We say little about Finland, so we are grateful to Jaqui White for sending us this article from the New York Times (4/9/04), "Educators Flocking to Finland, Land of Literate Children" by Lizette Alvarez
SUUTARILA, Finland - Imagine an educational system where children do not start
school until they are 7, where
spending is a paltry $5,000 a year per student, where there are no gifted programs and class sizes often approach 30. A prescription for failure, no doubt, in the eyes of many experts, but in this case a description of Finnish schools,
which were recently ranked the world's best. Finland topped a respected international survey last year, coming in first in literacy and placing in the top five in math and science. Ever since, educators from all over the world have thronged to this self-restrained country to deconstruct its school system - "educational pilgrims," the locals call them - and, with luck, take home a sliver of wisdom.
The question on people's minds is obvious: how did Finland, which was hobbled
by a deep recession in the 1990's, manage to outscore 31 other countries, including
the United States, in the review by the Organization of Economic
Cooperation and Development last September? The rankings were based on reading, math and science tests given to a sample of 15-year-olds attending both public and private schools. United States students placed in the middle of the pack.
Finland's recipe is both complex and unabashedly basic. It is also similar
to that in other Nordic countries. Some of
the ingredients can be exported (its flexibility in the classroom, for example) and some cannot (the nation's
small, homogenous population and the relative prosperity of most Finns, to name two). If one trait sets Finland apart from many other countries, it is the quality and social standing of its teachers, said Barry Macgaw, the director for education at the O.E.C.D. All teachers in Finland must have at least a master's degree, and while they are no better paid than teachers in other countries, the profession is highly respected. Many more people want to become teachers after graduating from upper schools than universities can actually handle, so the vast majority are turned down.
The Suutarila school - cheerful, well lit, nicely heated -is typical of Finnish
"comprehensive schools," which run
from first to ninth grade. The students, who number about 500, pad about in their socks. After every 45-minute
lesson, they are let loose outside for 15 minutes so they can burn off steam. Others are allowed to practice their
music, and they file into classrooms, sling electric guitars across their chests or grab drumsticks and jam. While there are no programs for gifted children, teachers are free to devise ways to challenge their smartest students. The smarter students help teach the average students. "Sometimes you learn better that way," said Pirjo Kanno, the principal in Suutarila. For the full text, see
RH. I know Finland, but I cannot find Suutarila on the map; it must be a small place. Jaqui Whie is unhappy with the US rating and the condition of the local school: "I am always amazed when the US ends up in the middle of any ranking about anythng, particularly education and infant mortality to mention two. I think children's being allowed to run outside in the cold every 45 minutes in Finland might have a great deal to do with their educational success. Our Port Isabel High School does not even have any windows (I am serious about this - I simply cannot believe it). They say it saves on the air conditioning bill, and in case of hurricane it is safer. Our last hurricane was twenty years ago, so generations of students cannot see outside just in case. I would perish if I were hermetically sealed in a classroom all day".Randy Black asks: "Is it valid to compare the success of Finland's educational system to that of other countries?
RH: There is much truth in this, but it must not be used as an excuse for the
deficiencies of US schools or to belittle the educational achievement of Finland.
Jaqui White sent us an article from the New York Times (4/9/04), "Educators Flocking to Finland, Land of Literate Children". John Heelan comments: "And literate taxi-drivers? With a lecture to give in Helsinki some years ago, I arrived at the airport without any knowledge of Finnish (or Swedish for that matter). Normally that is no problem because the English language capability of Scandinavians is superb- even out in small isolated villages. Surprisingly, the taxi-driver spoke little or no English, but spoke good Spanish (he was a Finn who spent his vacations in Andalucia). So there was a somewhat ridiculous situation in which a Brit traveller discussing with a Finnish taxi-driver, in Spanish, details of a warm, temperate land some 1500 miles south of the frozen, snowy wastes outside the car. [I have many happy memories of Finland and bibulous evenings with Finnish friends in various parts of the world.]". RH: I assume that because of the strict Finnish laws the taxi driver was not bibulous.
Aldo da Rosa comments on the posting about the school at Suutarila, Finland: "You won't find Suutarila in your map...unless you have a map of Helsinki. Suutarila is in the outskirts of the Finnish capital, right on the Baltic seashore. Judging from my experience teaching for a short while in the Otaniemi High School (read university), the high quality of the Finnish education extends all the way up to graduate studies. Otanieme has an electronics department as good as or better than any I know (and this includes Stanford)". RH: Aldo is Brazilian, so the weather must have been challenging.
