Reading: Finnish culture & education systems 1: The role of significant others in intercultural teacher education

Before I moved to Finland I was worried about what it would be like living in a place with far less ethnic and cultural diversity than New Zealand. Auckland, my home city, is one of the most diverse in the world, with 39% of our population born overseas and 220 different ethnic groups recorded as living there. Being one of only a handful of Pākehā on the packed Dominion Road bus is what feels normal and “home” for me. Finland doesn’t have the same history of immigration, and the majority (93.4% as at 2014) of inhabitants are ethnic Finns. The capital city Helsinki is much more multicultural than Oulu, where I live in the north. I’m happy to say that I need not have worried so much, because the friendship family we are forming in our class of 20 has 19 different nationalities represented. Every class discussion, shared meal and party develops our intercultural awareness and expands our perspectives. It is a privilege and joy to be a part of such a group and to learn so much from each of its members.

One of the readings we have been assigned for our Orientation to the Finnish Culture and Education Systems is Katri Jokikokko’s article on the role of significant others in the intercultural learning of teachers. Katri is a graduate of the Intercultural Teacher Education programme at the University of Oulu, which is a five year master’s degree in primary teaching. (All teachers need to have a master’s research degree in Finland). The ITE programme’s aim is to respond to the challenges posed by multiculturalism in the Finnish education system and provide competences for international tasks in the field of education. I would love to study the ITE course but I already have a teaching qualification, and I think if I’m going to dedicate another five years to study after my MA I should probably just do my PhD!  

The article is interesting because it is compiled from data taken from ten biographical interviews in which Finnish teachers talked about their lives through the lens of intercultural learning. Their reflections often involved other significant people who played an important role in the development of their intercultural awareness and shifting attitudes towards diversity. While I had a range of questions, some of them critical, about the research, it was helpful for me to reflect on my own life’s journey and the role that significant others have played in it.

Reading notes summarising the article


  • Intercultural learning is lifelong, and other people in our lives play an important role in its development. Intercultural competence guides our thinking and actions, rather than just a toolbox of skills or abilities. However, intercultural competence can be examined through knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviour etc.
    • Transforming attitudes towards diversity
    • Awakening and developing intercultural awareness
    • Developing ethical orientation

Mezirow’s (1991) theory on transformative learning

  • Beliefs and values shape behaviour and interpretation
  • Intercultural learning is a gradual transformation but can include crises as turning points
  • We must critically reflect to change meaning structures – evaluate and question
    • Do we also need to reflect at emotional level?
  • Background and community is influential
  • Mezirow focused on individual process with little focus on relationships
    • Sees learning as rational, analytical and cognitive

Importance of relationships and significant others

  • Other people are influential in our life and learning
  • We are participants in communities
  • Communities of practice are an inseparable part of our daily life
  • All activity is situated
    • And we understand identity through relationships with others and environment

Teacher education and intercultural competence

  • Required of teachers and their training/education programmes
  • Need them to be appreciative of and sensitive to cultures, aware of monoacculturation and ethnocentrism, bias and power structures etc.
  • In Finland, not really discussed until late 1980s with new immigrant groups arriving

Interviews with teachers from the ITE programme

  • Very different backgrounds
    • Multicultural diversity
    • Diversity of experiences, teaching in international schools and immigrant classes, adult education and Finnish schools etc.
  • Global issues interesting to them all
  • Frequently referred to others and situations in their stories
  • Freely talked for 1.5 – 3 hours each
  • KJ was able to categorise references to significant others in learning experiences of interviewees into impacting:
    • Attitudes towards diversity
      • Develop in childhood and harder to change as adults
      • Gradual changes
      • Influence of authority figures like teachers, also family members and students
      • Some diversity easier accept and appreciate
      • Brings challenges but is also very enriching
    • Development of social, societal and self-awareness
      • Confusion triggers reflection process – critical analysis not easy but needed in our own values, beliefs and behaviour
      • Affirming diversity doesn’t have to mean accepting everything
      • Awareness of own culture important
      • Trust and respect paramount, requires dialogue
      • Shared microculture e.g youth can overcome other barriers
      • Others help us reflect on how we are products of our own culture
      • Feeling of ‘otherness’ themselves can help bring greater sensitivity later.
      • Participation in a community of diverse culture
      • School, university and working world impacts. Many shocked at the discrimination in the working world outside bubble of university
        • Became even more aware, and need for support from others of similar values and ideas
    • Values and ways of actions or “ethical orientation”
      • Values more than skills guide our thinking and action
      • Teacher training and workplace experience, relationships important
      • Many of ITE teachers maybe idealistic?
        • Danger of conformity in bubble, including in such programmes as ITE (and EdGlo!)
        • Good to have debates in these settings and reconsider own values and perspectives
      • As ethical orientation develops, so can conflict with old friends as their prejudices become more evident
      • Influence of teacher in creating safe environment and facilitating discussion
        • Translates into training teachers’ work in classrooms
        • Teachers have to make ethical decisions every day.
        • Balance needed

Recommendations for teacher training

  • Students should be challenged to look at issues from different perspectives
  • Give attention to significance of other classmates for student teachers’ intercultural learning and mix up groups
  • Provide students with experiences and conflict situations that challenge or force them to think of issues from other perspectives
  • Acknowledge significance of tutors in this development
  • Support and in-service training throughout careers


Some thoughts about the research and article:

