Are Classrooms an Exportable Resource?

I visited today with Mika Rantala, the principal of the nearby Schiltin lukio, a school with a focus on sports (Olli Määttä of the Pittsburgh Penguins came through the school a few years ago). No sports teams like in American schools, but more on that later, maybe. IMG_4157

Mika has welcomed guests from around the world and has traveled as far away as China to share information of the Finnish education system.

Nokia is kaputt; the paper and cardboard industries are volatile and you can only cut down so many trees; but “the Finnish education system” appears to be an inexhaustible natural resource.

I have heard there is a school opening in Buffalo, New York, built on “the Finnish model.” And in the past week, I have spoken with educators who have traveled to Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Shanghai to share their way of doing things.

Yet today, Mika told my fellow Fulbrighters and me that there really isn’t anything very special happening in the classroom. The teachers talk, the students take a few notes. All pretty traditional. The English class I visited was a lot of fun: my heart goes out to Finnish kids who have to grapple with our gendered pronouns and confounding articles (“I’d like a couple of her chocolates.”) Kirsi Solonsaari called on students who nervously tried to use a series of idioms in sentences (“The first time I saw a football game, I fell in love with it”). The textbooks are thin, colorful, and clearly written. The students’ English is amazing. Yet I wouldn’t say there was anything groundbreaking going on in the classroom, pedagogically speaking.

Sitting at the teachers’ table in the crowded lunchroom, I asked a history teacher named Kaisu Ikäheimo how much homework she’d given her students since the last time she saw them on Wednesday. 45 minutes? 30 minutes? No, not that much, she said. That is if they do it, she confided. Kaisu doesn’t want to give so much homework that it gets in the way of their sports.

As we walked through the halls–Shildtin, like every other school I’ve visited, is filled with slanting, natural light–teenagers looked at their phones, gossiped, played guitars, and did homework. There are no clubs during the school day. If they don’t have classes after lunch, the students are free to leave. This is true at my daughter’s elementary school as well.

There is little homework and less class time than in the US, but, when they are in class, Mika suggests, “they are there to learn.” When they are out of school, they have spare time: hobbies, exercise, video games, and so on. But they are not under surveillance; their education is their own responsibility. “They learn from society,” explains Mika.

The state trusts the teachers to arrange school budgets (I’m attending such a meeting next Tuesday); the administration trusts the teachers to teach as the see fit; the teachers trust the students to make their own schedules; and adults trust children to make good choices when they are not in class. This trust, a word I hear every day here, is supported by the layout of the cities, their transportation systems, and the support every Finn receives from the government. This, I am sad to say, doesn’t appear to me to be exportable. The faith in the basic goodness of people may arise out of, or have contributed to the rise of, the socialist system in Finland in the previous century. It is a democratic nation that believes in the essential competence of its citizens.

But Finland is in recession. Iceland, Ireland, and Sweden are back on their feet. But not Finland. The flush age of Nokia isn’t coming back (there’s an irony in that social services were bolstered by a private tech company); the population is aging. The currency can’t be devalued to boost exports (as was done before Finland joined the EU) because Finland uses the Euro and there are European restrictions on trade with Russia next door. So the government is consolidating and cutting positions at the university level and Mika feels he has to do more with less. Education feels more political, it seems, more tied to economics. On top of this is a new national curriculum.

But that is a view of Finland in rapid motion. The snapshot of a day at a Finnish upper-secondary school offers a different image. To me, the schools I visit seem wonderfully ordinary. The kids are just kids, laughing, chatting, looking sheepish when the principal asks them what they were up to. Still they are more independent than American children, more in charge of their own lives, whether that be in the abstract realm of their education or in how they make their way across town. Mika seems to think that their freedoms and their inner-directedness are central to the success of Finnish schools.





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