Life after PISA

I have to interrupt my series on the Pope for other breaking news. It’s Finland’s Independence Day today, a day where of course my adopted countrymen try their hardest to find things to be proud of. But this year that’s particularly difficult: Their two biggest claims to international fame have just collapsed. Nokia’s cell phone division, the central pillar of the Finish economy, has been sold to Microsoft by way of an ethically questionable move on the part of their first (and last) non-Finnish CEO. And perhaps worse as far as the official PR people here are concerned, the official rankings of middle school quality in the world no longer put Finland at the top. In fact in math they no longer put Finland in the top 10 even.

yard 1The national rankings Finland received from the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) was a dubious but powerful source of pride for the Finns over the first decade of the 21st century in particular. The questions of how they did it –– by luck of the genetic draw, by skill among teachers or by finding ways to flat out cheat and skew the test results –– have fascinated researchers from around the world. I keep a bookmark menu of “Finland fluff” on my computer for tracking this very thing. But insiders have been telling me for months what I sort of intuitively guessed already before I took my sabbatical year in 2011-2012: this “miracle” was destined to fail relatively soon. The news began to leak in November, and this week it became official: Finnish kids’ math and reading skills are officially recognized as being nowhere near what they used to be in terms of international rankings.

There have been a number of excuses given for the steep decline: the rise of video game distractions, the major competitive efforts being made by those in the Far East, complacency among leaders after having been on top for so long, cuts in school budgets caused by the economic austerity measures needed enable this country to participate in the global competition at “keeping up with the Caymans” in terms of low taxes on the rich, moral decline in the nation in general… In my humble opinion, some marginal truth elements to all of these, but overall they have a relatively weak truth to “BATH SALT” ratio.

The key to understanding these trends, I believe, lies in observing the remarkable rise of Estonia past Finland on the PISA math skill scales. Our little southern neighbor that we’ve been trying to help out in so many ways for the past 20 years has suddenly bested us one of our areas of specialty! How did that happen? Simple really: After going through many fascinating forms of hell in the process of rebuilding in their post-Soviet era, Estonian families are able to credibly say to their kids, “You guys have incredible new opportunities open to you. You don’t have to remain stuck in the same sort of mess that we’ve had to live in for generations now. The future is open to you. So get an education to take advantage of it!”

Back in the end of the Kekkonen era (see my brief history of Finland from last year if you don’t know what/when I’m talking about here) Finnish families could say the same thing to their children. There were noticeable improvements in living standards. Hard work was paying noticeable dividends to the society as a whole. The secondary education system had just been massively expanded so that everyone had the choice of going for white collar careers, regardless of how many generations of farmers and factory workers they came from. There was still insecurity about relations with the Soviet Union, and a certain inferiority complex regarding the Swedes with all of their Saabs and Volvos and Abbas and Electroluxes… but things were going completely in the right direction, and those who worked hard seemed to have real good chances of success.

The recession that hit with the collapse of the Soviet Union further motivated kids to study hard: The old system of believing that if school didn’t work out so well you could always get a job at the factory where your dad worked, making copper cable for export to the Soviet Union for instance, all of the sudden went “Poof!” The only significant hope for success through hard work was in engineering, electronics or entrepreneurship. For those you really needed to do well in school.

Such was the ethic through the end of the twentieth century; such was the soil in which Finland’s PISA successes took root. Schools were not necessarily outstanding so much as capable of providing most kids with the knowledge they wanted and needed to pursue the sorts of goals that the rapidly changing society was throwing at them.

The change in the other direction began in Finland when Nokia started moving from a heroic bunch of “home boys made good” to a bunch of sleazy greedy businessmen like everywhere else in international business. Youth unemployment didn’t come down when their stock went up. Their international ventures went from enriching the lives of the poor in developing countries (by improving the spread of information as to where they could get the best price for their crops and services) to searching around the globe for places in which they could get the biggest sweat shop bang for their buck. Then they miscalculated and missed the first boat in terms of  getting in early on the “smart phone” market, and they’ve been playing careless catch-up ball ever since… until they entirely sold out –– literally –– a couple of months ago.

So what hope do young people have these days? What should they come out of school knowing how to do? What skills can really make a difference to life as they know it? Frankly we don’t have any viable promises to offer them. All we can say is that luck favors the diligent: The harder you work at this school stuff, the better your chances of being lucky later in your career. They’re smart enough to see that that is not a very complete answer though.

