Finnish school paradox

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This text is part of: "Problem of Schooling" by Piotr Wozniak (2017-2024)

Finnish school model

For years, I praised the Finnish school system as one of the best in the world. Today, I suspect it might be a wolf in sheep's clothing. I was inspired by rich mail exchange with a young Finnish student. That thread opened my eyes to many threats lurking in the Finnish system. When I published a few cautionary words on this site, I got more mail from Finland and my hypothesis keeps garnering evidence.

Here is the main idea:

Finnish school system is excellent. It painlessly educates compliant population. It boils the frog, but never kills the frog

Finnish qualities

The list of my compliments and praise for the Finnish school system is endless. Here are some highlights:

  • high freedom
  • attempts to keep a reasonable school start time
  • attempts to keep a reasonable school start age
  • attempts to modernize and thin out the curriculum (e.g. departure from cursive)
  • high emphasis on project-based learning
  • high emphasis on personalization
  • minimization of standardized testing
  • less homework
  • less pressure to perform
  • departure from ability grouping
  • departure from grading
  • respect for play and creativity
  • highly competitive, professional and respected teacher community
  • tuition free education
  • idea of "home daycare"
  • good protection and financing from the state

Limits of freedom

No education system that plays a role of a factory assembly line is immune from flaws that make it unworkable. The Finnish system might be one of the best, and it is still far from the ideal of free learning. Here are some reasons:

  • it is still compulsory, and no system that is based on coercion can implement free learning (see: Compulsory schooling must end)
  • whatever works in theory or on paper is often hard to implement in real life. Many Finnish educators insist that learning must be fun. However, in real life, it often is not (see: Pleasure of learning)
  • standardized testing might be criticized, however, student still face pressures of exams that decide their future. This makes cramming inevitable
  • the Finns can boast of 9 am starting school time, but for many teens, even midday may be early (see: DSPS). As Finland stretches at latitudes 60-67, it may have actually been pushed into their noble claims. It is far harder to keep a healthy circadian cycle that far in the north. I sympathize. I write these words at the early time of 9 am, and it still feels early on the longest day of the year. In addition, I am well past my teen years
  • free learning is impossible if there are goals set by the curriculum. Only unschooling or democratic schools provide freedom from the pressure of educational goals
  • early education is not compulsory, but it is practised widely for cultural reasons based on the belief that daycare is beneficial (even for babies that are 8 months old), and that early academic instruction is beneficial too (e.g. early reading)
  • grading is still in place, and grades such as "insightful" are only a theoretical prop for creativity. True creativity is free, and should never be graded by anyone beyond one's own knowledge valuation network

If the strive to improve Finnish education is incremental, evolutionary and science-based, it can do a lot of harm while trying to do a lot of good. If the optimization molds the coercive system using wrong criteria, we may end up with an educational factory that optimally boils the frog -- a perfect machine for perfect compliance, at the cost of creativity and intelligence. Finnish educational perfectionism may be its worst enemy. Why is there so little understanding of the power of free learning, homeschooling and unschooling in society that is molded by a perfect education system?

There is a simple proof of the evolution proceeding in the wrong direction. In 2021, the age of the end of the compulsory education will be extended from 16 to 18. This is a clear statement that the adult world does not trust teenage intelligence. The unfree childhood will be prolonged by two more years. The period of inculcating learned helplessness will be longer.

Finnish school system has no trust in the power of the young brain

Brutal law

Like in many other countries, going to school is for a child not just a right but also a duty. There's a whole chapter in the books about the duties of a pupil, creating the legal basis for everything that may be asked of them (class participation, homework, etc.).

Truant students get detention. Teachers monitor the school and the neighborhood to avoid unauthorized absence. Repeated truancy may result in penalties for parents, incl. loss of custody.

In other word, the Finnish school system is a vicious wolf in a fake sheep's clothing. The friendliness of the system is a lie. It is friendly as long as you submit to its commandments. It is a bit like an evil parent who says: "I will love you as long as you do what you are told"!

