Sunday, April 11, 2004

KTWV05 - Issue 3: Is Finland's Education System The Best?

I have just been reading an article in the Seattle Post Intelligence of Friday, April 9, 2004 by LIZETTE ALVAREZ of THE NEW YORK TIMES which is entitled:

"It's unorthodox, but Finland's education system ranked No. 1"

Would Annikki and I, who have put our four children through parts of it, and now our grandson is going through it, agree with the conclusions of the report and this author?

Having been educated in the two best schools in the universe, Bishop Cotton's Girls' and Boys' Schools, Bangalore, and Cathedral and John Connon School, Bombay, and following it up with having been to the very best college on the face of this planet, St. Stephen's College, Delhi, and then having watched our children through this Finnish system in parts and having lectured to products of this system in the University of Oulu, I must disagree with the writer.

Finland's school system is nowhere near the best as far as "education" is concerned.

Am I being overtly patriotic to my alma mater's. I think not, as my better half is also a product of the Finnish system, and our personal experiences belie the claim.

The Finnish system was one where the Finnish "teacher" stood in front of the class and told the students what was what. In my lecturing days at the University of Oulu, I was astounded by the lack of ability by Finnish students to question what the teacher says. Everything was gospel truth as if it was delivered from the pulpit.

I used to put in some absolute rubbish in my lectures, and the students would just mop it up like a sponge. Then I would let fly and give them merry leather. By the end of my lecture series I did usually have a bunch of students who were a little more argumentative and able to analyze situations based on their own thought.

I do remember our debating classes in Cathedral which helped me acquire some of these skills. I could question Willie about physics problems, or Greg about Chemistry. It only nurtured my interest in my subjects. I learnt that most of the answers had to be obtained by myself. The experimentation in these subjects helped me to be alive. That stood me in good stead in my university life and later in my working life. This is, even today, sadly lacking in Finnish education.

The writer comments about the reading skills of Finnish students. The reason for this is not the school education system, but the nature of the Finnish language. If any of you have been through a speed reading course, the first thing you are taught is not to stop at reading a word but to go on to reading a line and then a couple of lines, till you can read a paragraph at a glance. Sadly, in the English, and most other languages, word lengths are usually quite small, 5 to 10 letters, and hence the skill of reading long words is not gained by the student. The Finnish language uses the concept of compound words. Words can be exceptionally long, 20 and 30 letters are commonplace. Hence the eye grasp skills becomes exceptional. That is one reason. A second reason is that a small mistake in word construction can have a dramatic effect on the meaning. Hence spelling mistakes and reading mistakes become quite uncommon.

Having been a professional editor for many years, I was astounded by the reading skills of very ordinary Finns, many who have not even completed high school. Only a detailed study of several such people revealed the true reasons to me.

The article is absolutely wrong to characterise that Finns to not boast or gloat. The Finns are masters of spin. They are so superb at it that most even believe the spin themselves. Not only are they masters of spin, they are also masters of ensuring the spin reaches the correct audience in believable packets. For instance, the claim that Finland is the least corrupt nation today is just a spin story which has been done so masterfully that Finns believe it right until they are personally affected by the bureaucratic, judicial, political and legal corruption that face them.

Our former special correspondent for our web site "Findians Briefings", Sinikka Ikni, who used to write the column "Finland - Oligarchy?? = Democracy??", touched on many issues for several years till the system came down on her so heavily that she had to stop writing her column!!

I have been personally hounded by the Finnish system, but being used to corruption in India, I knew how to stand my ground. Even to this day Annikki and I are facing an enormous battle with Finnish bureaucrats who hide everything behind a veil of legal secrecy that they write into their laws, not for the benefit of the people but purely of the power brokers.

The claim that all Finnish teachers need to have a Master's degree is not only wrong, but it is also a false notion that a Master's degree can help anyone to be "educated".

When we arrived in Finland, our youngest son came back from school one day and opened his geography book, written by these so-called "Masters" degree holders. He asked me how it was possible that everything that was written about India in this book was wrong - politically, geographically, economically, socially, culturally? For instance, it claimed that the north east monsoon was a dry wind!!

I took this up with our then Indian Ambassador in Finland, K. P. Fabian. Diplomatically, he asked the Finnish Ministry of Education to at least let Indian educationists help to create books containing data about India with some help from Indian experts. But it was no go and misrepresentation of almost every developing country has been commonplace in Finnish school text books. It is done to create a feel-good factor amongst the population. And what better place to start but from the very very young.

When I was working in a Committee to help Finnish university students learn about developing countries, my request that the books in the curriculum, should at least include some titles from experts from the developing countries, rather than the purely text book knowledge of Finns, fell on very deaf ears.

The glamourization of the 45 minute class and 15 minute let-off steam time presents a wrong picture. Students indulge in many activities which one should never allow on a school premises such as severe teasing fellow students. Of late, the drug problem in Finnish schools has become endemic.

We have to disagree that the Finnish education system is far from being No. 1. The methodology of making this choice was flawed, flawed, flawed....

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