Finland: A Society of Trust.

IMG_0924Imagine a world where you simply expect everyone to follow the rules and do the right thing.    This is a world where mothers leave sleeping infants in their strollers outside of little shops while they run in for a quick purchase.   This is a society where all school doors are left unlocked and public transportation basically operates on an honor system.  It is simply assumed that you have already paid to ride the bus or tram.   Here you can see children as young as 7 or 8 years old calmly riding the public bus/tram to get themselves to and from school or walking/ skipping down the street alone.  Parents simply expect their kids to make the right decisions and also trust society to be looking out for their child while they are in public alone.   Here you can leave your things at your seat in a cafe while you run to the restroom and it is perfectly normal to leave your toddler for an hour at a public park that has an designated “overseer” who watches the kids play.  Here you can accidentally leave your wallet on the bus and someone will find a way to return it to you the next day, which happened to my friend.   To the people in this world the worse case scenario does not even cross their mind.   Why would they expect someone to take their child?  Why would they expect someone to abuse/ misuse the system?

IMG_1740I find this faith in society absolutely refreshing.  However, sometimes this Finnish dedication to following the rules can be almost comical.  For example,  there was once a group of about 20 people standing on both sides of a one lane road.  The cars were clearly stopped at a red light and the walkway was free and clear, yet the walk signal said stop.  Everyone, 40 people in all, just stood there two full minutes  staring at each other one car width apart waiting for the walk light to turn green.  I could see the internal conflict playing out in the Finnish people’s minds and faces….should we break the rules and just go or should we wait?  Even though it was painfully obvious we could go, we all collectively waited for the green light. photo-1 I asked someone about this phenomena where the Finns ALWAYS wait for the green light.  They explained it to me that they are setting a good example for the children who can’t judge the situation as accurately as an adult.  If you always wait for green not matter the cost, you know you and the children are going to cross safely.  This reasoning has helped me wait more patiently in such a situation as described above.  I do it to set a good example for the children, to keep them safe.  And with that mindset waiting an extra minute or two does not seem like a sacrifice.

The trust found in society is especially apparent to me when I observe Finnish schools.  The amount of trust given to students has been the biggest shock to me during my time in Finland.  First of all it still floors me when I can just walk right into a school, any school, and it is unlocked.  IMG_0032I often find kids roaming the halls or grounds freely.  If they don’t have a class or if they finished their work early they are allowed to leave.  The set up of a school day, even beginning in 4th grade  is more of what we find in college.  The students have different classes every day.  Some mornings their first class begin at 9:45 and then they finish at 2:00.  Some days in the week they start earlier and they can leave at noon or 1:00.  I don’t know how they keep track of what classes they have when because they are constantly changing.  Yet they do!

IMG_0028Sometimes  in middle school and high school the kids have skip periods in the middle of the day.   They are free to leave the school and go get lunch, or go home or simply chill in public places around the school and get some work done, got outside and get fresh air…or nap!   This is why it is not uncommon to see kids just hanging out in the hallway.   As an American public school teacher, this makes me panic a little.  In my head I keep thinking, where are you supposed to be?  Who is in charge of you right now?  I am realizing that this “in Charge of” mentality only exists in the US because our litigious society has to know who to blame should something go wrong, because heaven forbid we blame the student!

This trust extends to the classroom instruction as well.  Teachers trust students to do the work the students need to do to learn the content.  The very first math class I observed, I was shocked when it was time for the teacher to assign the homework.  She said,  ” You might want to try the following problems to make sure you understand before the test.  You can start with a few problems in this section that seem interesting to you, if those are too easy you might want to try this harder section.  If you finish with all of those, there are more examples in the back of the book you can look at.”  The most amazing thing was that ALL of the 8th graders started working.  They were all working on different problems and NONE of them asked  “How many do we have to do?”  or, my personal favorite,  “Is this for a grade?”   They were trusted to do the work they decided for themselves was necessary….. and they did it!  They weren’t doing it because they had to to get a good grade, they were doing it because they wanted to learn.  That is the biggest difference I have noticed.  The students work on the work that is given to them out of an intrinsic desire to learn the material and do the task presented to them.

IMG_0939

This underlying current of trust and faith in society is apparent in every aspect of Finnish life.  It will occur often as a theme when I describe more about the Finnish Education and Finnish teachers.   It is important to understand this about the Finns if we are going to understand their education system.

43 thoughts on “Finland: A Society of Trust.

