“We have to be humble to see where we have to improve.” These were the opening words of the presentation of a leader in the best education system in the world. “All systems deteriorate if you don’t keep working on them.”
Linna Eeva-Kaisa, a Senior Advisor in the Finnish National Board of Education, began her review of Finnish education with a map. The border with Russia is the longest border between countries in Europe. The history of this border helps to define Finland: “The border meant and means that we have to try to understand what Russia is about.” Several other education leaders I heard have started their presentations on Finnish education with a map. The map focuses attention immediately on the challenges the country faces: it speaks of a history of war and occupation and turmoil and a future of ongoing change.
Then, Linna went on to talk about different immigrant and native communities within Finland and their languages. People learn best in their native language, so Finland does their utmost to ensure that everyone has the right to education in their language. The development of programs on languages of minorities is at the heart of the FIRST objective of the Finnish education system: equity of quality education for all people.
In a country with a large immigrant population, 40 or 50 languages, this is an area Finland struggles to address.
Throughout her presentation, Linna emphasized challenges, areas of development, and attitudes. She didn’t talk about her country’s successes or what they do to produce such high performing students. As I have been visiting schools, I can see why. The schools aren’t extraordinary in comparison to American schools. They are light-filled, happy, sane places, but students and faculty are regular folks.
The practices aren’t so different, but the underlying values are. Given this changing world, different students in different contexts, the universal commitment to equity in education means that the education system –from the ministry to the teachers to the students — must always be learning. I would like to see U.S. educational practices root themselves in the humility that enables reflective, questioning, learning. This would not require more money or new methods. It would take a significant change in attitude. Perhaps it would help if we start with a map: what would it look like if we aligned education with broad and deep consideration of our own complex history and cultural geography?