Raiders of the Lost Ark & the Edu Grail

Nordic Scenary

The Northern Lights

Articulated Reflections

This blogged essay is a ‘reflectional mind-map’ prompted by the article cited below as a follow-up to an essay previously written: Comparison of Education Systems :- Paradoxes of the Anglo-American and the Finnish educational systems’, and now packaged as part of the above title “Raiders of the Lost Ark & the Edu Grail”.  

Based on the Article:

Peter Wilby (Monday 1 July 2013 20.00 BST), Finland’s education ambassador spreads the word , The Guardian,, accessed 2013.9.9.

The topic was selected for several reasons:

  1. A local Finnish school has been proposed for closure causing widespread concern and discontent and dissent locally, leading to some well supported and vociferous protests. The issues connected with this are all touched upon to some degree by the original article I selected.
  2. It follows on neatly from the previous essay  and helps to clarify and fill in any gaps previously left. The driver for much of the discussion is the proposed reforms in the UK education system, my native country, which seems to be repeating all the same old mistakes yet again.
  3. Many of the comments / issues I have already seen clearly in my teaching experience at a University of Applied Science, some of which I support and others I would take issue with.

Half-baked Meddling – the UK saga continues

Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to change the primary and secondary school curriculums in England.

Image He has said he wants pupils to be taught a “core knowledge” of facts and figures. He wants them to be able to recite their times tables, punctuate a sentence correctly and list capitals of the world.


Caroline McClatchey (7 February 2013 ),

ImageThe Three Party political agendas and the constant swings of policy and direction have always been the curse of British society, economics and the education system. Whilst the mess created in the UK educational system certainly needs fixing, the
personal fixations and micro-management approaches the above article suggests will do little to resolve the considerable problems prevailing currently. Any fixes that will actually resolve the problem rather than mitigating the symptoms take time to work with difficult transition periods in between if an intelligible development roadmap is designed. UK politics at least, has never provided a stable enough operating environment for such a long-term project and development programme.

This contrasts strongly with Finland which has had a relatively stable operating environment with a consensus based education policy that has been systematically and consistently developed in recent times based on some rather simple, but fundamental guiding principles, concepts and values from which all else has thus far evolved.

It seems now though, that economic imperatives, such as the need to cut costs, which Vantaa Kaupunki asserts that over 5 million euros must be cut from the education budget somehow is impinging on this educational utopia.  This is a serious threat to the achievements of the Finnish education system and the values on which it has been built.

A Peek at the Edu-Grail?

There is a question as to whether the Finnish Education systems is responsible for the Finnish economic competitiveness to date, or vice-versa, is it the latter that has permitted the development of a better education system.  Without doubt the two are inextricably linked.

The current economic conditions are certainly having an effect on the local schooling system as evidence by the proposed closure of the Tuomala school in Vantaa has lead to strong protests with potential effects  on travel arrangements and distances, class sizes, student school shifting, kids social / communal fracturing & security effects through disruption of kids social groups and the mentoring system set-up for their security and well-being at school.  It affects the well-being and hence productivity of all those affected. No doubt it will hinder the effectiveness of teachers who now have to cope with much larger classes, for which reason students also suffer through lack of personal guidance and support, all of which has knock-on effects for the economy as well as their futures.

Commenting about charter schools, which Washington (US) voters have just approved, Pasi Sahlberg stated:

In Finland, he said, parents don’t angst over where to send their children to school. All the schools, he said, offer the same high-quality program.

 (Linda Shaw, 2012)

A key tenet in achieving this state of affairs has been the trust placed in teachers  and their judgement as experts, which compares strongly to the UK political divide with successive conservative governments often viewing teachers as socialists and Marxists that threaten the world as they know and want it.

Micro-mamagement vs. Leading by Objectives (LbO).

Control & Guidance is in the recruitment / selection and training of teachers as an expert resource pool, not micro-management by an ill-informed political or management hierarchy.

