Why We Go To School

When it comes down to it, why do we go to school? Is it to teach kids the skills needed to succeed in a competitive world or to equalize the population in order to produce a more balanced society? While this might be an extreme spectrum, (certainly with a heavily-populated middle), I think we could agree on which end the U.S. would fall – which makes it all the more curious that so many of our educators have taken an interest in the Finnish style of education.

While much of the developed world is focusing on achieving top scores in math, science, reading and the like, Finland has resisted the trend; the goal for education there, says Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator, author and Education Ministry official, “is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society.” And before we get too far, let’s note that the ideology is working – Finland repeatedly scores at the top of international academic rankings. At the core of this success, says Sahlberg, are the teachers. In the 70s, the government mandated that every teacher have a master’s degree – and decided to pay for it. Add to that the fact that teachers spend an average of four hours a day in the classroom and are paid for two hours of professional development a week, and it’s no wonder that “it’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine.”

But cream-of-the-crop teachers are only part of the puzzle. This holistic, develop-the-child approach means kids don’t even go to school until they’re seven years old; to start any sooner is seen, Sahlberg says, as a “violation of children’s right to be children.” And once they get there, they’re not academically measured for another six years, with the system frowning on virtually all standardized testing (and homework!) until the age of 16.

When the intent is to build a framework that supports a balanced, happy society (Sahlberg says, “the first six years are… about being ready to learn and finding your passion”), and the method appears to be succeeding, it’s hard to find fault. Certainly, teachers in the U.S. would welcome the lack of competition between districts and the fight for funding, both of which are often based on test scores. And while it may be tempting to try to emulate such a system, Sahlberg warns against trying to select, à la carte, strategies that have been honed over decades to suit a particular population.

So, while one question is answered – some of us go to school to learn to succeed in a competitive world while others of us go to learn to contribute to a more balanced society – another is posed: Is this what we want?