The most promising economic motor for the local economy these days, interestingly enough, is one of the things some of the moldy old educational bureaucrats are blaming for the decline in PISA scores: computer games. An interesting illustrating anecdote in this regard: The new flag ship company for Espoo in this regard is that of the “Angry Birds” boys: Rovio. Doing my social duty of attending the city of Espoo’s gala Independence Day celebration this evening, I was there to see a dozen or so people being given city medals of honor, and thus I couldn’t help but note that the only private business sector representative to be so honored this year was Rovio’s marketing director… and that he happened to be one of the three recipients who were “unable to attend” the occasion. So many ironies there.

So finding imaginative ways to kill time and entertain each other, while building some basic math and language and fine motor coordination skills, seems to be what kids these days are most motivated at. Academic study and thinking skills and the basic disciplines of rote learning fall way in the background for the mythical “average Finnish kid” these days.

So the next question is, how worried should we be about this?

About the symptom of the lower test averages and the loss of international prestige, I wouldn’t be worried at all really. It was somewhat of an artificial honor and distinction to begin with. It remains true that the Finnish school system is actually rather old fashioned in some respects and rather forward looking in others, but those matters really don’t set it apart from its competitors. Its primary virtues are in terms of it being quite homogeneous and egalitarian on the one hand, and less conspicuously dysfunctional than school systems in most other countries on the other. The lessons beyond that were never as great as the hype would have implied. Without the pressure of living up to a false reputation now, maybe the school system here can get back to work on meeting growing challenges of the future –– chief among them: the ever decreasing homogeneity of the population and the ever increasing need to improve cross-cultural interactive skills, at which most Finns recognize their overall under-achiever status as a nation.

About the motivational factor of young people having no greater dreams in life than those of perhaps developing new ways of bombing lethargic green pigs with little feathered balls of cathartic violence… I’d be very worried! Not that there’s anything wrong with creating new variations on our patterns of casual escapism; I’d just like to believe that there should be some greater sense of purpose to the “reality” that we use such toys and games to escape from. The sense that things aren’t really getting any better, that many forms of “proper effort” will end up being useless and wasted, and that kids don’t really have any clear idea about what is worth putting effort into should certainly scare our political and cultural leaders.  This is not a specifically Finnish problem, but one in which Finland seems to be catching up with the rest of the world at the moment. Sadly, it is quite likely to come up in Estonia’s future as well, though maybe not as powerfully for another decade or so.

Meanwhile, what can I say in closing that would be suitably positive and up-lifting for the conclusion of the national holiday here?

The patriotic war film The Unknown Soldier is probably on television at the moment, as part of the holiday ritual. (Or maybe it’s over already.) I’m not sure. In any case, Finns still have a strong sense that their country, whatever it will turn out to be like in the post-Nokia era, was still worth fighting for, to keep free from Soviet control back in the day and to maintain in some form or another has history moves forward. They’ve evolved in this mythical identity building process far enough, though, where they no longer see ethnic purity and isolation from the outside world as necessary or even desirable means of maintaining this national identity. They have their own languages in all their richness, but that doesn’t mean they’re afraid of having other languages spoken freely within their borders. While the future is indeed uncertain in many respects, it is quite certain that it will involve a combination of holding onto Finland’s own ancient traditions and opening up to new forms of international adventure.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the Finnish education system is that it still has room for kids to explore these sorts of considerations and concerns. Perhaps with the PISA championship era behind them, Finnish educators will start taking this particular challenge more seriously. Perhaps, more than just churning out competent “raw material” to be converted into diligent and docile corporate personnel, schools here will start focusing more on helping kids build their own rich personal identities, while at the same time genuinely appreciating their neighbors’ alternative identities without feeling threatened by them. That is what former students from Finland’s international schools have found to be of particular lasting value in the education we’ve given them. Maybe that process could be solidified for the country as a whole, and that could become one of the next big export products here.

That would be a good thing to hope for. So I’ll continue into the Advent season with just that hope in mind.

Peace with you and yours as the season progresses.

And yes, on the big international story of the week, may Nelson Mandela find peace in his hereafter, and may his own legacy regain its sense of hope and direction in honor of this great leader who has now passed. More on that here in weeks to come.

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Filed under Education, History, Purpose

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