This is no differenct to management of expert / senior management resources in business life, so why should teachers be treated any different? There is an inherent  hypocrisy by the right wing business (Old school boy) fraternity currently promoting these backward changes whilst lamenting the good old (bad old) days. Yet, despite this, the current economic climes cannot be ignored and the pressure to micro-manage in order to control costs and improve value for money (efficiency) are difficult to resist.

Obtaining value for money however, does not necessarily come through cost efficiency and purely bottom-line approaches to the issue ignore the value of investment in the future for the sake of immediate political concerns.

Systematic performance rankings and student testing are the heart of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as spearhead by Corporate America. These stand in stark contrast to the Finnish system of formative feedback and assessment during the common schooling years, a system that has consistently topped the PISA rankings in contravention of all conventional thinking.

Finland’s Literacy Rates

ImageAccording to the article by Peter Wilby (Monday 1 July 2013 20.00 BST), 60% plus of Finns go into to higher education. That’s a high percentage and bodes well for my future employment prospects, in theory.

There is a clear avoidance of Competition (streaming & Differentiation) In the Finnish system compared to other cultural systems partly because of its relevance to communal objectives (Socialization and collaboration in a democratic society).  The argument is usually presented as an ‘either / or’ issue, but are these really mutually exclusive? If not, what is the optimal balance?

GERM sees external testing, streaming and differentiation as the means to achieve excellence through focusing on the few they have selected as being the most able. But does this really hold water?

Harvard university experimented with entrance exams and compared them with local population demographics and numbers of applicants. Although majority of applicants were white Americans with 30-40% African Americans and 5% Asians, over 40% of successful applicants were Asians, with only 2 or 3% being African Americans. The question was, does this meant AA’s are genetically more stupid than other races has some racist elements of society would have us believe?

Prof Bob Adamson is head of department of international education and lifelong learning at the Hong Kong Institute of Education:

 Emphasis on diligence: It’s not natural ability, it’s hard work. Hong Kong was built on hard work, as a refugee society. There was no in-built class system and the way to achieve social mobility was through education.

There was no social security blanket, so you were investing in your pension by educating your child. It’s called the elderly parent tax.

Parents in Hong Kong often send their children for tutorials.

The term “tiger mum” is a little too strong but parents do take a very keen interest in their children’s education. They emphasise diligence and will complain if schools don’t provide enough homework.

The shadow education system is booming in Hong Kong – some 70% of secondary school-age children have private tuition.

Caroline McClatchey (7 February 2013 ),

Clearly not it would seem. Asians, perhaps due to recent historical influences work harder and more consistently than many other cultures. A way of thinking and working / studying is developed backed up by data knowledge. This implies that such academic achievement is not so much a matter of the ‘traditional IQ’ quota, but a mental skill that can be trained and learned.

When considering the exportability of the Finnish system given the local homogenous culture and inbuilt synergies, it is worth comparing notes with the Korean & Hong Kong experiences:

ImageThis compares starkly with the stated Finnish philosophy :

As I walked across the playground, I came across odd shapes drawn on the asphalt. “A lot of the learning happens outdoors, in the physical world,” explains my guide, Aape Pohjavirta. At this school, where his children attend, students from different grades are encouraged to share physical spaces and socialize. Much has been said about the lack of homework in favour of letting kids be kids and play. “In our education system, it’s all about trust and love.”

Tony Wan  (Aug 27, 2013),

IImagen my experience at least, kids learn best through play. Trying to make 4 to 5 years learn football through ‘technical training’ consisting forms of He-pa! (Tag) loosely (very weakly if ever) connected to the game of football is a big and fundamental mistake. They just want to play the game –rules and technical skills are taught along the way until they are old enough to appreciate the value of the technical training that isolates the specific skills for more advanced development. If you want to lose kids interested in a game they were originally very keen on, this is a good way to do it. Technical training as a prelude and means to streaming and differentiation based on skills and expertise to enable success in a competitive environment professionally, is a matter for further education for those that are still committed to and have chosen to pursue that objective.

