Friday, April 01, 2016

Finnish Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism is the increasingly misguided notion that the U.S. is best at everything simply because it is the U.S. It is a tribal instinct that encourages the brusque dismissal of critiques that admit of ways in which life might be better somewhere else. "Love it or leave it," is the refrain of  this peculiar worldview.

Howard Gardner is a U.S. educator who did leave it -- for a professional opportunity -- spent five months in Finland with his family. He can now share his perspective on why Finland has the best schools.
Source: Lonely Planet
No place is actually best at everything of course, but Finland is consistently identified as the very best in education. It should not be surprising that this is accomplished mainly by valuing educators -- holding them in higher regard even than politicians, consultants, and publishers of odious testing regimes.

Another key is a leap of faith -- counterintuitive, perhaps -- by which inattention to frequent testing leads directly to excellent results on annual tests. Who ensures that the students are learning? The same people who took care of this when I was a kid in a very different United States: teachers. Not the accountability industry or ETS: teachers.

Another key: recess outdoors. While many (most?) U.S. children no longer spend 15 minutes a day outside, their Finnish counterparts are outside 15 minutes out of each hour.
In the U.S., parents allowing this sort of behavior (walking to school) could actually be arrested for endangerment, because of television-induced misconceptions about child safety.
How do teachers in Finland avoid being stifled by bureaucrats? According to the article, it is because educational leaders protect children from politicians. In the U.S., children are pawns in games that feature educational leaders feeding teachers to the politicians who set school (and university) budgets. Teachers who should be -- figuratively -- driving the education bus are thrown under it instead.

I actually know a fair number of politicians, and I spend time talking with them about education. Individually, they respect teachers and want the best for children. After all, most of them once were children and many of them have children or grandchildren in school. As individuals, many of them also respect teachers. After all, they are successful people, and all successful people have teachers to thank for at least some of their success.

Collectively, though, something goes awry, and even well-intentioned legislators underfund education while over-regulating it. For us to catch up with Finland, this needs to change.


Finland's lead in education rings true for me, as I did a bit of work with a Finnish social scientist when I was in graduate school. He was more articulate in English (his second or third language) than most people who speak it as a first language.

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