Dispatches from Finland: Episode 1

I teach in Finland, but in an international school, not in the Finnish system. As a long-time resident and frequent visitor to Finnish schools, I have a few insights into the Finnish education, um phenomenon? miracle? Whatever.

Here's today's installment:

I went downtown today in the middle of the day on school business. On the bus ride back to the school's neighborhood, I rode with the daughter of a former neighbor. She surprised me by speaking English, and I could see she had started studying English in school. We had a ten minute conversation in her limited English and my limited Finnish. She asked about the family -- she loves our boys -- and I asked her about her brother and school.

I asked her what she was doing out in the middle of the school day. She said that she had had a dentist appointment. I asked a little about this, and here's how it went: her mother called the school and told them about the appointment. She left school by herself, took a bus to the dentist, saw the dentist, and was returning to school. All on her own. She had texted her mother to tell that she had no cavities, and she had stopped for an ice cream before getting back on the bus.

She is nine years old.

When I told my Finnish wife about this, she was not surprised at all that a nine year old child would go to the dentist (or doctor) alone. Indeed, it is not unusual to see pre-teens on the bus by themselves on the way to school or going to music lessons and sports practices after school.

Finnish educational success is not just about the school system: it's about the culture. If you want young people to take control of their learning, you have to let them take control of lots of other things, and you have to make the society reliable and safe enough for them to function independently. And yes, some of them will make stupid mistakes -- teenage binge drinking in Helsinki is tough to miss -- but freedom and ownership cannot be limited to learning.