At the lower levels, competition should be a friendly activity focused on the fun of it and the primary objective of participation in order to be effective for learning purposes.  Exercises and competitions have to be designed and with rules in order to isolate specific skills for development whilst prevent open conflict that is counter-productive to the learning effort that is totally dependent on mutually supportive team work.

ImageSerious competition for prizes and trophies distracts people from that purpose.  Its only purpose is to test oneself against the opposition (confidence and knowing one’s limits), or for other personal and material gain. It is away to test your own personal limits in comparison with others, but offers little in terms of learning and skills development. Without the proper knowledge, techniques and skills already embedded, it usually leads to development of bad habits to survive in the short-term or even short-cut taking (cheating) in order to win by any means. These lessons have long been known and taught in physical education, particularly in sports and martial arts, which provides my basis of argument. In the latter case, it is well known that, ‘as it is below, so it is above’.  It seems many people have forgotten these fundamental lessons, particularly the political decision makers, if they ever learnt them in the first place.
Social development and playtime for youngsters is in my view a great thing, but is it working?

Is the stereo-typical Finn more sociable and less dour and dull than previous generations?

How does this affect discipline and respect for authorities, both in and outside of schools?

Have we given them too much leeway in many aspects given the recent news reports of abuse of teachers by both parents and school children and the high numbers now considering a change of career.  Attitudes within  some of my classes with so-called adult students were not always welcome or acceptable either.

Despite all its much vaunted successes, the Finnish system is not perfect, anymore than any system could probably expect to be, for example:

There are 30,000 young adults aged 15 – 24 in Finland who have only completed their basic education, and who have not completed military service, tertiary education or even had a job. In many cases authorities don’t even know they exist.

C. M. Rubin | Posted 02.19.2013 |

One of the biggest problems with this is social marginalisation and exclusion, to which new immigrants are arguably the most susceptible.

“inside the common comprehensive school is an extensive special education system for at risk pupils, which has expanded systematically and rapidly since the comprehensive school reform in the 1970’s.”

Risto Rinne & Jenni Tikkanen (15 July 2011),

So it seems their is streaming and differentiation within the system, but on the flip side so as to eliminate differences and the weakest links rather than propel a few fortunates to the moon whilst leaving all others behind, as was the theme of the recently released film ‘Elysium’.

In all these respects, Rubin notes that:

Another important aspect of Finnish schools is systematic pursuit of wellbeing and happiness, especially during the early years of primary school. Finnish schools are fear-free places where children don’t need to worry about competition, failure or performance that in many countries are fuelled by standardized testing.

(C. M. Rubin, 01/14/2013 10:19 am)

In my view, the Americans  and many others have never truly understood this concept or its distinction and difference from success in business life – a point made by the hollywood movie classic, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, a story about an economics genius. Although important, it won’t make for a sociable democratic community, nor thwart the marginalization of many individuals who may later turn into disgruntled ex-students and employees with violent retribution in their hearts, as American constantly is being reminded of, even though refuse to learn the lesson of.

Another justification often proffered is that it provides training for the harsh reality of economic life. Yet this makes it even harder for youngsters to assimilate and adapt socially, and at a young and vulnerable age with different personalised development needs and needs of a civil and social society.

Most of my students to date are highly mercenary and only do the minimal work. Cooperation is a means of minimising workload and getting grades, not improving potential learning (a Learning Force Multiplier) – but a derivation from the ‘quick fix’ mentality prevalent in society today and especially evident in my experiences of teaching and studying the martial arts over the last 30 years or so.

Cause & Effect

ImageExternal and traditional exams are primarily based on perceived administrative control needs rather than on pedagogical evidence. It is driven by need to combat a drop in standards as well as cut costs, but pedagogically speaking appears to be more a a short-cut and quick fix for the immediate situation rather than any longer term strategy.

The Finnish comprehensive schooling system relies on formative assessment and sampling of education standards to supervise and control standards rather than trying to strict test every single individual student.

The Anglo-American & UK system has tried to reform the curriculum and testing systems several times in the past few decades and it is now undeniably in a complete mess with resulting drops in standard around the country. Is this the teachers fault or the UK Governments’ and the confused operating environment they have created. Some of it is due to immigrant populations working in a second language, but it cannot attributed to them to any significant degree.  The British Universities now don’t trust A level results as they have traditionally done when recruiting, instead many are now instituting own entrance exams (similar to Finland) as a compensatory measure, all be it for different reasons (Confusing Mess vs. conformity).

The difficulties of implementing such systems in a larger population group is the usual excuse for not trying to learn from and adapt the Finnish system. There is a question of culture and politics which provide and encompassing synergy that make it difficult to simply import or export such a system. For example, the need for simplified structures and with fewer levels of hierarchy to prevent the filtering and dilution effect – the Scandinavian social and business models!

Critics often dismiss Finland’s success as irrelevant, saying the country is too small and too different for its policies to work here.

Linda Shaw (2012),

However, according to normal business theory, the bigger and more complex the organisation, the more it needs to be macro-managed using policies and processes rather than micro-managed with procedures, tasks and specific content. The Guru’s of corporate culture (US) appear to be contradicting themselves in this respect.

Another garbage excuse often given is the ease of Finnish language learning arguments

“is written almost exactly as it is pronounced. Young Finns and Koreans have little trouble with spelling, which not only makes reading and writing easier, but leaves more time for other subjects.”…

“Reading is part of our culture. At one time, you couldn’t marry unless you could read. If you belonged to the Lutheran state church, you had to go a camp for two weeks before confirmation, as I did

(Pasi Sahlberg, 2013).

One can only assume those people have never tried to study and learn the Finnish language. Ask any Finn and the usual joke is that ‘ any two year old can speak Finnish’. But then they’ll soon admit that Finnish grammar is a real pain in the proverbial even for Finns. Another myth is that the language is spoken exactly as it sounds, not so!

As for reading, Finnish youth spend most of their time watching videos on YouTube or playing on computer games, just as in any other culture.  Students seem to have become somewhat lazy by comparison to previous generations and seem to expect it all to be laid on plate for them with power point presentations posted to the LMS instead of making their own lecture notes (p.i. Chris Spencer). We use them extensively in teaching also. Kids are said to be more advanced on new technology usage, but most are less well informed about its uses and dangers than teachers these days.

As for evidence of whether it is exportable to other cultures we might look at Gove’s miss-guided attempts to import the Swedish cultural system and free schools to the UK just because is part of the Scandinavian model currently and regardless of whether it is even working or not!

Future Pacing

ImageSome believe that complacency has  settled into the Finnish education system, but then again, others will say ‘If it ain’t broke, Don’t fix it!’ So, which if any way next?

Personalization, Social & Collaborative skills were vaunted by Pasi Sahlberg (2013, as cited by Peter Wilby, July 2013), as prime candidates for future development requirements.

Personalization may well not be feasible in the large classes of  the learning sausage factory simply due to limited resources and practicalities. However, one might ask if it is not already inbuilt and a matter for higher education through graduation to successively higher levels and fewer numbers of students? Or, is it something to be extended down more to lower levels as collaboration and social constructivism principles have also been done in part? But to what extent is this feasible?

Given the rapid increase in multi-cultural nature of the Finnish population in recent years, there would seem to be an increasing conflict between the need to personalise and the feasibility of doing so. The question is perhaps not so much an either or question, but one of phasing in throughout the schooling system such that, what is the right balance?  Should Finland attempt to accommodate integrate all diversities  in accordance with the EU policy & motto “United in diversity” Or should Finland try to assimilate newcomers in the manner practiced by the U.S.A..?

