Education in the United States and Finland: What Is and What Can Be

This originally appeared as a CTQ guest blog post and is a summary of a summer 2015 trip to Finland and Switzerland with EF Education First.


Finland

Whenever I’ve taught Anthropology or Sociology courses, I’ve used examples of values and norms from other societies so that students are better positioned to analyze the similarities and differences that exist across cultures.  For the Gabra, a nomadic society of northern Kenya, ensuring that all members are taken care of is vital to the welfare of the entire group.  The cultural expectation of providing hospitality and support to those in need is epitomized by the expression, “a poor man shames us all.”  In fact, those who refuse to help others are stigmatized, often for multiple generations.  Similarly, for some countries, policy shifts and cultural transformations have established a solid foundation for support, well-being, and growth.

Having recently returned from a trip to Finland and Switzerland with a group of American educators, organized by EF Education First, I feel no closer to unlocking the “secret” of Finnish educational success than I did prior to embarking on the journey – largely because there is no secret.  The simple answer is this: Finland’s cultural values and priorities are manifested in its system of education: “to guarantee all people…equal opportunities and rights to culture, free quality education, and prerequisites for full citizenship.”  Like the Gabra, Finland aims to uplift everyone in society; in Finland’s case, this vision can be achieved by providing equitable access to education and other social benefits.  To be fair, there are plenty of aspects of American society and education that mirror such ideals – most notably encapsulated in schools’ mission statements.  Regrettably, however, there is a wide discrepancy between what our institution of education claims as its grander purpose and the policies, norms, and structures that commonly exist.  Despite our any claims to the contrary, we have yet to find the will and wherewithal to commit to education as a civil right for everyone, and our realities do not match our ideals.

Rethinking our Social and Educational Priorities

Throughout Helsinki, there are a number of bicycle and pedestrian paths.  Notably, the pedestrian pathway is designated with a stark white silhouette of a child and parent holding hands.  In and of itself, perhaps this is not significant, but coupled with robust governmental support for child rearing – expectant mothers are given a maternity package and strong maternity (and paternity) leave policies – it becomes clearer that Finland’s policies and cultural values are relatively aligned.  Moreover, Finnish students do not begin their formalized education until the age of 7, standardized testing is unheard of in the formative years, and autonomy and play are encouraged throughout the curriculum.  Contrast such norms to what is common in the United States, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s observation cuts deeper: “We spend the first years of our children’s lives teaching them how to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down.”  Our system seems intent on control and compliance, rewards and punishments, and a warped sense of rugged individualism that forsakes the value and power of collective responsibility.

Trust and Equity

At the foundation of Finnish educational success are two core values: trust and equity.  Educators, businesses, government, and community entities, guided by the emphasis on equity, trust one another’s expertise, values, input, and intentions.  By the 1970s and 1980s, Finland’s educational system had become more decentralized and decision-making occurred at the local level. Concurrently, the inspection of schools and textbooks was abolished, and funding reforms allowed for local autonomy.  Constraints on control and standardization facilitated greater flexibility, freedom, and the teaching profession became more supported, trusted, and respected. Finland had embarked on a multi-decade initiative to transform its society through educational transformation, with teacher professionalism and authentic learning experiences as powerful drivers.

Love of Learning

In other words, as external forces diminished, stakeholders have been able to concentrate their time, energy, and resources on personalized learning, relationships, and growth.  In such a climate, adult stakeholders ostensibly trust one another, causing classroom environments to be less controlling and more collaborative in nature.  Teaching is a highly attractive (and highly exclusive) profession, with more opportunities for meaningful interaction, voice, and agency than one finds in other educational systems.  These conditions necessarily impact teacher motivation and morale, with a trickle-down effect on classroom environments and student learning. With trust and equity as twin pillars of the educational system, it is unsurprising that Finland is able to focus on learning processes for civic engagement and development rather than on expending unnecessary energy for checklists, data, and oversight.  As one presenter stated, “learning for life and learning for a test are two different things.  Tests come and go.”

Emphasizing Extrinsic Motivators

It is ironic that as much as American education is heavily criticized domestically, we are looked upon favorably abroad.  On numerous occasions, I have been asked by teachers in other countries what our “secret” is – how do we foster creativity, innovation, independence, and critical thinking?  While American cultural values and its system of education provide a strong foundation for such skills and dispositions, we have yet to see this realized on a larger scale for all children.  Too many of our communities, schools, and students remain constrained and marginalized by poverty, lack of access, and limited opportunities.  Too many of us are focused on extrinsic motivators that inevitably lead to competition, compliance, expediency, sanctions, disengagement, and a diminished love of learning.  Too often, we devolve into an “us versus them” mentality rather than thinking and speaking in terms of “we.”  Tim Walker, who blogs about his experiences as an American teaching in Finland, had met with a group of Finnish and American students the day before meeting with us at Ressu Comprehensive School.  He told us about the high level of stress the American student visitors conveyed regarding performance outcomes, standardized tests, class rank, and myriad other factors that shape their educational experience and feelings about school.  It is little wonder that we are often a nation divided, bent on winning at all costs and often neglecting the greater good – unwittingly or not, we encourage such behaviors and attitudes throughout a child’s education.

Surviving or Thriving?

Several days later, in Davos, Switzerland, we attended the Global Student Leadership Summit on Education, where well over a thousand students worked collaboratively to develop solutions to the many challenges we face in education today.  The keynote speaker was Sir Ken Robinson, and he was as engaging, funny, philosophical, and inspiring as one might expect.  Avowing that everybody has talents, though often latent, he asked rhetorically, “does the student fail the system or does the system fail the student?”  Reflecting on his assertions, one student from Boston – wise beyond her years – remarked that “the world is much bigger than a report card.”  Sir Ken seemed pleased.  Similarly, Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education, said, “we’re measuring a lot of things in education today,” and wondered, “how are we measuring care?”  To Busteed, and bolstered by Gallup polling data, purposeful well-being is directly connected to enjoying our work and thriving in life.  It seems that other countries are much closer to this ideal than the United States.  According to the Gross National Happiness index, anyway, Finland certainly is.

Collective Responsibility

Another society my students and I examine is the Weyewa, from eastern Indonesia. To the Weyewa, social relations are the basis of wealth, not material possessions.  These social connections are crucial for, among other activities, completing a stone dragging ritual to honor one’s ancestors.  Such an important undertaking requires communal effort, one rooted in the relationships that have been established.  Likewise, education cannot change in a vacuum without all of us committed to its value and importance. There seem to be too many variables working against the good work of schools that prevent education from becoming paramount in our society.  Teaching and learning today should not feel like such a Sisyphean task – working hard to cultivate student growth in the face of so many forces that preclude true learning from taking place in a meaningful, transformative, and sustainable way.

While Finland’s educational system is not without its flaws and challenges, one might fairly and understandably speculate as to why American educators continue to study Finnish education without actually implementing some of the very elements that have undoubtedly led to its success.  To this end, perhaps we should be focusing less on Finnish education and more on the cultural values and conditions that make it possible. Together, we can move the often intransigent “stone of education,” if you will.  As Shiza Shahid, founder and CEO of the Malala Fund, inspirationally affirmed on the last day of the Summit, “There are no superheroes, only us.  We are the people we keep waiting for.”

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