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Why Does Finland Educate Its Kids Better?

Gracy Olmstead explores the Finnish way of educating their children, and finds some things in it for traditionalist conservatives to admire. Excerpt:

Teachers spend fewer hours at school and less time in classrooms than their American counterparts. Rather, they use this extra time to create curricula, assess students, and continue their own education. Children spend more time playing outside, and homework is minimal, according to Hancock.

This reminded me of an Independent article a teacher passed along to me only a week ago: research biopsychologist Peter Gray pointed out that “Most problems in life cannot be solved with formulae or memorized answers of the type learnt in school,” but rather “require the judgement, wisdom and creative ability that come from life experiences. For children, those experiences are embedded in play.” Gray sees the modern emphasis on greater testing and homework as dangerous to child development, and pointed to research that demonstrates such measures give students “little opportunity to be creative, discover or pursue their own passions, or develop physical and social skills.”

In Finland, compulsory schooling doesn’t even begin until age 7. Partanen finds the success of this especially intriguing when compared with “the stereotype of the East Asian model—long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization.”

In a piece for the National Education Association, Linda Darling-Hammond points out the importance of inquiry to learning in Finland: students are encouraged to cultivate “active learning skills” and to ask open-ended questions: “In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups.” This independence and activity, she argues, “allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways.”

Reading this, I’m reminded of what college professors often say: that the kids they teach these days are unusually anxious to be given the correct answer. The idea of exploring the questions seems frightening to many of them. This is likely the result, or at least substantially the result, of a way of educating children that sees education as acquiring information, as distinct from the search for truth, and from preparing the child to flourish.

I suspect that a truth not too many people are eager to consider is that the Finnish education model works so well because they are teaching Finns. I’m not making a racial/genetic claim here; I’m making a cultural one. Finland is small, ethnically homogeneous and culturally uniform.  Places like that tend to have a degree of social capital (e.g., trust, solidarity) that more diverse countries and polities do not have. More importantly, not knowing a thing about Finland, I am pretty sure that there are other qualities of the Finnish character that make a big difference on education policy and success — qualities that prevent the Finnish model from being successfully exported to most countries.

What I mean is touched on by Robert D. Kaplan in his Stratfor essay on Orthodox Christianity and European geopolitics (you have to subscribe to read the whole thing; I’m grateful to the subscriber who sent the piece to me). Here’s how it begins:

Horia-Roman Patapievici is a Romanian philosopher who, way back in the late 1990s, told me that Romania’s task was to acquire a public style based on impersonal and transparent rules like in the West, otherwise business and politics would be full of intrigue. And he questioned whether Romania’s Eastern Orthodox tradition is helpful in this regard. He went on to explain that Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece and Cyprus — the Orthodox nations of Europe — were all characterized by weak institutions, compared with those of northwestern Europe. He and many others have intimated that this is partly because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, thus tolerant of the world as it is, having created its own alternative order.

Because of Orthodoxy, according to the late British historian Hugh Seton-Watson, early 20th-century Russians who lost their religious faith did not become “rationalist skeptics” in the Western tradition; they merely transferred their spiritual fervor to social revolution. Nicolas Berdyaev, a Russian intellectual of the era, observed that Bolshevism was an Orthodox form of Marxism, because it underscored “totality.” (Indeed, Stalin, who studied for six years at an Orthodox monastery in Georgia, gave speeches that evoked the singsong litanies of the church.)

There is much to debate here. But clearly, given the millennia-old traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with its forests of beeswax candles, silver-plated icons and other exemplars of intoxicating magic, there is a clear otherness to Orthodoxy that defines it as a great world religion. To say that the Orthodox countries that dominate the Balkans and Russia are capable eventually of the same level of institutional development as those in northwestern Europe is altogether reasonable; but to say that such things as culture and religion simply do not contribute at all to different development patterns in Greater Europe is not reasonable.

Culture, geography and historical experience are all of primary significance. They make us what we are. To erase the past and to say that we are suddenly all identical creatures in a global meeting hall is the height of folly. Yet that, after a fashion, is what Europe’s elites have believed for decades. If you even mention national characteristics to them, such as those devolved from Orthodoxy, you are an “essentialist,” an academic word that means you are guilty of ethnic stereotyping. But can it be wholly an accident that the countries facing the direst financial and political straits in Europe today are mainly in the southeastern and southern parts of the continent? Clearly, geography, history and religion play some sort of a role, however much they can be overcome, and however difficult it is to quantify them.

Kaplan doesn’t really get into specifics on how Orthodoxy may have shaped Eastern European geopolitics, but his point, it seems to me, is hard to deny. Of course we have to remember that Orthodoxy, like Catholicism and any other form of religion, did not drop down from the sky fully formed. It appears in history, and shapes history as it is shaped by history. The modern Orthodox consciousness is shaped by having been developed under, for example, Slavophilia and the Islamic yoke — two factors that the West did not have to deal with. In a similar sense, Latin Christianity was shaped by the fact that for centuries, the Roman church was the only stable institutional government in western Europe. Had the Empire not fallen in the West in the fifth century, thrusting the Western bishops into the position of having to govern more than just the spiritual lives of the West’s Christians, it seems to me likely that the Western Christian ethos would have been far more inwardly-oriented, as is Orthodoxy. In turn, Protestantism is a historical reaction to Catholicism, as is the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The point is, culture is what happens when ideas are taken up in history by a particular people, and lived out according to their own circumstances and characters. The dialectic relationship is endless. Insofar as other peoples haven’t had the histories of ourselves, or of the Finns, or of the French, the Russians, and the Persians, the ability to replicate one culture’s success in another culture is limited (though not made impossible!) by cultural difference.

Anyway, this is all to say that I love reading about how the Finns have managed to do such a good job of educating their young, but I very much doubt their model would work here, not because it’s a bad model per se, but because they are Finns and we are Americans.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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