Moscow-dweller Cameron Sawyer writes: "Language skills vary in Finland. A couple of years ago my wife and I took a car trip from Munich to Moscow via the Travemuende-Helsinki ferry. At the border crossing from Finland into Russia at Svetlogorsk, we waited for many hours in a long line of cars. The reason for the long line was that every traveler was being checked in detail; some people were being strip-searched. My passport was considered suspicious for some reason and the border guards, hulking, scowling young men, took me away for interrogation. But the interrogation was a farce because between them they had not a single common language with me; not only could they not speak any English, Russian or German but not even Swedish, which is one of the official languages of Finland and which I can partially understand due to its closeness to German. They attempted to communicate with me by pointing at pages in my passport and grunting. I felt like I had been arrested by Neanderthals. I cannot express my happiness at finally being let go by them and crossing over to the Russian side, where the border guards were smiling, friendly young ladies, who stamped my passport with a flourish and waved me on for the pleasant drive through the Karelian forest, over the cobblestone streets and past the ancient fortress of Vyborg, and on to St. Petersburg". RH: There could have been a serious questioning when Cameron arrived in Helsinki. Why would the Finns bother so much about people leaving the country? They should have been glad to get rid of them. Neanderthals ln highly-educated Finland? Years ago in the Soviet period, I traveled from Leningrad to Helsinki by train. The Russian side was very grim. After a long stop at the border, the train proceeded to Helsinki, where I went to a restaurant and sat by the window. A small carefree boy came and banged on the window. I thought "How unRussian".
Rob Gaudet disagrees with Randy Black: "I doubt there is any such thing
as "pure Finnish blood." What about the Lapps who live in northern
Scandinavia? What about the Russians? Isn't there a lot of interplay among cultures
in and around Finland? I k now the Finns regularly travel on ferries to Estonia
where they're a major embarrassment because they drink until they turn red in
the face. Undoubtedly, there have been some children spawned as the result of
these Finnish visits to Estonia. And what does it mean, "pure...blood"?
I think this is a really dangerous game and it is, also, misleading as I doubt
many people have "pure" blood of any sort" RH: Racially, the
Finns are mixed, most being either in the east of East Baltic stock or in the
west.and south of Nordic stock. There is a small number of Lapps. There are
about 4,000 Gypsies, 1,500 Jews and about 1,000 Turks. The Lutheran and the
Orthodox Church are officially recognized, the latter the result of long Russian
domination.The Finns are related to the Estonians. Finland has a highly developed
educational system. Surprisingly for country of less than 5 million people,
there are 11 universities and a number of institutes of university standing.
Finnish and Swedish are both official languages.
Land of the Tango
James Tent writes: "John Heelan's comments about the Spanish-speaking
taxi driver in Finland remind me of a German television documentary of several
years ago. It described the Finns as being by far the nation most infatuated
with the elegant Argentine dance, the Tango. The documentary went on to show
that there were tango clubs all over Finland. It also showed normally reticent
Finns of all ages and inclinations flocking to tango clubs and dancing... well
if not the night away (not easy so far north in the summer), at least having
a very good time. I doubt if there is any connection between this small nation's
unusual pastime and its high-performance educational system, but who knows?"
RH: It is odd that the tango developed in Argentina. It may have derived from
the milonga, a suggestive dance beloved by Argentina students at Stanford, combined
with the habanera of Cuba. It was invented around 1900, and in the 1920s it
was very popular in the US and Europe. Perhaps it reached Finland belatedly.
I hear little about it in the US now.
James Tent said a German television documentary of several years ago described the Finns as being by far the nation most infatuated with the elegant Argentine dance, the Tango".Ed. Jajko comments:" For information about the tango in Finland -- which reached there in the 1920s-30s and began to develop a local flavor in the 1930s -- see http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/tangoeng.html, http://www.tangomarkkinat.fi/english/tm/etusivu.htm. The latter is about the annual summer tango festival. There is a list of worldwide tango sites at http://davinci.ethz.ch/group/cm/tango_link.html#SECTION000017000000000000000.
RH: Ed is a Middle East specialist. What Arab countries permit dancing in public? The Taliban banned it as being contrary to Islam. At the same time, in Egypt belly dancing is performed in men's clubs with apparently some ritual justification. I trust that, having studied in Egypt, Ed is a specialist in belly-dancing.
John Heelan reported on a Helsinki taxi-driver who spoke little or no English,
but good Spanish because he spent his vacations in Spain. John added: "I
have many happy memories of Finland and bibulous evenings with Finnish friends
in various parts of the world.]". RH: I assume that because of the strict
Finnish laws the taxi driver was not bibulous. John replied: "In that case-
no. However, on one occasion, I did have had to give a lecture in a hotel sauna
in Finland, to where most of my students had fled to recover from the a *very*
bibulous previous evening, In my experience, Finns are among the most dedicated
drinkers in the world, even to the extent of demanding that a hotel in Segovia
(don't ask!) produce more and more bottles of vodka. Great party people!".
RH: This is serious business. Vodka is a real problem in Russia. What about
Finland? Poland is also a heavy consumer of vodka. Does Ed Jajko have anything
to report on this? To go to Spain and drink vodka means that the Finns had not
got the spirit of Spain.
Ronald Hilton -