  1. Kelly, this entry reminded me of something my dad once told me when I was about high school age – to paraphrase -” you know what I expect of you… I trust you to do the right thing.” Perhaps there is some connection with Finnish beliefs to other Eastern European moral codes and behaviors. Or perhaps, it is just the way good parents parent…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Finland is not, and has never been, Eastern Europe. Yes, it may be located in the east geographically, but culturally, the 700 or so years of being a part of Sweden made the Finnish culture firmly rooted in the Nordic with far more connections to Western Europe than the eastern parts – therefore very different from the cultures in what is commonly considered Eastern Europe.

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      • That’s what (most of) us Finns want to think. However, geographically Finland is rather east. Political reasons (Cold War and Finns desire to approach the West) make it difficult for finnish people to admit that even culturally Finland is pretty east.

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  2. Kelly, I am so glad you are able to experience this phenomena first hand. When I lived in Poland, I was always so pleasantly surprised by the absolute trust and rule following the Poles exhibited. I didn’t teach while in Warsaw, but I recall leaving Ethan, asleep in his pram, outside a shop while I ran in yo make a purchase…something I would never do in the U.S. The mindset is just completely different. I look forward to reading more!

    I miss you, but I am excited about the insight you are gaining.

    ~Amber

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  3. Quite amazing! This is truly awesome. I think I really love this self drive and personal discipline the Finns exhibit. I can’t wait to be in Finland. Sincerely speaking, this is the complete opposite of the situation in Africa. Keep it up Finns, maybe one day my fellow Africans will learn a thing or two. Awesome!!

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  4. Schools locking their doors are probably done on a school-by-school basis. The doors at my kid’s school are definitely locked during the day.

    As for the street crossing, I remember a couple of teenaged boys specifically telling my kid (as they jay walked), “See what we just did, don’t do that okay.” They knew they had set a bad example, but they pointed it out to her. I thought that was kinda funny, but great on the same hand.

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  5. As Finnish person (sorry if I get something wrong) I have waked up on myself from 8 year old, done 13 years of school and I have had good teachers. Something in American school I can’t figure out: Why you use so much time to try teach useless history things to children? Of course history is important but it is history and if you want to children to be educated then try teach little more on science part (dinosaurs, earth history and so on), God did not make earth 6000-7000 years ago (and I did mean that if he/she did it is 4b and more years old 🙂 Try teach facts, no something what is fairy tale and they can also learn to learn right things and not fear something to hit them if they learn something what is not in bible.

    Also even you paint good painting about Finland, there is also bad ppl living here. You can get your bike stolen from clocked backyard, there is murders but not so much with guns, more with knives and not for gang related more group of drunk ppl start fight and you know what happen…

    Yes, we watch also other ppl’s children and try say them if they must be nice and get down from tree so they don’t hurt them self. You need village to raise child. If my children does something stupid and some adult sees it I hope that adult will tell her to stop what she is doing because I will do it if someones children is in danger.

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  6. All schools are locked down for entire school day. Already in my time in the 1960s, if you should leave your belongings to a bus it will be emptied, it’s not so rosy life in Finland anymore, the bubble has burst.
    Finns are as anybody else in this world there are good ones and bad ones.
    School hours are long and there is a massive amount of homework. I have not seen any prams baby’s inside left outside of shops, when I was a young mother I never understood why people could do that.
    We have a drug problem and of course the alcohol problem. I don’t think any society is just full of rule obedient people, we do jaywalk and do other “naughty” things after all we are just humans!

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  7. Comparisons can be made between different countries and cultures, but the article draws an overtly one-sided picture, implying single incidents – which as such may have happened – would be the general norm. In any larger town or city it would be highly irresponsible to leave any belongings unattended, let alone a baby. While there may yet not be wide-spread kidnappings, rampant day-light muggings, raping,… it is a sad fact that Finland is quickly catching up, all kinds of incidents having become increasingly commonplace. A few decades more and likely things will be indistinguishable from any other European country.

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  8. This is a lovely picture, but unfortunately it is no longer quite true, at least not the parts regarding schools. The world is no longer that safe, not even in Finland, and that is reflected in the current laws and directions guiding teachers. I know; I am one. Most schools in the Greater Helsinki area and any city lock their doors, and teachers and other staff are required to check any strangers – and also unsupervised students. No, students should not be going about freely during class hours, and even during intermissions, there must be enough teachers to be able to oversee the groups milling about, at least cursorily. Free periods for middle and lower high school (“yläkoulu”) students are not legal, either. Sometimes they’re inevitable, mostly if the student takes a minority religion class and their teacher can’t make the same hours, but it’s to be avoided if at all possible, and ideally those students should have a place and supervision even then. Some schools let students leave the premises during lunch hour, but not all, because all Finnish schools offer a free lunch anyway. This applies to “peruskoulu”, the schooling that is obligatory for all, up to age 16. Lukio (“Senior High”/”Sixth Form”) schools usually have more relaxed rules, including free periods.