SINGAPORE: The current buzz phrase in the Republic’s education system, “every school is a good school”, is in fact the principle on which the Finnish education model was built over the last four decades.

But as Singapore strives to realise this vision, Finland’s widely praised education system is being challenged because of an increasingly diverse student population, said the country’s Minister for Education and Science Krista Kiuru.

In an interview with TODAY, Ms Kiuru also responded to doubts about her country’s education system, given the high number of jobless youths. The solution does not lie in changing the education system but in spurring economic growth and creating jobs in an economy which has been weighed down by the euro-zone malaise, she said.

Ng Jing Yng, (22 Aug 2013 7:58)

Other factors which impact on teaching is the numbers in class, which tends to increase with economic adversity. The practical experience of Hong Kong is worth noting:

One of the big issues in Hong Kong is space. There are 42 kids in each classroom and the only way to organise them is in old-fashioned rows. Teachers often use microphones. They are the gurus and there is little group work or student participation. It is difficult with 42 kids to give them individual attention.

Caroline McClatchey (7 February 2013 ),

Collaborative skills and their importance in higher / vocational education has already created a type of inversion layer in learning methodology, not to mention a culture shock for many students. My own teaching experience to date at Laurea University of Applied Sciences is already testimony to this issue.  Students need to be taught and trained for this during their first year at a higher education institution still, which seems incredulous for so-called adult students. Sahlberg notes that:

“Ask Finns about how our system will look in 2030, and they will say it will look like it does now. We don’t have many ideas about how to renew our system. We need less formal, class-based teaching, more personalised learning, more focus on developing social and team skills. We are not talking about these things at all.”

Pasi Sahlberg, 2013

Given the level of schooling in foreign language in Finland and the need for an ability to deal with foreigners and export markets in order to survive economically as a small remote nation on the outskirts of Europe, one might be forgiven for presuming that social skills and the ability to collaborate would be a common and priority skill in Finland. For example:

Foreign languages are an essential component of education at all levels. Although the vast majority of instruction nationwide is given in Finnish, in cities and regions of the country where Swedish-speaking Finns reside one may choose between Swedish and Finnish-language public schools.

John D. Hopkins,1990

The universities have been part of international exchange schemes for sometime. Yet despite these apparent advantages, social skills and the ability to collaborate and work in small or large groups still seems to be a major bug-bear of Finnish society, business life and the education system.

The sudden impact of competition and Universities’ own entrance exams to compensate for lack of differentiation and streaming in the common schooling is another challenge to this objective of collaborative social working, not to mention the attached economic pressures or yet one more year spent preparing for entrance exams. Economic pressures may well force some further changes on the system and its emphasis in order to cope with larger class numbers and less resources. The signs are already there with public policy reforms aimed at following up on students progress, pushing them through the system faster and requiring more study credits to qualify for financial support (Chris Spencer, Assignment 2 essay, 2013).

Despite the successes of the comprehensive schooling system, Tony Wan comments that:

Even so, a budding edtech community is emerging in Finland, starting at sites such as collaborative workspaces like InnoOmnia, the Helsinki Think Company in downtown Helsinki, and the Startup Sauna at Aalto University. Pohjavirta, founder of, is building a mobile learning platform that allows users to easily create and distribute educational content to any mobile network and device.Another company, CBTec, generated some buzz this year with the release of Eliademy, which allows students and teachers to create courses and classrooms online. The company, founded by former Nokia veterans, is targeting international markets–particularly in South America–through offering Eliademy in over 40 languages.Another ex-Nokian, Jussi Impio, used to work with Nokia’s Africa R&D team in Nairobi. He’s currently working on a mobile solution to help youths build skills in demand from employers. “When we consider that the population in Africa is expected to reach 2 billion in the next 25 years, it is scary to think of the number of unemployed youth who will be idling around,” says Impio.

