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The Secret to Finland's Success With Schools, Moms, Kids—and Everything

Jyri Engestrom

Finland—home of Angry Birds, Linux, and Nokia—and the US are polar opposites on many dimensions. In this Atlantic piece, Finland's welfare state is described a virtuous circle – Finns' social cohesion props up the welfare state, which in turn promotes greater harmony. But in a way, America's lack of safety net reinforces competitiveness and innovation. Having split my life and founded companies in both countries, I find the way Olga Khazan contrasts the two here both accurate and interesting.

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  • Caterina Fake

    Here's another article mentioning the Finnish education system, from the book "The Smartest Kids in the World":

    I took special note of this passage:

    This is the first hint of how Finland does it: rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as we do, they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.

  • Christopher Egusa

    Thanks for posting this, Jyri! I have a friend from Norway who likes to brag about similar social benefits (esp the free education). You often hear about what paradises Scandinavian countries are, but the article made me wonder about how replicable their systems are outside of those countries. I've heard that liberal economic policies really only work like they're supposed to if a country 100% commits to it - then it can create the virtuous cycle phenomenon like in Finland. It's hard though because in the US we're so politically entrenched, and it's true that the size and diversity factors play a role too...

  • Casey Caplowe

    The most interesting thing to me in this article is the suggestion that the equitability focus of Finnish policies may at least in part be driven by the fact that women had strong representation and leadership in the country's founding days and doctrines.

    The quote the author cites from Columbia University lecturer Ellen Marakowitz, blows my mind by in the subtly radical view on citizenship as actually inclusive: "You have a state system that was built on issues concerning Finnish citizens, both men and women, rather than women's rights,"

    It really makes you reflect on how rare that is in the world's governments. I'd love to know more about other places where that may be true and if it really does correlate to different social policies and outlooks.

  • Liz Dwyer

    I love this article and have read it several times--and have had some in-depth conversations with educators about it, so thanks for sharing. Nearly one-fourth of American children live in poverty and having taught in extremely low income communities myself, having to hustle to ensure your kids learn how to read even though they have nothing but ramen noodles to eat at home, is seriously tough. There's no silver bullet and there's a lot of heartbreak.

    A couple years ago there was a Harvard-based working group that identified addressing poverty as the next frontier in education reform. --and I can see that shift happening within the education community.

    So many educators appreciate models like the Harlem Children's Zone, which inspired Obama's Promise Neighborhoods, but there is a great deal of frustration with what's seen as a top-down steamrolling of education policy that is pretty far removed from both that model and the changes Finland's made over the past 20 years--changes many teachers are clamoring for. Indeed, Pasi Sahlberg has become a mini-star here in many education circles--his book 'Finnish Lessons is a seriously excellent read and very inspiring.

    The point about Finland's societal shift to focusing on equality is, for me, the key to all of this. A friend recently joked that America's motto should really be "I gotta get mine, you gotta get yours" because we don't see other people's children as our responsibility. I don't know about the motto change, but our challenges with racism, classism, and materialism are clouding our sense of collective responsibility (the healthcare reform fight, anyone?) even if at our heart, we believe in equality as a great ideal. And I think we're all accountable for that. So what do we do? We all have to stand up in the circles we're in--we each know decision-maker and have the power to vote and attend school board meetings. We have to hammer this need for this equality and true justice home.

    What gives me a sense of possibility that we can make similar changes here in the U.S. is that Finland was able to turn things around so quickly. We can make it happen. I do believe it.

  • Adele Peters

    Really interesting. I spent some time living in Sweden and thought about some similar issues there...I agree that American society might be better at spurring innovation in some ways, but are more iPhones really what the world needs? I'd argue most countries are in greater need of innovation in systemic issues in things like education and the environment, which Finland has done a better job of figuring out. We need to rethink what a healthy economy means.

    • Ben Goldhirsh

      I think the most exciting and intimidating aspect of this investigation is the wholistic nature of the effort. Basically, wellfare systems can play a role of an investment fund in human potential, or a safety net for human suffering. The latter is a lot more expensive and seemingly a lot less effective, and I'm note sure how a large society can pivot from one to the other.

  • Ben Goldhirsh

    god damn this is an awesome but hard article to read. awesome because it's impressive to see an ecosystem working so smoothly, hard because there is so much smoke on the system here and the ideas on how to evolve are super challenging given the complexity of the existing system. so, Jyri, is the difference as stark as this article presents? are there elements of the US system that you hold dearly over what you grew up with in Finland?

    • Jyri Engestrom

      Conceiving of the welfare state as an investment fund in human potential – that's brilliant.

      It reminded me of a story from second grade in Helsinki. One day a few weeks into September my parents asked me, seemingly confused, pointing to the class schedule I had taped to the kitchen window, why most of it was filled with the acronym "LOTR".

      It stood indeed for Lord of the Rings. We spent the first part of the year listening to our teacher read the book (all three volumes) out loud and the remainder screenwriting, casting, staging, shooting and editing our own scrappy eight-year old's film version of the epic (yup... I played Gimli). We didn't quite finish it by the time the school year was over, but no one wanted to quit so some of us (including our teacher) kept working on the final cut even though school was out.

      It wasn't the only time a teacher concocted a quirky subject seemingly ad hoc. And I bet that I would not have chosen the digital media career path I'm still on had it not been for that early opportunity to experience the wonder and stimulation of being a director-creator.

      So why is a Finn like me here in the US? The answer, predictably in my case, is Silicon Valley. It has that childhood maker spirit, only the kids here are grown-ups. But look: we're homeschooling. In the Valley that is unremarkable. Not so in Finland. Unlike Valley entrepreneurs, Finns don't abhor institutions. Their institutions generally work well. There's an emphasis on the communal. In an environment like that, there's really very little need to go out on a limb, amble away on your own – to homeschool your kids for instance.

      So Finnish life is more rooted, more institutionalized whereas in the US and especially in the Valley communities are more ad hoc.

      That's fine. There are multiple ways.

      Maybe it's not either or. How about splitting the year between two cultures? Take some of this, some of that, and roll your own mix.