Bangalore, India – Plasticine is not a common math aid. But at a traditional Jain school in the upscale neighborhood of Whitefield in India’s tech capital Bengaluru, it’s one of the options primary school teachers use to make numbers interesting.

Instead of rote memorizing, encourage children to shape plasticine into different numbers. They learn patterns with sticks and stones; by counting the number of trees they see during outdoor sports; and by making lemonade to measure.

The schooling style is radically different from the dogmatic approach that has long dominated Indian education: government agencies create curricula, teachers and schools have little flexibility to innovate, and students are graded based on what they remember rather than what they understand. On the other hand, this is to emulate Finland’s world-renowned school system, which is currently gaining traction in India, 6,500 kilometers away.

Schools offering “Finnish education” are emerging in Indian cities, emphasizing activity-based learning, interaction with nature and life skills, rather than textbook-based, exam-oriented education. The Academy School (TAS) in Pune City adopted the Finnish language curriculum last year. The Finnish International School, also in Pune, will open later this year. Helsinki-based pre-school provider FinlandWay is setting up three facilities in Mumbai. Indore has Nordic High School International School and Noida has kindergarten Ramagya Roots.

Even Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, part of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has publicly acknowledged the success of the Finnish education system.

Some experts worry that private schools in India — which primarily serve children from privileged backgrounds — will fail to ensure equal access to quality education and teaching, a fundamental tenet of the Finnish public school model. But the temptation is real for parents like Pragya Sinha, a marketing executive in Pune who worries about the stress of her 8-year-old son returning to the classroom after studying at home during the pandemic.

“What really appealed to me was the personalized attention that these schools promised their students, and the learning seemed to be fun,” Sinha told Al Jazeera. She is considering enrolling her son in TAS or Finnish International School. “We are in a global village today – why is my geographic location limiting my child’s education?”

‘International Village’

This is also Finland’s propaganda to the world. In 2015, the country’s government created a platform called “Education in Finland” whose mission is to export the country’s education model, which typically ranks among the top in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, and high school graduation rates. more than 90%. The organization works with Finnish companies that identify global markets, find partner schools and tailor pedagogies to specific countries.

“A country’s system cannot be replicated like this,” Jouni Kangasniemi, director of the Finnish Education Project, told Al Jazeera. “However, many good practices can be exported and adapted in another environment.”

India isn’t the only country looking at Finland. In Peru, the government is building 75 schools, modeled on Finland’s experience, Kangasniemi said. Co-founder Pia Jormalainen said the Helsinki-based company New Nordic Schools is helping to open new schools in Brazil and the US state of Minnesota.

But the size of India’s education market – projected to reach $225 billion by 2025 – makes it a rare prize. New Nordic Schools and Indian partner company Finnish Education Centre are responsible for the curriculum and teacher training at Jain Heritage School and Nordic High International.

Parents love the personalized attention these schools offer [File: Courtesy, The Academy School, Pune, India]

Alien Education System

Jornainen said it was not always easy for Indian teachers and schools to adopt the Finnish model. While Finland has a core curriculum, teachers should develop their own teaching and assessment plans. In India, teachers are trained to follow government-mandated syllabuses and textbooks. “We have schools asking us to develop syllabuses for their teachers,” Jormainen told Al Jazeera. “It’s fundamentally the opposite of what we’re doing.”

Parents also need time to embrace the alien education system, says Shashank Goenka, whose Goenka Global Education Group is opening the Finnish International School in Pune. At Finnish International Schools, each class has two trained teachers – one Finnish, the other Indian – and a teaching assistant. “We want to offer the best Finnish model in the Indian context,” Goenka told Al Jazeera.

Ashish Srivastava, chief executive of the Finnish Education Centre, said this would require a revision of the Finnish approach to schooling. Students in the Nordic countries do not take home schoolwork. But he said many Indian parents find it difficult to understand without any homework. “As a result, our schools occasionally offer activity-based exercises that children and parents can do at home,” Srivastava told Al Jazeera. When parents asked the school why their children didn’t learn how to write with a pen sooner, they were gently reminded that most people barely write with a pen anymore. “That’s what we’ve been emphasizing – the Finnish system is about teaching kids what’s relevant.”

But experts say rigorous teacher training is the cornerstone of Finnish educational success. Before retraining Indian teachers, schools have no choice but to hire teachers from Finland. This is expensive and reflected in the fees: Finnish international schools, for example, charge 570,000 rupees ($7,600) per year in fees, while the country’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) hovers below $2,000. Although Indian private schools are much more expensive, Jari Lavonen, a professor at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki, said he was concerned that the commercialisation of the Indian approach to education “would damage the image of Finnish education”.

“It’s not fair to build private schools and sell Finnish education,” Lavonen told Al Jazeera. But he acknowledged that since private schools already exist in India and other countries, it might make sense to inject a Finnish approach into these institutions. “I know that in some countries children who study in Finnish-style private schools are quite happy.”

At the same time, public schools also began to adopt the Finnish curriculum. Kerala’s education minister, home to arguably India’s best public school state, announced earlier this month, Country will cooperate with Finland All about teacher training, curriculum reform and classroom technology. Even private schools are focusing on smaller cities and towns, which bodes well for soon expanding beyond major metropolitan areas, Goenka said. “We’re just getting started,” he said.