Cultural diversity is still a challenge in the Finnish education system

by , under Enrique Tessieri

An article in Yle News brings us back again to one of the biggest challenges for multilingual children at Finnish schools: How the Finnish education system treats cultural diversity.

Language and cultural interpreter and early childhood educator Nadezda Kärmeniemi admitted that multilingual children are caught between differing attitudes at schools.

She is saying that there is no uniform system on how Finnish children, who speak more than one language, are treated at schools.

“Unfortunately, there are instance in our society where speaking oner’s mother tongue is not allowed,” she said. “When a child goes to school, the multilingual ‘coat’ may be left at home, with only Finnish used at school, as there is a sense that the language used at home does not belong there.”

Cultural diversity means for me two-way adaption. All cultural and ethnic groups in society have space to express and be themselves. The glue that holds them together with other groups is building respect through learning from each other.


This picture was taken from the former Urpola School of Mikkeli. It tells multilingual children that they should speak Finnish and that they are mamus, a derogatory term no longer used to mean migrants. Photo: Enrique Tessieri

Having taught and worked at a folk high school with multicultural backgrounds for thirteen years, I have noticed the following challenges:

  • The view and the way some teachers treat cultural diversity is very similar in Finland in general;
  • Too few teachers of varying cultural backgrounds are drafting policy in this important area;
  • Too many multilingual students don’t have a voice or know how to express and exert their rights;
  • In too many schools, it isn’t even encouraged;
  • Too many don’t have any idea what living in a culturally diverse society means;
  • False expectations of some teachers believe that, like magic, students will turn into white Finns;
  • Some would care less that such students would be accepted as equal members of society and prefer to call them “pupil of foreign background” instead of a Finn;
  • Too many schools don’t do enough to challenge racist bullying;
  • Underestimating the potential of multilingual students, especially students of color and counselling them to seek racialized professions;
  • Offering unscientific and simplistic views to adaption;
  • An example of the latter is “just learn the language” or “get a job,” and everything will be fine;
  • Lack of training in cultural sensitivity to tackle one’s prejudices;
  • Exceptionalism, exceptionalism, and more exceptionalism stops progress.