Education in Finland

Continuing the discussion from Mental Happiness:

I thought it worth re-posting this here:

I saw Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next recently. It’s one of his best works even though the picture he paints is a bit too rosy, which in itself is odd for a Michael Moore documentary as they’re usually more dreary. He “invades” different countries to “steal” their good ideas to bring them back to America. One of those countries was Finland and what he stole was, of course, their ideas on education. Their attitude towards it is totally different from the status quo. I don’t want to spoil anything more than I already have in case someone wants to watch it, which I recommend, especially for Americans.

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So, as a carrier of Finnish genes and a Finnish passport, I feel a kind of civic duty to put a little balance into the “don’t the Scandis (which, incidently, shouldn’t really include Finns, but anyway) do marvellously” line.

Generally speaking, I reckon it’s probably true that the Finns follow much saner pedagogical models than adopted, at least in the UK (not necessarily the hardest thing to do), and really are to be applauded for their approach to education.

At the same time, it seems quite important to take into account surrounding context and detail when considering the merits of a suggested exemplar. To my own interests I might take the inquiry into all sorts of directions, but given the title of the originating thread this one emerged from (sorry, I haven’t actually followed it, so I’m going by title alone), two particular details seem worth mentioning in the interests of balance.

  1. (notwithstanding the “lies, damned lies and statistics” issue) While a 2013 UNICEF report on child well-being in economically advanced countries finds that overall Finnish children are, indeed, doing very well, its scores stick out a little by contrast to its top-of the-league neighbours in relation to “behaviours and risks”. Most notably, Finland comes second from bottom in terms of youngsters boozing (which I’d take at least as some kind of indicator regarding mental satisfaction).

As an aside, when dealing with the ‘Finland paradox’ (there’s a low preschool enrolment rate, but high educational achievement level) the report makes a note stressing “the care needed in making cross-national comparisons”, and I think it’s a point well worth remember when looking at the greener grasses over yonder.

  1. Finland has a fairly high suicide rate and by this metric, at the very least we might find it difficult to conclude that the country’s educational success necessarily equates to mental well-being.
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Perhaps. But there are many other factors that could be at play with suicide. For example: I’m not surprised to see that Japan has such a high suicide rate given their cultural history, e.g. seppuku. Korea’s is even higher and I’d bet there are similar currents at play there.

Plus, Finland is supposedly one of the happiest countries in the world.

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I have to say that the main method of self-assessment used to generate the World Happiness Report - answers to the Cantril Ladder Question - strikes me as a very dubious way to measure happiness, to say the least! The question reads as follows:

Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

A few moments thought should be enough convince most people that there are very many factors determining the kinds of responses people might give to this question, factors that do not clearly co-vary with happiness itself. Just a few to consider:

  1. If people have austere or darkly pessimistic views about the best kind of life available, then they will be more likely to rank their current lives as near the top! On the other hand, if people have very optimistic views about human potentialities, they will be more likely to see their own life as further from the top. For example, a very cheerful Buddhist in Thailand might rank themselves at level 5, because they think they are very far from arahantship and do not customarily abide in deva realms. On the other hand, a glum materialist-atheist Scandinavian who thinks the best possible life is the kind lived by their slightly more cheerful neighbor might rank themselves as an 8.

  2. If people feel like they have a moral duty to be happy - which I think is a characteristic of a lot of post-enlightenment protestant western countries, where the “pursuit of happiness” has been moralized and made socially normative by the prevailing secular utilitarian culture - that may color their answer to the question, because they will feel that a low number indicates they are failing in their moral duty - and no one likes to admit that!

  3. If people have been ideologically indoctrinated to esteem their national polity and their social system, and they regard their own lives as fairly typical for their country, they will be more likely to view their own lives as happy - even if they are frequently miserable and despondent. For example, if you are taught from an early age to believe that cheap routine dental care and free condoms make people happy, and you think, “I have excellent dental care and all the condoms I can use”, then you will be likely to conclude “I must be happy!”

  4. One coping mechanism for chronic depression is denial. So if people are depressed, they might avoid deeper depression by going around telling everyone how happy they are - including World Happiness Report pollsters.

  1. Finland has a fairly high suicide rate1 and by this metric, at the very least we might find it difficult to conclude that the country’s educational success necessarily equates to mental well-being.

If the sad ones do not stop from killing themselves that should definitely help the statistics! :cold_sweat:


Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. In fact, in a way that’s exactly what I was trying to get at: I wanted to encourage a little more complex consideration of the idea that a seemingly good educational approach (connected to a broader, specific socio-historic picture with a whole mess of surrounding factors) necessarily means we can just assume happiness results. I wouldn’t take any one single bit of evidence as speaking to the whole picture, further, I’d be most inclined to interrogate to reports I linked to. But my interest here was just to note the value of exploring the wider context in which Finland’s impressive education stats sit before coming to any conclusions about its mental health profile (and as an extension, about what can be usefully borrowed from its example).

:laughing: Well, I can certainly say that, that idea makes this particular Finn quite happy - alas, it is a bit of a questionable, wry humour generated kind. My instinct is to say that whoever came up with that one either hasn’t ever been to Finland or hasn’t been to anywhere else in the world. I have a deep affection for Finland (it’s got lots of trees!), but despite the favourable lens through which I undoubtedly view it, it’ll be one hell of a job to successfully convince me that is true. :wink: