Why Don’t We Emulate Finland? Good Question.

When I ended the newspaper run of Mr. Fitz 22 years after I started it, I left Bulwer-Lytton K-12 school under the leadership of Herr Kirkkaat, a superintendent from Finland. Ms. Albright, the standardization-obsessed superintendent (and former principal) went to Finland in an exchange program. The characters hoped it might open her eyes to a new way of doing things.

Herr Kirkkaat brought a Finnish sensibility to Mr. Fitz’s American school district.

I had wanted to delve more into the changes Herr Kirkkaat was making, but my self-imposed end-date for the strip left me without enough time to do so. But then, of course, after a two month hiatus, I decided to bring the strip back on Sundays only. And then I decided I might occasionally do a full week’s worth of strips if I had something to say that required more than one Sunday-style strip. And then I decided I needed to reset the strip closer to its original premise – and also address the idea of what American schools could be. So I wound up doing a full week of “daily strips” bookended by two Sunday strips – a first for Mr. Fitz.

To make my premise work, I needed a villain, so I introduced Mr. Tedium, an inspector from the state.

Finnish schools do indeed have a lot of project-based learning. But there were other points I wanted to make as well. (Throughout the rest of this post, I’ll be including some links to articles and online posts about Finnish schools.)

From there, I wanted to try to show what school could be like via a contrast between what Mr. Tedium was looking for and what he was actually finding at the school.

The first issue I addressed was not something I have actually not been able to find much information about: Finnish writing instruction. Too many articles online focus on Finland apparently discontinuing instruction in cursive. So I cheated a little on this one and just had Mr. Fitz talk about what good writing instruction should look like. In case you hadn’t guessed, I have some rather strong opinions on this subject.

Mr. Fitz next takes Mr. Tedium to the Media Center.

Here are the big takeaways for me about Finnish reading: they don’t pressure kids to start reading at a young age, instead starting reading instruction when students are 7; also, students are not tested. In other words, reading instruction is not focused on relentless pressure to succeed on tests. I wanted to show what the opposite of that might look like and also make a point about how we are currently misusing our Media Centers as testing centers.

Finnish science tends to be hands-on and to focus on the thinking skills involved in science rather than on rote memorization from what I’ve read. I wanted to capture that in an amusing way. Americans are showing a tendency to not think scientifically as of late. Carl Sagan predicted this phenomenon way back in the 80s. Read The Demon Haunted World.

The Finnish model of education tends to be more “whole child” oriented, while here in America, we give lip service to things like social-emotional learning but create a stress-and-pressure-driven system that is often detrimental to students’ well-being. In Finland, there is a focus on students being well-fed and healthy. Schools try to create cultures that promote anti-bullying, positivity, mindfulness, and physical activity. Schedules are created to give frequent brain-breaks. We tend to focus on moving the kids through our conveyer belt schools as efficiently as possible.

Finnish schools focus on collaboration, not only between students but between other stakeholders as well, such as “administrators, teachers, students, and the community.” (“Trust, Collaboration and Well-Being: Lessons Learned from Finland”) Collaboration is a bit spottier here in American schools. We tend to value competition more.

Finnish teachers are well-paid, well-trained, highly esteemed, and given the autonomy to do their jobs rather than micromanaged. One quote from a Finnish teacher in a report on how Finnish teachers are treated made me somewhat jealous: “You have liberty. In Finland teachers are free to choose how to teach things – the didactical side. I can choose to do a project on something or I can just teach it the traditional way, or we can do something else. It’s all up to me.” Compare that to America, where teachers are micro-managed, pay tends to be low in many states, and where teachers are being targeted by culture wars that make them out as the villains of American culture.

So we’re back to where the strip started, more or less. Ms. Albright was the principal for years, but seems more at home as the standardization-obsessed superintendent; Ms. Odes remains as the principal. But my need, for the sake of relevance, to revert back to the American way of doing education begs the question: Why don’t we do what they do? Granted, many things in Finland are different: demographics, poverty levels, culture, and language, among others. Yet aren’t the things that are so successful there worth at least trying here?

I would think so. But we seem more interested in making a profit off of education through charter schools, more interested in making education a product and/or weapon in the culture wars through school choice, more interested in measuring teachers in the name of accountability than in actually focusing on recruiting and retaining great teachers. Why are we okay with hemorrhaging teachers? Why are we okay with creating school systems so obsessed with scores that children hate attending school?

We actually know how to fix things… but don’t seem to want to.

I’ll end with what might be my favorite Mr. Fitz strip ever. It made an editor at the New York Times laugh aloud on the subway and got me a spot on their special education page a while back. I laugh too. But maybe it isn’t really funny.