Amazingly Finnish students rarely feel threatened by the stick behind the scenes. They absorb the duty as natural and grind through years of study with their minds programmed by superior forces.

Finnish system is friendly as long as the student does not seek freedom

My Finnish friend who I consider extremely intelligent, but a bit too well-schooled (Finnish style), commented (bold emphasis is mine):

Loss of custody is surely an incredibly rare outcome. In practice what happens is that parents will be convinced to ensure that their children complete their duty of school attendance

The comment itself indicates that parents are well indoctrinated to believe that education is a duty, rather than a right. We cannot celebrate compliance if non-compliance carries inhuman penalty. In a healthy system, compliance should come from convictions, and convictions should come from free thinking (not years of schooling). Homeschooling is a good yardstick. In that field, the Finns are not much different than the Germans. Both nations believe in school (in addition, Germany uses Nazi-era laws to persecute homeschoolers). This makes them both deaf to the voice of science: Fundamental Law of Learning. The law implies that if a child opts to read Harry Potter, she has a basic human right to spend her day on that pursuit. That's good for the child, good for the brain, good for knowledge, and good for society.

USA beats Finland

If we look at PISA rankings, quality of schools, happiness factor, and all the advantages of the Finnish system listed above, it may seem heretic to say that the US system is better than the Finnish system. However, this is exactly my claim. American schools are predominantly awful, however, the system has a great deal of freedom wired in the law. Most of all, unschooling and democratic schools are legal. They gain in strength. While the Fins keep improving their system from within, the USA allows of the evolution, which may ultimately bring superior results. There is a degree of school choice in the US, and there are as many threads to the evolution as there are states in the federal system. In terms of choice and evolution, America is much closer to implementing my Grand Education Reform.

If Finnish system keeps improving, all its best forms can evolve in America, and influence different branches of the educational evolution tree. In contrast, the Finnish system is hermetic. A popular opinion in Finland is that homeschooling is the domain of religious zealots. No wonder that there are only 400-600 homeschoolers in the country (2017 estimate). As a result, the great Finnish system is a threat to understanding free learning (in Finland).

Metaphorically speaking, Finland is an immortal Arnold Schwarzenegger of education, while America is a wild tribe of scruffy individuals. While Arnold can keep honing his muscles to perfection, the evolving US tribe can reach super-human qualities in the process of long-term evolution.

America can soak all inspiration from Finland. In contrast, Finland may be limited by its perfectionist thinking. It is hard to change what seemed to work so great in the past. This has been the problem with the Prussian model of education in the first place. Now, a good model may limit Finnish educational progress. Why would Finnish society accept the risk of unschooling if the alternative is the great Finnish educational system that provides excellent scores in international rankings. Why replace a predictable system with methods that cannot be controlled from above? The Finnish system also provides a well-organized and well-functioning society that scores high on the happiness index.

In the light of my hypothesis, does this happiness come from the heart, or is it also a reflection of Finnish perfectionism?

The key question in any optimization or any evolving system is what criteria are used to guide the progress. If the system is guided by experts and/or excellently schooled teachers, it may get stuck in a blind alley of local maximum. The best guiding criterion for the evolving system of educational solutions is the learn drive. It is the child's brain that needs to determine the direction.

Finnish education might be like a well-evolved dinosaur that prevents the emergence of humans

Love of learning

The Finnish school systems speaks a lot about choices, personalization and freedom. However, the system is designed and optimized by adults. Children are given the choice within relatively narrow developmental tracks. If the system has an aura of perfection, and PISA scores are impressive, few people pause to ask children about actual outcomes. When I compiled my "Why kids hate school?" I used Poland as my "research ground". However, I see no evidence that Finland is much better in that respect. What is worse, if I follows its perfect optimization trajectory, it may only tighten the rules and, paradoxically, make it harder for kids to love learning and stay creative.

