Foreign”. I felt, as a natural reaction to seeing foreigners in any place, people pretended not to be interested, frequently glanced at, or stared at me steadily. In most cases, young children showed more honest and curious facial expressions.
This recognition of differences means that we, all humans, are basically on the same line to learn from each other, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and cultural background. Previously in my time as a primary school teacher in Korea, teaching in a culturally homogenous classroom, I had thought that multicultural education was not something relevant to my work or life. However, through my own experiences of “otherness,” I have become increasingly curious about multicultural education in both Finland and Korea. Both countries have a history of long trends of cultural homogeneity, and both tend to score highly in global educational rankings. So how does multicultural education operate in these two countries, how do practices and policies attempt to support students, and is there something both countries can learn from each other?
Multicultural / Intercultural education in Finland and Korea
In Finland, current trends in educational research have been moving away from ‘multiculturalism’ towards ‘interculturalism’ or ‘interculturality’, which emphasizes mutual understanding and communication (Layne & Dervin, 2016). Rather than merely learning about others’ cultures, it is the interactions between groups within schools and society that plays a crucial role. Throughout Northern European history, the term ‘multicultural’ often referred to non-Western and non-white people as an opposite group, immigrantness (Hummelstedt et al., 2021). However, the changes became the starter to establish the principle of security and non-discrimination in educational policies. For example, S2 students (students with Finnish as a second language) are entitled to a language policy that supports Finnish language development alongside the development of an individual’s mother-tongue language (THL, 2023). The preparatory education for immigrant students with little knowledge of Finnish for one year aims to develop their language skills and provide other skills for studying (City of Helsinki, n.d.; Rask, 2023). In terms of supporting mother tongue, the local government offers education in one’s mother tongue with native speakers or professional teachers in educating foreigners (The Finnish National Agency for Education, EDUFI, 2017).
Despite this Finland still struggles with educational inequities. One might be surprised to hear it, as Finland’s education systems are often highly praised, but academic achievement gaps between Finnish students and first or second-generation immigrants in Finland remain wide particularly compared to other OECD countries (OECD, 2019). Moreover, immigrant students in lower-secondary schools are three to five times more likely to experience bullying (Hummelstedt et al. 2021). According to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL)’s biennial School Health Survey, gender and income differences, along with color and place of origin, are also associated with school violence. Specifically, the report noted that a lack of societal resources has a direct impact on experiences of racism, for instance, bullying can persist for years if teachers lack the time and resources to address issues and talk with students.
Korea is not without its struggles regarding multicultural education as well, despite its high global rankings in education (OECD, 2019). In Korea, we emphasize the term ‘Multicultural sensitivity education’ which refers to the attitude of openness to heterogeneous cultures and their owners (Lim et al, 2019). This is rooted in the national survey instrument, the Korean Multicultural Acceptability Inventory (KMAI) which covers adults (n=5000) and adolescents (n=5000) and consists of three sub-categories; diversity, relationships and generality, in the 3-Year Cycle Project since 2012 (MOGEF, 2012). The report plays a crucial role in multicultural education as well as integration plans and policies. However, having high multicultural acceptability scores in the survey does not meet the educational field in practice, which is much more nuanced in nature. Primarily the generality of ‘we must understand and respect cultures different from ours’ is emphasized, and this does not lead to individual willingness or action on how to create relationships, build discourse among different groups, or how to execute successful multicultural teaching practices (Seo & Yang, 2021).
Korea has maintained a single ethnic history for a relatively long time. Although we did not have independent and sequential exchanges with the world, ‘globalization’ in Korea is now a part of everyday life. 10 years ago, about 1.1% of all primary school students were multicultural students. Now, primary school students accounted for 4.2%, an increase of 1.5 times from 5 years ago and 3.3 times from 9 years ago. Yet, the use rate of daycare centers (or kindergartens) for infants and toddlers, which is a major predictor of academic achievement at school, is about 10% lower than the average for multicultural children, and low-income families often do not use institutions. In addition, the dropout rate of multicultural students is very high and often caused by difficulties in establishing relationships with friends or teachers and adapting to school life (KESS, 2022). The violence exposure rate of students with multicultural families was 8.2% as of 2018, which is relatively high considering the average rate among all students in the same year was 1.3%.
With the development of technology, transportation, and communication methods including smartphones and social media, multicultural classrooms, and societies are becoming more and more common. Therefore, if education does not provide a foundation for balanced perspectives of diverse cultures in school children and execute education in a way that strives for equity, current intercultural conflicts could even intensify as children grow up. Not addressing inequity and issues of social justice within education systems around the world will only serve to further perpetuate societal inequities and stratification. So, is there something Korea and Finland could learn from one another, and is it useful to compare these two education contexts?
As a teacher, I believe we need to support the healthy growth of students with immigrant backgrounds by supporting the learning of the local language and mother tongue languages, as this serves as a compass that helps students to find their own identity, as a person with a foreign background living in Finland. In this respect, I believe Korean education systems could learn something from Finland’s language policies. In turn, state-led standardized multicultural surveys can be useful in presenting a big picture of policymaking, and perhaps Finland in turn could find these useful. As an educational resource, students and teachers should be prepared to discuss topics such as social justice, non-discrimination action, social justice issues, and internationalization according to the level of students.
Ultimately, more research is needed on educational approaches to integrating diverse cultures into educational systems and societies and should be geared toward supporting teachers and creating more equitable outcomes for students. Both Finland and Korea have this to work on, but perhaps being open to exploring educational models from other countries can potentially provide useful insight and help illuminate these issues, not only in Finland and Korea but globally as well.
*Eunji Kim is a doctoral researcher currently at Tampere University researching teachers’ perspectives and roles in the effective implementation of mathematical communication in primary mathematics classroom with a comparative approach between Finland and Korea. She has posted several articles related to education issues on ERICK(Education Research & Innovation Center of Korea). ERICK (https://21erick.org/) is a non-profitable organization to enhance the quality of Korean education (NPO). The articles were written in Korean, but it would be good to explore and understand common phenomena between Finland and Korea.
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