    I do commend the science teacher whose classes you have observed: they’re clearly very skilled and have wonderfully motivated students. Or, because it was a revision class before exam, everyone already knew that it was an exception – otherwise, I’ve never known _someone_ not to ask which exercises are obligatory…

    I’m not saying most students could not be trusted. I’m saying we do not rely on trust: we are guided by very strict laws towards the safety of all students in our care. I know this was not your main point, but I do not want to perpetuate an image of carefree naivety, where we’re not concerned for the safety of our students first and foremost. That is our duty by law. Trust – in class and outside of it – is what comes next, under that framework.

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  9. …Though of course it’s all related to that general belief in the decency and good intentions of your fellow man, and transferring said decency by example: we take these rules seriously, just like any others, and so I just can’t not point them out. 😀

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  10. How Finnish kids keep track of their classes? They have printed timetables that they usually keep with them all the time. I had a calendar/note book with empty timetables where I wrote down my schedule. It also helps to find the right classroom.
    After some times, I always learned it by memory and didn’t need to check it anymore.

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  11. This is all so true. It really is a society built on trust, every aspect of it. Which is also why the Finnish school system wouldn’t necessarily work just anywhere…without the trust it would just be chaos.

    Another thing is the fact that Finnish children generally grow up very quickly. It’s not that unusual for a 16-year-old to live on their own. Most move out (and start supporting themselves financially) around the age of 18 or 19. I think they start to mentally prepare for it very early on.

    That said, I think there are many things Finnish students and teachers could learn from Americans: oral interpretation and discussion skills, social skills, confidence…Unfortunately these skills aren’t as built-in in the Finnish society as we would wish.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Well written Kelly. I don’t know much about the American system, but it sounds a bit scarey. As for the jay walking, I do it all the time, in Finland and elsewhere except if there is any chance that kids of any age are looking on, whether with their own parents are not, I feel that showing an example for the sake of road safety is of central importance. Mind you, I never remember hearing this “rule” for adults and imagined till now that I had thought it up myself.
    Paul

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  13. I find this very funny: ” I don’t know how they keep track of what classes they have when because they are constantly changing. Yet they do!”

    Answer: The same way as you do; it is called a schedule or “reading schedule” aka “lukujärjestys”. =)

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  14. “Reading schedule”, or, a more direct alternative, “Studying order”. Personally I’ve never memorized all my classes, since there might be 5 different ones in a day from the 3rd grade on(9 yrs old), and I have no interest in that mission, so I have always just checked my timetable all_the_time. Paranoia, perhaps, but I want to be at the right place at the right time. Also I used to study during the 15-minute breaks every hour in secondary school(grades 7-9) and voluntarily do my handicraft class’ projects and read due books.
    Now in upper secondary school (lukio) there are so much more work to do to study all the things in the courses, that I’m more paralyzed than at that time and even though it should be the opposite, I study less. I’m used to studying on my own and doing pedant work, so projects that are due in a strict schedule with little freedom stress me and unmotivate me. I don’t have enough time to study at the extend I would want to! Also in upper secondary school somewhat over a half of the exercises done during classes are done in pairs or groups, and that tires me. Finnish school system is not only easy and efficient. If you end up going academic, it’s definitely efficient and definitely requires hard work. To study perfectly for a course that has classes 3 times 75 minutes a week, one needs to study the same amount at home. Of course, students realize that they cannot study perfectly anymore like they used to, and they accept it. Teachers, on the other hand, usually expect students to do the work, because they ought to be studying for themselves.

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  15. I agree that Finland is quite a safe place and not much to worry about. But it is not any more than many places in the world, including my native Wisconsin, and it does have its negative side. Actually Finland is the only place I have ever had anything stolen. Two bicycles and a mobile phone. Schools give a lot of freedom, but also lack many of the team building activities that made my school experience so great. Things like band and sports. Sports were also about watching and not just participating. Having been a teacher in Finland I can say that school spirit was completely lacking. Having short school days is great, but I would have traded it any day for an hour of band or a pep rally. Lastly about faith in your fellow citizens, I see a lot of things here that just concern me. People in my local store openly stealing and no one stopping them, Including store employees, for one thing. Let’s take off the rose colored glasses and look at the real Finland and not present it as a paradise.

