Monday, March 27, 2017

Binge Blog #1: People: Finland's Most Valuable Resource

It's been a while since I've posted.  I've realized I'm much better at posting quick thoughts/pictures/stories on facebook and than I am at blogging.  Apparently I like to sit down and pump out a whole bunch of blog posts at one time rather than writing periodically.  Binge blogging - is that a thing?  I'm going to make it a thing.  So today I'm going to attempt to update my blog and use my facebook statuses as the topic for each post.

Today's topic:  People: Finland's Most Valuable Resource

Facebook Status, January 7th
Today we are meeting with the director of teacher education at the University of Helsinki. I asked him about they reformed their education system. I will write a more detailed answer on my blog, but I want to share interesting reason behind the reform. In the 70s a political decision was made that Finland was a small country who's only resource was their people. They have no oil or other major export. Because the people are their most important resource, education is the most important priority of the country. So the decision was made that all students will receive the same basic education. Because of this private schools are no longer allowed in Finland. This makes all public schools very similar. Thus, school choice is not a thing here, and all schools are funded the same, regardless of the socio-economic status of the city/ neighborhood.

The idea that people can be considered a country's resource is an interesting one, and I like it.  This status was of course written in the context of a question about their education system, but after almost three months in Finland, I see other ways in which the idea plays out in Finnish society. Let's explore a few of those.

1. Education.
Education is free for all Finnish citizens - from birth and all the way through PhD studies.  I've heard the phrase "there is no dead end" used many times to describe the Finnish education system.  Here is a helpful visual aid from the Finnish National Association of Education website to see the Finnish Education model:

All of this is free.  All of it!  That is amazing!  This one fact continues to shock me.  Can you imagine what a difference it makes in a person's life to get a free education?!  And you can go back as many times as you want!  You an keep getting degrees until you die.  Not only is college free, but the government actually pays students a living stipend in the hopes that they will not have to also work while studying.  As you can see above, after the basic education, students can choose to either go to a general upper secondary school (high school) or go to a vocational institution.  Contrary to my assumptions, choosing one track or the other does not lock you into one "side" of the system.  It is quite common, especially in music education, to get degrees from both sides, even simultaneously.  (Look for more details on this in the Binge Blog post about Music Education.)

I have been told that you cannot get a job without a degree.  Period.  This has a few implications. First, everyone is trained in something - whether that be bus driving, hotel cleaning, retail work, hospitality, a trade like carpentry or plumbing etc. Because everyone one of these jobs requires training, they are more respected.  And these jobs all also pay better.  Even a job like a baristas or a gas station clerk pays enough for a person to make a living.  I don't have an exact figure to give you, but this is what we have heard over and over again.

2. Immigrants

Did you know that if you move to Finland, they will pay you to take Finnish language courses.  This is because you basically cannot get a job if you don't speak Finnish and they want people to be successful, contributing members of society.  This seems like putting your money where your mouth is - quite seriously.  My fellow Fulbrighter, Tiffany, is studying topics related to immigrants and refugees in Finland.  In talking to her I have learned that beyond language courses, immigrants also take courses in Finnish culture that help them acclimate to life here.  These courses last two or three years, and culminate in a job shadowing or internship experience to help them enter the work force.

Another fascinating thing Finland does that I think is SUCH a good idea is how they handle non-Finnish speaking students.  When a student enters school with a different mother tongue than Finnish, regardless of their grade, they are placed in a "preparatory course" where all they study is Finnish language.   The preparatory course last for exactly one year.  They spend time teaching students to become proficient in the language and then put them back into the regular classroom where they can learn using their new language, Finnish.  Although they spend a year in this program, they are not "segregated" or kept away from their Finnish speaking classmates.  There is a sort of gradual release that happens as their skills improve.  For example, they may begin attending regular classes like physical education or arts and crafts, where the instruction is more hands on.  And as their skills grow, they spend more and more time outside of the preparatory course.  This is simply brilliant.  America, can we please adopt this model?

Facebook post from Feb 7 related to this:
Feb. 7 I had an "aha" moment today while observing a choir rehearsal, which was all in Finnish. I was able to follow along ok content wise. What really tripped me up was every time the conductor told them where in the music to start, I couldn't understand the directions. So the choir would turn their music to the right page and start singing. Meanwhile, I'm desperately listening to their singing and flipping (flailing) through the music trying to figure out where they were. Sometimes I figured it out, sometimes I didn't.
If I were a second language student, this would have meant that even in a situation where I could contextually figure out how to do what the other kids were doing, I would have missed about half of the opportunities to apply and practice the learning. All because I didn't know which page to turn to.

These are things to remember when I return to teaching. It is very powerful being the student who doesn't speak the language for a turn.

3.  Parenting in Public

Being a parent in Finland is so much easier in many ways than parenting in the USA.  For example, just about every single public bathroom I've been in has a potty chair.  I don't know the details of how or when these get cleaned...but nonetheless, they are there.  We are really beyond the need for potty chairs in our family, but I can remember a time not that long ago when the knowledge that there was a potty chair wherever we went would have made leaving the house a little easier.  Actually, as a side note, Finnish bathrooms are CLEAN!  Much cleaner than public restrooms that I'm used to.

Our grocery store has a FREE play area that is AMAZING!!!!!  Yes, I'm shouting!  This is a game changer for family grocery shopping.  The girls love to go, and the hope of play area promise land is a great motivator for good behavior while shopping.

Public transportation is another way that Finland considers parents.  On city buses, children under 6 are free.  Our girls ride for free - this is a big money saver.  And on trains, ferries, other activities that require tickets, children's tickets are much cheaper than adult tickets.  I think Lydia, being 3, has traveled for free basically our entire time here.

Then there is the play car on the train.  This was pretty much heaven on earth as traveling parent - 9 hours with almost no complaining. And to ride in it cost no more than a regular ticket.

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