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Last November, we wrote about HEI Schools Cyberjaya, a new kindergarten in Malaysia that utilised a turnkey curriculum from Finland, developed and continually updated by the University of Helsinki.

In response to our article, there were many varying opinions about this concept, with some complimenting the initiative, while others criticised it. Given these polarising reactions, we attended the grand launch of the kindergarten to take a look at the school ourselves.

Touring the campus

Having only seen 3D renderings of the compound, I was surprised to finally witness the school with my own eyes. It was less modern than I imagined it to be, which was the impression I got from the computer-generated images.

It’s very outdoorsy and lush

In reality, it was a lot warmer and cosier. It felt like an old resort, but the rooms have been updated with Scandinavian, minimalistic aesthetics. Some areas are carpeted, while others have wooden flooring, depending on the purpose of the room as well as the age group.

I also learnt that the school itself is housed within a 15,000 sq ft space but is on an extensive 45,000 sq ft of land that students can access.

This land comprises Cyberview Resort and Spa. Turns out, HEI Schools Cyberjaya’s building is actually the revamped version of a former Cyberview office, as was evident by some familiar motifs left there.

Cyberview’s logo remains

The school principal, Jacqueline Vincent, led me on a tour, along with some parents and teachers from other schools. HEI School Cyberjaya has already been in session starting January, so we were able take a peek at what each class was doing.

In every classroom I peered into, I noticed the students were mostly doing something active, showcasing the play-based Finnish style of education.

Some commenters on our previous article pointed out that most kindergartens or nurseries are technically “play-based”, and thus HEI Schools was nothing out of the ordinary.

While I can’t speak for all kindergartens, I personally had quite a different preschool experience that involved a lot of reading and tests.

Principal Jacqueline Vincent

At HEI Schools, lessons are taught through creativity and exploration, and it’s actually quite practical. For example, they might learn how to count by pretending to go shopping, which could also teach them how money works. 

As nice as the facilities and curriculum were, a school is a school, and kids are kids. So of course, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. There were some kids who were crying, others throwing temper tantrums.

But the staff are trained to handle that. Plus, the teacher to student ratio is rather high here, with one teacher caring for four in the nursery category, one to five in pre-K, and one to eight in K1 and K2.

Speaking to Jacqueline on whether these teachers, who are expected to cater to different standards, are compensated above the market rate, she told me yes. She also said teachers at HEI are also empowered through the mandatory courses they were required to take to upskill themselves in terms of Finnish education. 

Addressing cynics’ questions

During a presentation give at the launch, it was mentioned that Finnish education is less about enforcing traditional schooling practices, but instead focuses more on play.

To this, I questioned whether this mindset would affect the discipline and drive of young children.

“One thing I’ve learnt about the HEI way is that there must be a good culture of trust,” Syahirah said. “We have personally seen how when we give children options, when we let them be involved in the decision-making process, they actually feel important and are more capable of following the social requirements in the class.”

Heikki Vartia, the Head of Global Partnerships (SEA) at HEI Schools, added that the idea in Finnish education is not that the teacher pushes the child to learn. Rather, the teacher nourishes and encourages natural curiosity.

The team also addressed the topic of localisation.

Heikki also shared, “I often say, Finland has never been a colonial power, we have never had any intention of exporting our culture or tradition. What we are exporting in education is the research-based, world’s best knowledge on how children learn.”

“This is a good starting point for competent franchisees like HEI Schools Cyberjaya who can then adjust it to the local culture, tradition, expectations, and regulations.”

Syahirah Jermadi, the director of operations at HEI Schools Cyberjaya, added that they have ensured local pre-school guidelines are kept in mind as well, while still keeping to the Finnish ways.

Another common concern was whether the children will be able to keep up in primary school later. It’s a valid concern and one that many parents have.

“The key concept in this education is socio-emotional development,” said Mardhiah Zain, the executive director of HEI Schools Cyberjaya. “When a child equips good socio-emotional skills, this child can be expected to be independent.”

On the left are outerwear for children to use when painting, on the right is an instructor demonstrating exercise moves

She elaborated, “When you go to primary school, the requirement is not just learning how to read, write, and count, but also how to take care of your pencil box, how to go to the toilet, how to manage your money, and things like that.” 

And that’s the kind of skillset that HEI Schools fosters from a young age.

“On the academic part, it’s about how you trust the process, that when a child reaches a certain cognitive maturity, they will know how to catch up,” she said.

In any case, the co-founders pointed out that many of the students plan on going into international schools, because their families typically belong to the demographic who not only want to do so, but can afford to do so. 

Not the only Finnish school in town

Aside from HEI Schools Cyberjaya, Malaysia seems to be experiencing increased interests in Finnish education. For example, I spoke to a representative from Cempaka International School who shared they are introducing a Finnish School Model.

Main entrance into the school

During the press conference, representatives from the HEI Schools headquarters explained that they are not in an exclusive deal with Axon Education, which is the company operating HEI Schools Cyberjaya.

Considering that this is more of a franchising sort of agreement, that means there can be other HEI Schools operators in Malaysia.

“But generally, we grant each school a radius—we don’t want HEI Schools learning centres to compete with one another, but to flourish together,” Heikki explained. “When we will open the next HEI Schools in Malaysia I don’t know yet, but it will not be next door to Cyberjaya.” 

Outside of the HEI Schools brand itself, though, as Finnish education grows to become more commonplace in Malaysia, though, what would set HEI Schools’ way apart from other establishments who may adopt teachings from the Finnish system?

The answer lies in the fact that HEI Schools is attached to none other than the University of Helsinki. This means that HEI Schools’ curriculum continuously benefits from the latest research in early-age education, thereby allowing them to stay ahead of the curve. 

Fourth from the left is Anni Ståhle, deputy head of mission of Malaysia’s Embassy Of Finland

I’ll admit, I walked into the school rather cynically, being someone who felt like the competitive drive instilled into me as a child has been a net positive in my life.

But after experiencing the school and understanding the mindset behind it, I’ve learnt that academic knowledge can be acquired later in life. There’s no rush there.

Ultimately, the socio-emotional skills that allow children to navigate difficult experiences and feelings are arguably more valuable and possibly more helpful in creating a well-adjusted human being. Goodness knows that the world needs more of that.

  • Learn more about HEI Schools Cyberjaya here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)