Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Post: the Finnish Paradox

from northTOmom at Parenting is Political:

The Finnish Paradox: Is Finland to Education as France is to Health?

The French Paradox is a well-known conundrum in the field of public health. Wikipedia defines it as: "the observation that French people suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats." The reason we have a hard time understanding how the French can eat the way they do—for instance, consuming full fat cheeses at lunch and supper daily—and remain healthy is that we are looking at the problem of diet and health through a particular lens, namely, the lens of fat intake. If our perception of health revolves around the issue of fat, specifically around the notion that reducing saturated fat is essential to good health, then there is no way to understand French health statistics; they become a "paradox." If saturated fat is not the key issue—and the latest medical research suggests that in fact it is not—then the French way of eating and staying healthy becomes less mysterious. After all, in addition to consuming all that saturated fat, the French do not snack much between meals, they drink loads of healthful red wine, and they eat a far greater variety of foods, including many more types of fruits and vegetables, than North Americans.

The Finnish education system is a paradox to American education "reformers" in the same way the French diet is a paradox to mainstream medical scientists. In Finnish education less is more. Kids start formal education late by North American standards (at age 7), and their school hours are shorter. Finnish teachers assign very little homework and carry out minimal standardized testing (performing sample testing only); teachers are less bound by rigid national curriculum standards, and are largely unburdened by hysteria over "accountability." In Finnish classrooms there is little technology—fewer smart boards, more blackboards. There are no gifted classes, the idea being that the more able students will benefit from interacting with, and helping, the less able students in the classroom. Yet despite all this, Finnish students' scores on international tests are among the highest in the world.

What are education professionals to make of this? Here again is a paradox wherein the data do not fit preconceived theories. Yet as in the case of the French diet, the data don't lie. Sooner or later American educrats—those currently making a lot of noise about the "crisis" in education—will have to deal with Finland. They would do well, in my opinion, to read an essay published last year by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The author of this essay, Linda Darling-Hammond, explains how Finnish education officials chose a very different path to "reform" from that of their Anglo-American counterparts. Unlike Anglo-Saxon countries:

Finland has not adopted . . . standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools.

In contrast, she quotes a Finnish education policy analyst who explains:

Finnish education policies are a result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society, in general, and within its education system, in particular... Education sector development has been grounded on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers.

Hmm. Equitable distribution of resources. Trust. But. . . don't Finnish kids far outscore North American kids on international tests? Paradox indeed.


  1. northTomom, thanks for an interesting post.

    As to the French paradox, I'd like to see some studies on the effect of stress on heart health. Americans are some of the most stressed-out people on the planet Earth, and I'm sure that's had an effect on our health.

  2. PsychMom says:

    I can find those studies for you...they exist and the effect is devasting. Jonah Lehrer just did a piece on it a few months back...

  3. Here's the link

  4. I'm tearing a page from the French and the Finnish. Low stress for the whole family, a glass of wine for me and ignoring as much as possible all the foolishness in American education. I'm finding that just saying no to things works. "No, I'm sorry Mrs. So and So, my daughter cannot fill out worksheets at night. She's too busy reading. But thanks for the offer."

  5. Thanks for the interesting link, PsychMom. It's scary because I constantly feel stressed out, and I'm sure it is having an effect on my health.

    With respect to the French versus North American health stats, I think part of the problem is that the (North) American motto for life (eg, exercise, diet, work, etc.) could be summed up as "no pain no gain," whereas the French motto is more like "no pleasure, no point."

  6. "No pleasure, no point" -- that should be the motto for this blog.

  7. That is so true...PsychMom says

  8. Has anyone seen "Waiting for Superman?" I have not. It was directed by the same person who made "An Inconvienent Truth." I believe its slant is about making inner city public schools "better" (by that I think they mean higher test scores).

  9. I haven't seen it, and from what I've heard, I'm not eager to. Apparently it's a very simplistic "evil teacher's unions vs. wonderful charter schools" version of events.