  • How were the interviewees chosen?
    • How representative are they of Finnish teachers?
    • What about teachers who haven’t done the ITE programme? Differences in their attitudes?
  • Possible issues with the translation from Finnish to English, power of choosing specific words to represent ideas
  • In class, questioning stereotypes we didn’t even know we had
  • Limitations of my own understanding because I come from dominant culture


A few of the reflections on my own intercultural understanding and development

These are just a few, and they’re a bit all over the place in no particular order


I grew up living and playing with children from different backgrounds, and my primary school encouraged all of us to actively participate in the variety of cultural groups. Many of my favourite moments at primary school were singing Māori waiata, learning the Samoan sasa or dancing the Cook Island hura (hula). I wish I had continued with kapa haka through intermediate or opted to learn te reo Māori at high school, but it wasn’t as encouraged for Pākehā kids and I feel a real loss at that missed opportunity now. I feel really upset and frustrated with anti-immigrant rhetoric from Pākehā, because it shows such a lack of understanding of our own history, a sense of entitlement and ownership over a shared land and the tangata whenua whose land was taken and culture suppressed by our colonial ancestors, and a rejection of empathy in favour of othering those who are different and therefore perceived to be a threat.  

I’ve always had an awareness of my white and middle class privilege, but I know that this awareness is limited because of the very fact I belong to the dominant culture with the dominant language as my mother tongue. When I was younger I felt a lot of guilt about it, but as I’ve grown and lived more I have realised that guilt isn’t a helpful emotion. I guess it is part of the foundation for my career and activism. Definitely a life long learning process and I always try to be open to challenges to my assumptions and behaviour, even if it isn’t easy and I don’t always succeed.

One of my favourite things about my world travels in 2013 was being in situations where I was a minority. It was sometimes very challenging, especially in India, but it helped me to see myself and the world in so many different ways that I’d not been exposed to before. Sometimes travelling was difficult because of the language barriers, but most of the time I could find someone who spoke some English – another example of the dominance of my cultural heritage. It was so cool to learn Spanish in South America and be able to converse with locals after I had developed enough skill and understanding – I wouldn’t have been able to have the same conversations and experiences, in Bolivia especially, without Spanish language. Also aware that the family and place I was born into is what enabled me to travel and have these adventures and learning experiences.

My family members have been hugely significant in my development of intercultural awareness. When I told Ma about this reading she said I am her most significant other, which let’s be honest is totally true. My parents had a range of friends when I was growing up, and one of my earliest memories are of friends from China who had escaped to NZ after Tiananmen Square, and my parents helped them to settle here. My eldest sister speaks fluent Mandarin and lived in Taipei and Beijing for six years, and my other older sister speaks pretty good te reo and taught in a Māori bilingual primary school class. My mother was helped the unaccompanied young asylum seekers from Afghanistan who came to New Zealand after their ordeal on the Tampa boat 15 years ago, and the school she worked at had a centre for refugee adult education. Tolerance and understanding was always encouraged in my family, and diversity celebrated and normal. Us siblings have had romantic relationships with people from a range of backgrounds, including Bulgarian, Turkish, Iranian, German, Māori, Pākehā, Israeli, Hong-Kong Chinese, South African, Bolivian…and all were welcome as long as they were good to us. My Ma keeps warning me not to have a baby with a Finn, but that’s much more because she doesn’t want me to have it on the other side of the world from her!

Teaching New Zealand history also had a significant impact on me. When I was at high school we studied 19th century NZ history in 7th form, and even though I enjoyed it I still had the idea of studying Tudor-Stuart history romanticised in my head. At uni I mostly focused on US and 20th century history as it connected most easily with my other major in politics, so didn’t have any room for NZ focused papers. I really regret that now, but I have taught myself a lot through my own teaching of NZ history and involvement in NZ politics and social movements. To know our own history is fundamentally important if we are to understand our current situation and plan for a better future. NZ history was often rejected by students I taught at the beginning of the year, because it had been forced down their throats from an early age and often taught badly. Race relations and the Treaty of Waitangi / te Tiriti o Waitangi deal with very complex ideas, and students only really seemed to have the maturity of thought and analysis towards the end of their school years. After a few months, or certainly by the middle of the year when we got to the land wars and confiscations, our students had often changed from being initially very dismissive of Māori grievances to understanding them and sometimes feeling very passionate about righting the wrongs done. It was an amazing to observe and support them through the stages of denial and dismissiveness, incredulity, defensiveness, guilt, and finally understanding the structural inequalities so they can look to the future with a better knowledge of what came before.

Another thought that’s kind of related…A common reasoning for (and critique of) the Finnish education system’s equality and success is the country’s comparatively low ethnic and cultural diversity. Because it’s considered easier to teach and guide homogeneous groups of students towards academic achievement, this is sometimes used as an argument against implementing some of the Finnish system’s principles and practices in a significantly more diverse country such as New Zealand. While this difference is something that certainly needs exploring in a comparative study, I believe it is lazy thinking to use this to altogether dismiss the possibilities for our learning from Finland. As a quick side note that I want to discuss more another time, the differences between NZ’s liberal and the Nordic social-democratic types of welfare states and their relationships with the education systems could be at least as significant a factor as the differences in diversity…but I’ll come back to that idea in another post! Connected to this though, is that NZ’s education system, and others of similar liberal welfare states, tend to see higher levels of educational attainment in first and second immigrant children than the Nordic states do, probably because of our diversity and history of immigration. (I’ll get the sources for this when I post more about this in future). I’m really looking forward to observing Finland’s approach to dealing with the growing cultural diversity in its education system, and will keep writing about it as I learn more!



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