An educational approach to integrating diverse cultures in Finland and South Korea


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 ( 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.



City of Helsinki. (n.d.). Oman äidinkielen opetus. Helsingin kaupunki. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Hummelstedt, I. P., Holm, G. I., Sahlström, F. J., & Zilliacus, H. A.-C. (2021). Diversity as the new normal and persistent constructions of the immigrant other – Discourses on multicultural education among teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education108, 1–10.

KESS. (2022). Brief statistics on Korean education-Multicultural Students. Korean Education Statistics Service. Retrieved February 13, 2023, from

Layne, H., & Dervin, F. (2016). Problematizing Finland’s pursuit of intercultural (kindergarten) teacher education. Multicultural Education Review8(2), 118–134.

Lim, S. I., Oh, Y. H., Cho, I. J., Lee, Y. M., & Lee, E. K. (2019). A Study on the Limits and Diversification of Multicultural Sensitivity Education in Elementary·Secondary School. The Journal of Cultural Exchange. Korean Association of International Culture Exchange.

Ministry of Gender Equality & Family (MOGEF, 2012). A study on multicultural acceptability in Korea.

OECD. (2019). Where all students can succeed (Pisa 2018 Results (Volume II).). OECD Publishing Paris.

Rask, S. (2023, February 14). Shadia Raskin Kolumni: Koulukeskustelussa UNOHTUU Keskiluokkaisten vanhempien vaikutus. Yle Uutiset. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Seo, J., & Yang, S. (2021). A Study on the Relationship of Multicultural Acceptability and Multicultural Education: Centered on Relationship. The Journal of Humanities and Social sciences 21. Asia Culture Academy of Incorporated Association.

The Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI, 2017). Perusopetukseen valmistava opetus. Opetushallitus 4:2017.

THL. (2023, January 20). Integration and inclusion. Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Children creating a shared story world in an intercultural exchange

Intercultural learning has less commonly been investigated from children’s perspectives (Walton et al., 2013), as classic intercultural studies were typically based on adults’ experiences of moving abroad (Piller, 2017). In our recently published study (Piipponen & Karlsson, 2021), we investigated how children (aged 10-11 years) created a shared narrative culture during an intercultural story exchange. During the exchange, two classes in different countries exchanged stories that were told using the Storycrafting method. I have written more about the exchange in a previous post.

Because the research on interculturality has its roots in adult learning, the way educators and researchers envisage the role of interculturality in schools is often related to becoming an interculturally adept citizen and employee in the future adult world. There is not yet much theorising about what intercultural learning should look like for children, who partake in the same cultural activities as adults, but are also different to adults (Johanson, 2010). In our study, the children in the two partner classes had the freedom to tell stories about anything they wanted, so they ended up exchanging cultural products (stories and illustrations) made by children, rather than cultural products selected by adults (typically national imagery, customs, clothing, food, festivals, and so on). We followed the children’s exchange of narratives over the course of an academic year (2016-2017) and analysed how the children engaged in the exchange activities to create a shared narrative culture between the exchange partners.

Findings: How a shared narrative culture developed over time

The children’s shared narrative culture was created over time during situations where the children actively negotiated meanings when telling, listening or reading, drawing or viewing, or imagining or discussing the stories. Here are some examples:

  1. Each child in the class had a turn to tell a part of a whole-class story. The story began as a realistic description of “two cool boys singing a rap song”. Turn by turn, fantastical elements started to enter the plot, which culminated in a rap battle between a unicorn and a dragon. The audience laughed each time there was an unexpected turn, which encouraged the tellers to continue incorporating strange and fantastical events into the story.
  2. The partner class drew pictures of “The Two Cool Boys…” story. They chose to illustrate scenes that reflected the exciting or unusual aspects of the story. Some drawings of pink unicorns were rather inspired by the original story than accurate depictions.
  3. The storytellers received the illustrations of their story from the partner class. The drawings were displayed in their classroom. The children viewed the illustrations carefully, discussing them with their peers. They recognised the story events that the drawings depicted. They talked about “the weird story”, and started to form a shared interpretation that influenced the mood of following stories they told during the exchange.
  4. At the end of the school year, some children asked if they could write a thank you letter for their partners. “We loved making fun and crazy stories to send to you and illustrating your stories! You must think that we are crazy!” The partner class reciprocated with a thank you letter as well, where they responded, “You are quite okay, not silly! Thank you for the weird stories! Although our stories were pretty weird too.”

As can be seen over time, the children created a shared understanding between the two partner classes that evolved into a narrative culture of “weirdness”, where most stories involved surprising, fantastical elements that frequently made the listeners laugh. The thank you letters express how the children sincerely enjoyed and appreciated the story exchange with their partner class. Although the children never met face-to-face, a special bond was formed between the partner classes. They were connected by their shared narrative culture.

Discussion: Aesthetic experiences and a community orientation support encountering in a third space

The children’s experiences of encountering others through the stories were aesthetic in nature (Dewey, 1935/2005). An aesthetic experience involves not only thoughts and language, but also emotions, senses and the imagination in the process of meaning making (Kinnunen, Viljamaa & Estola, 2016). According to Dewey’s theory, an aesthetic experience is the fullest mode of experiencing. It often occurs while creating or appreciating artworks, but moments of everyday life can also be experienced aesthetically (Dewey, 1935/2005). The children from both partner classes engaged in the exchange of stories and drawings enthusiastically. Those situations were full of emotion, imagination, creativity and communality. The children were savvy about the shared story world that was being created, and they drew from their cultural repertoires (knowledge, experiences, memories) during the process.

The study uses the concept of a third space (Bhabha, 1994) to explain how cultural change happens in practice. The students’ actions during the story exchange, such as telling, listening, drawing, viewing, reading, discussing and imagining, are ways of entering the third space, where their shared understanding of the narrative culture was negotiated over time. The third space occurs in situations where the students negotiate a new (“third”) way of being together that is not one group’s culture or the other’s, but something else. In this study, the students found ways to connect by telling stories that would make the audience laugh, using humour, unexpected turns and fantastical elements, and they called these their “weird” stories.

For this shared understanding to develop, the story exchange situations had to involve a strong community orientation. All the stories were told either together as a whole class or in small groups. The activities involved intense collaboration between the children, and the teachers supported a dialogical classroom environment by guiding the children to listen actively and without judgement to others’ contributions. Also, the Storycrafting method is designed to support encountering as equals (Karlsson, 2013). The children felt that when creating the stories collaboratively, the outcome was more creative than what they could have managed on their own. Making stories together as a class helped the children to bond with their peers. The fun and enjoyment felt with their peers transferred to the stories, which contributed to a positive connection forming with their partner class too.

To conclude, this study shows that children engage with their existing cultural repertoires when encountering an unfamiliar partner class. They connected by building a playful, fun narrative world together in their collective imaginations. We suggest that engaging in creative pursuits together has a lot of potential for forging bonds between two or more different children’s communities. Furthermore, attention should be paid not only to intergroup interactions, but also to the rapport inside each group, as a strong community spirit transfers to intercultural encounters as well. Finally, children should be able to make their intercultural encounters meaningful by connecting them to their personal experiences and interests, and communicate with their partners in modes they are familiar with, such as storytelling and drawing.

The original research article can be found here:

Oona Piipponen

Doctoral Candidate in Education

University of Eastern Finland

oonamp (at)

Twitter: @OPiipponen


Johanson, K. (2010). Culture for or by the child? ‘Children’s culture’ and cultural policy. Poetics, 38, 386–401.

Karlsson, L. (2013). Storycrafting method – To share, participate, tell and listen in practice and research. The European Journal of Social and Behavioural Sciences, 6(3), 1109–1117.

Kinnunen, S., Viljamaa, E., & Estola, E. (2016). Esteettisiä ja eettisiä kosketuksia. In L. Karlsson, A.-M. Puroila, & E. Estola (Eds.), Välkkeitä, valoja ja varjoja: Kertomuksia lasten hyvinvoinnista (pp. 90–109). NYTNYT.

Piipponen, O. & Karlsson, L. (2021). ‘Our stories were pretty weird too’ – Children as creators of a shared narrative culture in an intercultural story and drawing exchange. International Journal of Educational Research, 106, 1-12.

Piller, I. (2017). Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh University Press.

Walton, J., Priest, N., & Paradies, Y. (2013). Identifying and developing effective approaches to foster intercultural understanding in schools. Intercultural Education, 24(3), 181–194. doi:10.1080/14675986. 2013.793036