Human by Design - Lessons from Finland
Reflections on the experience by Kate Field, our visitor from Connecticut, USA
In the United States, the purpose of our educational system is to prepare children for college and/or career. This is the explicit purpose of the Common Core State Standards. In contrast, the purpose of the educational system in Finland seems less about preparation for future success, and more about designing responsible human beings. In the United States, human is something we assume is our natural condition; something we are born being by virtue of our chromosomes. In Finland, however, human seems to be considered something you gradually become. The role of education then is to guide children along the path of becoming human together. The national curriculum focuses on academics, of course, but this appears secondary to the purposeful and systematical cultivation of children’s humanity.
What does it mean to be human? Humans are rational and capable of making decisions and solving complex problems, alone or in collaboration with others. Other species, by contrast, are governed by instinct. Central to being human is our ability to act rationally based on strength of our will and the power of our intellect. The ability to choose how to react to stimuli separates humans from other creatures. But when we do not regulate our emotions, when we make choices based on impulse rather than reason, and when we strike out at others out of pain or fear, we forfeit an essential piece of our humanity.
Our group was consistently told throughout the trip that autonomy is the foundation of the Finnish educational system. Free will, or the ability to decide one’s own actions, belongs only to humans, and is a concept shared by nearly all the world’s major religions. The roots of the Abrahamic faiths, for example, extend back to the creation stories found in the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible when God creates human life. According to these stories, Eve and Adam choose to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, resulting in profoundly serious consequences—both are banished from paradise and face a very uncertain future filled with no small measure of joy, but also with heartbreak, hard work, illness, and eventual death. This “fall,” however, was not entirely catastrophic. With it also came the opportunity learn and to discover our common humanity. Many of the world’s other major religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, are also rooted in this idea, that humans are unique in that we alone can freely select our actions, but with this gift comes the added responsibility to bear the consequences of our actions, which is called karma in the Eastern religions. Karma can be good, but also horrific, not because God is punishing humans or because the universe is inherently cruel, but because suffering is often the logical result of our choices or the choices of others. This is at the heart of all major religions, likely because it is the essence of what makes us human. We can choose to ignore the consequences of our actions and live in pain and hopelessness, or we can decide to work together to repair our broken world.
Religion or secular ethics is part of the Finnish National curriculum, a fact many in our group found surprising. But I have come to regard its inclusion as purposeful and logical, less about promulgating a religious faith, and more about providing an ethical framework as a foundation for a humane life. From preschool all the way through post-secondary school, Finnish children are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that they are free agents, capable of making decisions for and by themselves. This is a tremendous leap of faith for parents and teachers alike, both doubtlessly fully aware of the myriad of dangers that may lurk around corners. Our guide Lena explained young parents who send their children off to school for the first time will walk beside them for the first few days, but after that, will allow them to walk on their own, even if they may secretly follow some distance behind for the first week. Freedom does not come without fear, but Fins seem to understand in a way most Americans do not, that if we do not provide children the freedom to grow and expand beyond the parameters of our control, they may possibly be safer, but will learn helplessness instead of independence and may never discover the extent of their capabilities or the fullness of their humanity.
Trust is an essential ingredient in the development of autonomy, and appears to permeate the educational culture from preschool all the way through the university level. The national government trusts the municipal government to use state funds responsibly; therefore it gives them the power to do so. The municipal government trusts school administrators to oversee the development a school-based curriculum aligned with the national curriculum that is also responsive to the needs of the students in their building. Administrators trust that teachers have been highly trained and are skilled professionals who know what is best for their students, therefore, teachers have the ability to, in the words of an English teacher at Helsinki Normal University, “teach the child and not the curriculum.”
There is no teacher evaluation system in Finland, virtually no standardized testing until the end of postsecondary school, and no word for accountability in the Finnish language. Freed from scrutiny, and valued and respected on par with doctors, teachers in turn trust their students to learn what they need to know and do what they need to do. Even children in preschool are spoken to as if they are adults, “When you are trusted to do well, you usually do,” explained Kaarina Winter, a teacher at the English School in Helsinki.