The following mail paints a picture of one student's transition from a Finnish school dropout to a practitioner of incremental reading. This may be my personal bias, but when a student evolves in the direction of incremental reading, I believe he is already on a golden path of free learning. The path that deterministically leads to never-ending improvement. This is why I consider similar opinions authoritative even if they are based on flimsy memories from years ago. I never dropped out. My school life was easier. However, I see many parallels with my own days of adolescence:

Probably ever since grade 7th, I was unhappy with learning. At this age people care more about socializing and getting to know new stuff (mopeds, cigarettes, alcohol, parties, rebelling, computer games, etc.). Since attention in classes dropped during that time, I don't recall having very coherent studying since 7th or 8th grade.
You are not given much choice after 9th grade except to (1) go to high school (2) go to vocational school or (3) if your parents allows to, you can have a year off to think about your choices. I think this point decides a lot about the path your life will take. For me it was decision on first year of high school to drop out. My attitude towards school was never about learning, it was always about future and career. I don't recall a single person since grade 7 who had an attitude to actually learn things. It was always all about getting good grades or passing grades.
After some time after dropping out of high school I applied to vocational school as it was my "safe haven" from conscription and to be able to live on my own without a job (housing and student benefits). This safe haven would be kinda broken as every class was mandatory. So it was about 8-16 school days every day. After 1 year I would just do the bare minimum of attending classes. I don't really know how I got the papers.
What was left after those four years? Two certificates from different jobs and no memories of what I was taught. For me it was just about getting the papers so I can have unemployment benefits and could apply to university (you can't have unemployment benefits unless you went through secondary school)

A great deal of educators and teachers in Finland agree with me that the pleasure of learning is essential for the ultimate success of education. However, it is hardly ever possible to achieve love of learning when things are mandatory. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I would instantly guess that drug use in Finland would be on the increase. I checked and it seems to be the case (see: Finland's illegal drug use increased over past decade). Not all is perfect in the perfect system, and without a radical change of direction, things may get worse.

Finland aims at the pleasure of learning, but without freedom for children, the goal is far from being achieved

Conscription in Finland

I was most surprised by the Finnish attitude towards conscription. While I consider it a form of slavery, it is seen very differently in Finland. While Poland gave up conscription in 2009, Finnish initiative to do the same in 2013 brought meager results. Finnish defense forces rock! If I was an adolescent with poorly crystallized goals, I would probably be impressed. Check the video. However, when I had to battle conscription in 1986, it unfolded to me as some kind of unhuman horror. Polish communist army was more like this video. How can the state interrupt a creative process that may yield something good for humanity? Could the Finnish school system produce an army of kids who do not really care that much about their creative contribution? An army of kids ready for orders? If so, this could be a very dangerous prescription. Isn't that exactly what Mussolini achieved? Or his pupil Adolf? A compliant population is a great formula for democratic peace until a totalitarian mind shows up on the horizon. Isn't the Republican Party of the Trump Era an example of the phenomenon. When tribe coherence overrules creative pursuits, democracy itself may be threatened.

Before conscription

When I was surprised with a Finnish student's lack of interest in fighting conscription, I hypothesized that there might also be a psychological self-defense in terms of rationalization. It is easier to justify conscription than to fight it. In return, I heard the words of a "perfect citizen":

It is not the fight itself I fear, it is the norms and expectations broken in fighting it. Those of my parents, grandparents, more abstractly the generations past (who albeit only exist as stories and objects belonging to them), society but above all myself. Deep down I feel it isn't something you should fight. It's the structure of our state, I have foreseen it all my life, and to break with it would be akin to breaking with my basic loyalty (or at least affiliation) to the nation itself. I don't see it as a struggle to "trick" the man in uniform, but as trying to gain an unfair advantage to my fellow man, shirk from my responsibilities that Finnish citizenship anointed me with (just the same as it gave me rights)

Interestingly, this reminds me of my own attitude at younger ages instilled by communist propaganda (see: I stopped being a patriot). The solidarity with my "imprisoned" conscripted friends bothered me in my own fight with conscription (1986). Last but not least, one of my well-schooled friends spoke in similar terms about the fairness of my getting past high school without reading a single book in Polish compulsory literature set (see: Religion of praise).

We are duty bound to build a better world for future generations. Past generations are too dead to care about our sacrifice in gratitude

During the service

This comment at army recruitment hints at the attitude towards the military service:

Easiest period of my life. Food was good and you did not have to think what to do next and we had so much fun with our group. It was like a summer camp, but it lasted 362 days, and you get to drive battle tanks and shoot MG's, and throw grenades and stuff :) I don't even remember the negative stuff anymore :)

This kind of comment could only be made by someone who was largely deprived of the learn drive via schooling. The passive wish "not to think what to do next" may be one of the worst side effects of compulsory schooling.

The counter comment I received by mail from a Finnish student:

Given that the age bracket 16-20 is so amazingly filled with choices that direct the rest of our life, there's a certain "decision fatigue" I can absolutely see someone enjoying taking a break from

"Decision fatigue" and the "determination of the rest of life" are frequent motifs in my conversations with 18-20 year old students. These are all artifacts of schooling. This is the age of exams that determine one's position and well-being in society. There is nothing special about the brain between the ages 16-20 as compared to 3-6, or 27-30, or 55-58. The brain keeps conceptualizing and making decisions throughout the life. The age bracket of 16-20 is simply a derivative of the life planned by others. It is the life in which the brain is deprived of the role as the key orchestrator. The governance is delegated to the government.

Ideally, there should be no timelines or deadlines in determining one's life goals and directions

After the service

Luckily, not all students end up washed out of creative dreams. This mail from Finland confirmed my reasoning and made me doubly happy by painting the contrast of a young life as it could be. A life full of learning (and with SuperMemo):

I served in Finnish military for about 5 months and 10 days. I quit 20 days before "graduation". I couldn't bear the culture, ethics nor the people there. I was severely depressed. It was the biggest waste of my time yet. Everything revolved around this weird routine of us doing things that served nobody any good. I wonder how many actually feel like they learned some useful skills there. I can condense the whole 5 month experience to this list: We marched, We used guns, We walked in the woods, We cleaned, and We had lectures.
At first I was excited to join. I wanted to develop self-discipline. I wanted to become more mature. The first couple of months I had a good attitude. Over time I realized, these people are not mature at all. Nothing about this system is mature or sensible. It was the biggest waste of my time. It was hundreds and thousands of people living in this super weird system which inherently reminded me of some sort of role playing. The most value I would see was the exercise. I would wonder if any of these people feel like they would be prepared in times of war.
After the first few months, when I realized what a waste this was, and that I would have to do the same senseless routine for few more months with no benefits to me or anyone else, I started to really hate it. I didn’t want to go to sleep just so that morning wouldn’t come faster. I really hated life back then.
In Finland most people like to glorify their time in military. That's because of the experienced they gained, the good and the bad, etc. Was it productive experience? Hell no.... Luckily, I found SuperMemo shortly after :)

Linux vs. Windows

I wonder if history would change if the Finnish system worked differently. Bill Gates quit Harvard because he was so eager to have his own company. His drive was out of this world. He did not want to waste a minute on fruitless theorizing. Even Harvard was not enough. In contrast, Linus Torvalds passively accepted his military service. 11 months of his life were stolen for some ballistic calculations in the army (1989). I am not aware of Linus ever complaining. Linus did a great service to humanity working over Linux. He reshaped the field of operating systems. However, what if he was a bit more aggressive and greedy? Would Linux get further? Or should we always balance the greedy with the meek and have software and services coming from different worlds and cultures? Diversity is great, but I am not sure that it determines the answer. I can only see the plain and huge difference between the key minds behind Microsoft and Linux. Ironically, it is Linus who is considered the icon of freedom today (see: Bill Gates is wrong about education). Is this the power of reactance?

Welfare state

A benevolent state that helps the needy has its fervent opponents and its fervent proponents. Many a political system is split right in the middle by the question of how much we should help the needy. For opponents of welfare, the needy have too many lazybones in their ranks. Proponents of welfare seem to focus on true hardship.