Many startups have roots in Nokia, the former telecommunications giant headquartered in Espoo that has undergone a substantial downsizing in recent years. With their background and expertise in mobile networks, it’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs are working on developing mobile solutions for the overseas market.

There are practical reasons as well for looking abroad as well: a lack of domestic demand for technology in classrooms and the small size of the Finnish education system of 600,000 students. (By contrast, the U.S. has an estimated 54.7 million K-12 students.)

 Tony Wan  (Aug 27, 2013),


Is this a natural progression of streaming and differentiation at the higher education levels or just part of the fallout from the collapse of Nokia and the (desperate) need for ex-employees to find new gainful employment?

In conclusion it seems pertinent to reiterate the words of Rinne & Tikkanen in 2011 about the future of Finnish education:

In international terms, young Finns spend a long time in education. In 2008, 43 per cent of people aged 20 to 29 were in education, whereas the OECD average for this age group was 25 per cent (Kumpulainen, 2010, 226). Long duration of studies is seen as a major problem, and speeding up transition from secondary education to higher education, graduating from higher education, and proceeding into working life is an important goal of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Risto Rinne & Jenni Tikkanen, 2011

Hence the focus on administrative and education efficiency due to economic pressures is having an effect and has become the dominant driver of expedience in development of the education system for the time being.

We will probably have to live with school cutbacks via closures and larger classes etc, for the time being, or risk the alternative of laying off hundreds of highly trained teachers (threatened alternative by Vantaan Kaupunki) in whom much time, money and other resources have been invested for the future good of Finnish society.

Finnish education may have provided a force multiplier for the Finnish economy, but economics and financial resources as a real life constraint that cannot be ignore completely, or the price will have to be born disproportionately in other areas of civil society instead.


References Summary

Peter Wilby (Monday 1 July 2013 20.00 BST), Finland’s education ambassador spreads the word , The Guardian,, accessed 213.9.9.

Caroline McClatchey (7 February 2013 ), What is the key to a successful education system? BBC News,,  accessed 213.9.9.

Tony Wan  (Aug 27, 2013),  Searching for Finland’s Education Entrepreneurs: What’s to solve when your education system is supposedly perfect?, EdSurge Article, , accessed 213.9.9.

Ng Jing Yng, (22 Aug 2013 7:58) Finland looks to Singapore for ideas, Singapore,, , accessed 213.9.9.

C. M. Rubin (Posted 02.19.2013), Finland’s lost generation, YLE Uutiset,, , accessed 213.9.9.

Linda Shaw (2012), Finland’s educational success story: Less testing, more trusting, The Seattle Times,,  accessed 213.9.9.

John D. Hopkins (Winter 1990), The Educational System of Finland: Background, Structure, Equivalencies, and New Directions, University of Tampere, Finland
Published in World Education News and Reviews, (A Publication of World Education Services, Inc.),,  accessed 213.9.9.

C. M. Rubin, (01/14/2013), The Global Search for Education: What Will Finland Do Next? , Huff Post Education,,  accessed 213.9.9.

Risto Rinne & Jenni Tikkanen (15 July 2011), Recent Trends in Finnish Education, Governance of Educational Trajectories in Europe (GOETE),, accessed 213.9.9.

Tuomalan koulu, Tuusala




About Pahkis

An academic and professional educator, specialising in security and risk management. 50 something, but still able to run circles around my much younger students. A student of the martial arts, not a master stylist. (30 years in practice, 25 years as an instructor). Open minded with a policy of continual learning in both my personal & professional life. Understanding and respectful of establishments, traditions and conventions, but not a follower. Somewhat balded but unbowed. Bearded, but not a 'goaty'. Often been seen imitating a store mannequin (Experience security supervisor and guard / store detective) Not religious (more of an atheist / agnostic really) , but do engage in 'spiritual practices' and believe in 'Live & Let Live', mostly by doing unto others as I would have done unto myself.

Posted on 2014/04/30, in Education, Schooling and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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