I believe the basis for this trust is the assumption that humans are generally good if provided equitable opportunities to learn and provided appropriate guidance along the way. John Locke wrote that humans are born a “tabula rasa” or blank slate. Locke believed nearly any child could be become anything they wanted if given the right opportunities and support. If all children are born blank slates, this suggests we are all also born equal, and human inequality is caused not by lack of effort or lower intelligence, but by inequitable access to learning and love. We become unequal because some have better opportunities and more love than others. This type of thinking appears to be not only the basis of the Finnish educational system, but also the very foundation of Finland’s economic, political, and social structure.
The Design Museum was a powerful experience, and I was deeply touched by what I learned and saw there. It came at the right moment in the trip and felt like finding the missing piece of a puzzle that brought all the school experiences into clearer focus. Finns appear to prefer simple designs, elegant lines, and objects with practical purpose that serves the common good. They seek to learn from others in their design thinking, but boil everything down to its very essence in a way that is uniquely Finnish. I realized Finns appreciate designs that are close to nature, because nature is good—and it is our nature to be good as well. I believe this may be why Fins have such deep appreciation for the natural world; when we are most in tune with nature, we are also most in tune with our own goodness.
I was moved to learn from Ms. Kapanen of the Design Museum, that when a child is born in Finland, the parents go home with a baby kit that contains all the essentials for a healthy start. This is such a beautifully simple idea that says much about Finnish priorities. Many new mothers here in the US can’t afford baby formula or diapers, can’t afford to remain at home and do not have the family leave to do so. Nearly 20% of children in the United States live in poverty, and our lack of support for new mothers only perpetuates the cycle and ensures that percentage will continue to grow. In the United States, the prevalent belief seems to be that inequality, while unfortunate, is a natural byproduct of a capitalistic society representing a failure to work hard enough or a low level of intelligence. But the majority of Fins clearly do not subscribe to this theory. Instead, they seem to regard equality as our natural state, and inequality a challenge that can be remedied by ensuring the basic needs of all are met, beginning before birth with prenatal care and continuing on until the end of life. It is hard to be poor in Finland. They have nationalized health care, equitable access to free, high quality educational opportunities, free university, and generous family leave policies. The entire culture seems based on the idea that as humans, we have a duty to ensure the basic welfare of all. This commitment to the common good was reflected in many of the uniquely Finnish service designs we saw at the museum, such as the solar lights that are used by the children at my sister’s orphanage in Haiti during frequent power outages.
The commitment to human equality was evident in more subtle ways as well. It was reflected in the way class and subject teachers at every school we visited were dressed, very casually, without effort to appear “professional” or above the students they were teaching. “Teaching is my superpower,” said Kaarina Winter, whose students call her by her first name, “my students think I am one step away from God.” Confident of their deep respect, there is no need for any power struggles. Teachers do not appear to have a disciplinary role—when a student’s attention wanders, if another wants to lie on the floor rather than read his book, teachers do not interrupt the lesson or the learning of others to address the behavior. “We do not control the students or their learning,” explained an English teacher at Helsinki Normal School, “to learn or not is their choice.” Because teachers are greatly respected, there is less need to assert power, which can taint a relationship between teacher and student—the focus of their relationship becomes less about learning and more about power dynamics. Teachers treat students, including preschoolers, as rational human beings capable of making the right decisions, even if they sometimes stray and need guidance. They convey their respect for students as equal human beings in their speech, manner of dress, and in informal atmosphere that pervades every classroom.
Respect for the contributions of all types of people and occupations are reflected in the Finnish National Curriculum. All students are exposed to vocational arts as part of their compulsory education and also learn important life skills. These subjects have been eliminated in most U.S. schools, but teach the value of craftsmanship and promote a deep respect for workers. As a result, when students decide whether to attend upper secondary school or a vocational school, there is little pressure from parents or others to follow a university track, as both paths are highly respected, valued, and compensated with livable wages. As our guide Johanna said, “I do not care if my children attend upper secondary school or a vocational school. It doesn’t matter to me in the least. What matters is that they are happy.”
Johanna’s comment resonated with me, as I suspect it does with most Fins. It seems not even the Fins take seriously their recent designation as, “the Happiest Country on Earth.” The concept is a little silly. But I do believe Finland is deeply committed to cultivating, as Kaarina Winter put it, “Happy, healthy, inspired people.” The atmosphere of play that pervades classrooms, the amount time spent outside, the design of space with comfortable coaches and flexible seating arrangements are all evidence of this commitment. I do not know if Finland is the happiest place on earth, but I do believe it may be one of the most humane.