I think I have a solution to the problem. As we are all born with creative and productive brains, let's try not to injure those brains by any form of slavery. This will eliminate the problem of laziness. This would allow to combine the ideal of efficient capitalism with altruistic communism. We might have an efficient market economy based on the productivity of individual brains. The efficiency of the system would provide a lot of room for welfare. There would be no true lazybones because free learning tends to produce passions that feed on productivity. The state could help those who fail due to health reasons, accidents, etc. Most of all, the state should help the young grow and germinate their passions for three decades if need be.

My reconciliation idea is utopian because it rests of the understanding of the brain, which is negligible in the population. Few people trust in learning without school. Few people trust in labor without extrinsic incentives. However, we can incrementally change those old cultural imprints. We could start from the concept of basic income and the concept of school choice. Even a limited implementation could bring us closer to that productive welfare state ideal.

While Finland aims at being a welfare state, its stance on schooling may keep it locked in the state of permanent limbo. It may incrementally improve schooling and the economy, but it will never pass the threshold in which the production of lazy brains is halted. As long as there is compulsory schooling in force, the system will produce young man without passion for who the fake freedom of university will be the most enticing way to prolong the (restricted) explorations of the youth. At the age of thirty, the welfare state may have at its disposition of an army of compliant employees who may always gravitate towards trouble due to reward deprivation. In such circumstances, even basic income, which Finland has probed half-heartedly, will not be a good remedy.

The following mail from Finland seems to encapsulate my concerns in just a few words:

Finland has served me well. Unemployment support and housing benefit from KELA has allowed me to have creative free time and practice free learning for over year now. I know a lot of ppl in Finland live with these supports without having to do anything. Half of Finns curse those benefits (mainly grown ups in labor force) and half of Finns live happily on these and do whatever they want to

The mail was written by a student who needed to cram Swedish (without much passion) so that to get access to the university, so that to achieve 4-7 years of freedom:

Student freedom is based on student support (monthly income) and housing benefit (also monthly income) from KELA. It's not much but on top of that, student loans are very cheap and have extremely long maturity time

However, the goal of studying in this case is not the fulfillment of youthful passions. It is just a way towards good employment. You cannot blame a young man for such choices. Passions take years to germinate and they only grow in conditions of freedom. Finnish school system may be one of the best, but it still involves too much coercion to achieve its noble goals.

Another student commented on those educational choices:

Social conventions waste the lives of many young people by forcing them into a rigid set of choices which are all rather inefficient, and sometimes even destructive. Instead, if they were free, they could be choosing a path of their own which would very likely be much more promising. So they're left with no choice but to make the concession of finding the path of least evil (e.g. going to university)

Compliant society

George Zonnios called my attention to a new concept called "opinion corridors" that seems to emerge in cultures based on high degree of civic compliance (e.g. Scandinavia, Germany, etc.). The term is attributed to a political analyst Prof. Henrik Oscarsson. It is best summarized by a quote from Alice Teodorescu:

We live in a time where it's considered brave to think freely, despite that it's not forbidden

It should be easy to show the correlation between schooling, compliance and the tendency to flatten the diversity of opinion. The problem stems from normative rules of optimization that govern the system of compulsory schooling. The tougher the rules, the stiffer the norms, the lesser the freedom of an individual to express one's desires, the lesser the space for rampant creativity that underlies productive problem solving and intelligence. Finland is systematically moving in the direction of more freedom in learning. However, without removing all factors of coercion, the system will always carry the risk of the robotization of the mind (see: 50 bad habits learned at school).

Conclusion

Finland is a pioneer in many areas of education. It has developed a lovely system that provides of a lot of freedom for learning. However, the only path towards the future is to keep the clones of the Finnish system as a subset of many. There must be school choice. Children must be free to taste unschooling and its benefits. Only free exploration and free market of ideas will ensure fast convergence towards the best habits of free learning.

For more see: Education Reform



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru