Milla Kokko, HEI Schools — Start-Up! It’s Time for School.
Milla Kokko

It’s Time for School.

Illustration by Teodor Georgiev

According to the Finnish Education system (and common sense), cooperation works better than competition in preparing children for their school years and life in general. That’s what HEI Schools, a pedagogical franchising model, offers a primary education model, based on creativity and curiosity. Here Milla Kokko, HEI’s CEO and co-founder, explains what role Nordic values play in the project.

Tell us a bit about yourself. (childhood, education, etc.)

I was born in Graz, Austria, but moved to Finland with my Finnish parents, when I was only 1 year old. I had my first 13 years of education in Waldorf School in Lahti and then continued studying Human Communication and Journalism in the University of Jyväskylä in middle Finland and in the University of Graz in Austria. My childhood and early years — together with my younger brother — were influenced quite a bit by outdoor activities (scouting, sailing) and of the free and informal upbringing by my architect father and youth-worker mother.

Milla Kokko, HEI Helsinki International Schools

What was the professional path that led you to your current position?

I think the most interesting things in life happen when you simply let them happen and do not resist. If 3 years ago someone had asked me what my next professional step is, I would hardly describe anything like this. Autumn 2015, I was having a 6 months sabbatical break and travelling through South-East Asia, when my longtime friend Pilvi Torsti, the former State Secretary for the Ministry of Education in Finland, contacted me: “I think it is time to offer something concrete to the world regarding Finnish education — we should create a model that can be applied outside of Finland”. For my previous 20-something years, I had been working as a strategist and brand specialist in the creative industry, forming brand stories, conceptualizing and packaging different products and services for the markets. “We would need to do the-thing-you-do-for-your-work for the Finnish Education model — University of Helsinki is already on board with us”, she said. I was supposed to “spar a little bit”, but one thing led to another and I ended up being one of the founding partners and the CEO of the company.

How does HEI Schools function organization-wise? Tell us more about the whole project.

HEI Schools´ idea is not to operate the kindergartens or early education centers ourselves, but to offer a carefully designed license model with high-quality pedagogical content for local operators and teachers to run. The starting point was to create a simple package that would contain all the elements needed for a complete early education center set up: curriculum materials, teacher training modules, a design concept for the learning environment, a curated set of learning materials and operational guidelines for the management and pedagogical staff. This is how we think it is possible to offer the high-quality early education model for as many children in the world as possible. Our job in Helsinki, with a relatively small team of pedagogical experts and design professionals, is to create inspiring content and materials, to develop the concept continuously and to facilitate the collaboration of international HEI Schools community around the world.

Milla Kokko, HEI Helsinki International Schools

The Finnish preschool model has been ranked the best in global comparison. What are the reasons behind this?

The early childhood education model in Finland has long roots. We have had very consistent and long-term policy-models in building the education system together with researchers, educators, politicians, parents and even the students themselves. Few key milestones in the work could be pointed out:

– Unified and compulsory basic education for all (1972);
– Compulsory education is free (books, meals, healthcare… );
– Research-based teacher education in universities in the early 1970s;
– Right for early childhood education for all (1995);
– Free pre-primary education for children in the year prior to the beginning of compulsory education (2000);
– Educational equality — mitigating socio/economic backgrounds;
– Well-organized special education (inclusion) and counseling.

Also, fostering a culture of trust and co-operation:

– Teachers are considered to be autonomous professionals who are committed to continuous personal development and are assumed to have an inquiry-oriented approach to upholding the quality of their work;
– Teachers are responsible for local curriculum and assessment: deep trust of teacher professionalism;
– No inspectors, no national exams (testing), no private tutoring;
– Schools and kindergartens rather collaborate than compete.

Milla Kokko, HEI Helsinki International Schools

Counter to the mainstream: test-based, top-down accountability, standardization and uniformity in education, and market economy.

The goal of HEI Schools seems quite ideal: to teach and develop future citizens to co-work and be compassionate instead of competitive and solely goal-oriented. Are these the traits to shape the world in a better way?

