The future of learning
Canadian born André Noël Chaker, who has lived in Finland for over two decades wrote a book about the Finnish miracle. He sketches a pathway of opportunities and lists characteristics necessary for success. On his list are things like open mind, trial and error, hard, smart work, sisu (tenacity, not giving up) and being true to yourself. He discusses these qualities through typically Finnish characteristics, not forgetting our shortcomings.
The positive features of the Finnish society and the Finns themselves have been, amazingly, in the international media in the last few years. BBC and CNN have produced documentaries admiring our capacity to cope with the climate, addressing urban change and how we develop the infrastructure. Countless “PISA – tourists” visit schools to learn about the education system that produces top learning results in international comparisons. A Newsweek study listed Finland as the best place to live and Helsinki tops a few comparisons that call it a great place to live (we Finns tend to forget that in November darkness waiting for a bus in driving rain….).
Obviously there is a lot in Finland that is good and quite right. As it is not productive to stare at things we do right I will instead concentrate on the less flattering aspects Chaker points out:
– Immigration. Finland needs capable immigrants to care for the ageing population and we need the innovation they bring, however, many Finns have a fairly negative attitude towards immigrants. Our country is not seen as welcoming.
– Top talent. Our school system is extremely capable of caring for the bottom part of the pyramid. There are hardly any dropouts and the support systems for the low performing learners are extensive, but we lack efficient systems to support the most talented. As one teacher colleague put it: “Maybe that is why we do not have that many nobelists.” Chaker concludes that equality of opportunity can lead to mediocrity. We lack systems to recognize and nurture creative talent. This is evident also in companies that master efficient production lines, but fail to lift up brave, creative talent.
– Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship has a short history in Finland, where a few big companies have traditionally attracted the talented. Attitudes today are more positive than before, but lack of dynamic, rapidly growing companies is striking. There is still not enough support and encouragement for risk taking.
– Envy and pity. Finns are risk averse and there is a strong need to do things “right”. We are a society that does not encourage learning through error – we are very much like the Japanese in this sense, according to Chaker. Mårten Mickos (former MySQL CEO) says in the book that it is unacceptable to succeed and to fail in Finland.
– Rationality. Big innovations are often born out of randomness and intuition. He says that all levels of trial and error need to be in use. Finns tend to stick to rational methodologies. Maybe there is a little engineer inside every Finn? We have a need to eliminate uncertainty. “Too smart for their own good” says Chaker.
– Quiet. Being quiet is good for building trust, but it also stifles productive communication. Some Finns love to toil in solitude. Needless to say this is not the most efficient way to produce innovation.
– Technology. Finns focus on technology and products and lose opportunities to network and grow. (see above…..)
This last point I see a logical consequence of the other characteristics like valuing the quiet, lonely worker who gets things done on time and always by the book. It is unbecoming to boast with efficiency, personal qualities or talent.
There is a lot to be fixed. I can see the educational system being responsible for some of these shortcomings. Today’s school system produces capable followers, who know how to jump the right hoops, but it does not support the creative, talented student or encourage trial and error. The Finns’ deeply rooted appreciation for formal education and achievement inside that system can deter some extraordinary thinkers, different learners and creative youngsters from pursuing their dreams and choosing alternative paths that can one day lead to extraordinary successes.
The Economist describes Steve Jobs’ many talents under a heading “The Magician”: showmanship, strategic vision, attention to detail, ability to inspire fanatic loyalty in customers, dictatorial leader, etc. Most importantly: Jobs was not an engineer, he liked to see himself as a hippy.
Our current system might well keep us at or near the top of the Pisa tables for a few more years – but it is not capable of nurturing, stimulating talent and bringing about people like Steve Jobs. Change is not desirable or needed, it is necessary.