It is quite important to understand two cultural components behind the Finnish Education model: Finland, like other Nordic countries, has a long heritage of quite inclusive and equal public education system. All in all, the society is not very competitive but offers its members safety and backup also in difficult situations. The other factor could be called “the culture of trust”: teachers — who are seen as educated professionals on all levels — have always had a large amount of autonomy and responsibility regarding their work and very little inspection and control. We really think that equality and trust are the ways to raise the quality of early education and through that change the world for the better.

Our job is to help teachers all over the world become strong and respected professionals in that role.

Milla Kokko, HEI Helsinki International Schools

Ranking and grading-centered education seem to be a thing of the past, at least morally. How so? Is the human world desperately in need to be more, well, human?

Curiosity and willingness to learn are natural to all humans — children are born as “learning machines”.

We have a lot of research about how children learn and it has very little to do with ranking.

Assessment of a child´s individual learning path and development — as well as screening potential challenges on it — is, of course, important, but it can be done in ways that are supporting the child and not creating anxiety and stress. Also, it is just as important, if not more, to assess the adults’ way of working and the learning environment they are offering to the children.

Every meaningful and socially-oriented project receives a fair share of criticism. Have you encountered such sceptic comments or else?

The doubts — or rather questions — regarding HEI Schools’ model, are all concerning more or less the next steps on the educational path of the children: how will my child cope with the harsh reality when entering primary and secondary school? This is, of course, a relevant question, but

the lack of stress and ranking does not mean lack of academic learning results; quite on the contrary.

All in all, I think we have been quite lucky to find such passionate partners, educators, and families who share the vision of HEI Schools and progressive early learning model. In the same way, as technology has the first wave users, we think we have found “the early adopters” of education. And for sure, the good reputation and well-proven results of the Finnish Education model have helped us a long way further.

You say you are searching for high-level teacher performance. What kinds of person fits into that description and what does it take to be a good teacher?

It is not really so much matter of personality, but high-quality teacher education and pedagogical guidance based on our values. Of course, the willingness to create something new, progressive education and true passion to work with children will also play a big role in becoming a great teacher.

Can you tell us what the benefits of your country’s education system for you were?

Like I mentioned earlier, my parents’ interest in alternative schooling models led me to have my education in Waldorf School instead of public elementary school. Still, it has been actually quite interesting to see that at the time “weird” practices in Waldorf School (no numbers/grades before middle school, arts and crafts as means to learn also other skills like math and science, language education starting in 1st grade, same teacher leading the class for as long as possible and knowing each student very well etc.), have now been applied in many “normal” schools in Finland as well. I think the greatest benefit for me in the Finnish Education system (including the university years) has been the belief or the impression of myself as a learner: I think it is possible to learn almost anything. In the past, right now and in the future.

You say the idea of HEI schools is based on the Nordic values of accessibility and openness. Can you elaborate on that?

The Nordic heritage of “not for the few, but for the many” stands strongly behind our mission:

we think we have succeeded, when as many children and families have the access (location and cost-wise) to high-quality early education as the one they have to IKEA for example.

This may sound a bit weird or ambitious, but we really think it is possible and it should be done (and the IKEA reference has a bit of a “friendly” battle aspect with our dear neighboring country…). That is the reason why we do not even try to operate the kindergartens/early learning centers ourselves but offer the model for the strong local partners to run all over the world.

Milla Kokko, HEI Helsinki International Schools

How does HEI manage to pay attention to each child and find their individual potential?

This is done by the brilliant local teachers in each HEI School. They know each child and it is their most important job to help the children find and use their potential. Our job in the HEI Global team, on the other hand, is to support these teachers in their work: to provide continuous training, example and inspiration. Also, it is not only the HEI team Helsinki doing that, but the growing, international community of other HEI Schools teachers, who inspire and support each other. This is a very crucial part of HEI’s concept all in all.

What’s next — for you and HEI?

We have quite exciting months ahead of us right now: during August, September & October we are opening new HEI Schools in Helsinki, Melbourne, and Guangzhou and starting to prepare the openings of schools in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia next year. We are negotiating with several new markets and new partners all the time and one very important step will be also the opening of the markets in the USA.

The most important focus, however, will always, always stay on our VIP members: the children.

Our job is to help them not only to adapt to a changing world but to grow as individuals who will change the world themselves.

Published 07.09.2018