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    • That’s because the school is about learning and there are many chances to work together. Finnish kids do sports after school, they learn team building there. A bit exaggerating to say that in one store someone stole something to say like it’s the same every where. Why would you need school spirit? It’s about learning, not having fun. Compared to the US Finland is a paradise.

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    • No thank you. We do not need american type school sports in our schools. School is for studying, sports are for free time.

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  16. Thank you for your interesting blog! As a finnish teacher it is very nice to hear an another view to our school system.

    The world is changing, and in bigger cities it is unfortunately getting more problematic. There are some people misusing trust, but luckily most people are still really trustworthy.

    For me it was a new thing to read from these comments that we have schools in Finland which lock their doors! It sounds crazy! In my school doors are never locked, and students can move freely. I teach physical education, and of course students (age between 12-16) walk or use bikes to get to different football/baseball fields, swimming hall, gymnastics hall etc around town. When class finishes, students sometimes have up to 50 minutes before their next lesson. In this time they are expected to get lunch (at school), but if they don’t, no one will know what they do. We just trust them to get back to school safely. And they do. Should something happen, of course we are responsible. But why should anything happen?!

    I love living in this safe environment, and I really hope it stays the same always! I find that in town where I live, there is still safety and trust. Just yesterday I was in cafe, and one mom left her baby to sleep outside in her troller. She had forgot her cry alarm, and had a toddler with her, so her focus was obviously not on the sleeping baby all the time. When the baby woke up and started crying, a passer by just simply opened the cafe’s door and said someone’s baby woke up.

    I have even forgot my keys on the car door for a whole night, and of course the car was still there the next morning… 😀

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  17. Very interesting article. Thank you. Out of interest, have you travelled to the United Arab Enirates? Most of the examples in the article strike a strong parallel to life in the UAE… Even down to the returned wallet! Quite remarkable. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. It all sounded quite syrupy but still i do agree with most of it. I have lived my childhood in a smaller village in Finland and there it was completely like you described or even better. Now i live in Helsinki and my 10 y old girl goes to school 1km from our home. I have most certainly worried about her safety more than my mother never had to worry about mine. Still, my daughter has walked to school alone from first year on, woken herself up in the mornings and come home alone from the school since she was a second grader (8y). She uses public transport alone frequently when she goes to visit friends or to swimming hall or comes to see me at work. She has also gotten in to trouble; once when she was 9, she took the bus to wrong direction and ended up somewhere, that she couldn’t clearly describe where it was, but cell phones makes everything very easy, since she can call if finds herself in trouble. I do trust that there are eyes everywhere to look after my child in the society, that most of the other people are trustworthy and helpful. And of course i have had long discussions with her about situations that might be dangerous and what kind of people to avoid. I do trust her to obey the rules we have and do the right thing even though she is still young.

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  19. I agree with some things, but not quite everything. The trust-things depends a lot on which town or city you are in.. I could maybe for example leave a baby outside a shop for a moment in the small village where I grew up, but never in a city or a place I’m not very familiar with.. I have also never went on a bus ride where you don’t have to pay or prove that you have already paid the ticket.. Where is it possible to do this..? And if the wallet is returned to the right owner after being left in the bus I think it’s a matter of a bit of good luck rather than something to count on. I also believe that a part of the reason why the students make the math tasks when suggested to do so is precisely because it’s necessary to exercise if they want a good degree or if they find math difficult it’s even more important if you want to pass the end test. At least this was pretty much the attitude when I went to school – unless you are truly interested in math you do the tasks simply because you want to do well or at least pass the test 🙂

    To mention some counter examples: bikes are constantly getting stolen, even with locks the thieves tend to manage to steal them in the cities, in European comparison Finland has a very depressing statistic on men abusing women, we have had a few school massacres etc.

    But well, compared to the rest of the world Finland is on the top concerning trust and safety for sure 🙂 But still remember to not be completely naive/trusting or think that criminals and bad people don’t exist in Finland, because that would be a big lie and it could end badly, utopia doesn’t exist quite yet 😛

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  20. I can understand on the surface Finland might appear this way, but in my opinion — and as a resident in Finland for many years — this article should be titled “A Society of Fear” or “A Society of Shame”: people are terrified of others.
    What happens here is related to how children are raised, the role of parental absence, passive aggression, and the interference of society (government) from a very early stage in the child’s development (http://childparent.net/articles/entombed_at_birth/). Trusting in the unlikelihood that people will take advantage — because they are effectively controlled by the weight of external judgement — is not the same as trusting people. Besides, people here enjoy a good standard of living and do not have much to gain from this, which has a lot to do with factors other than social organisation — like the unattractiveness of winter and the low population.

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  21. You should see little school children walking many miles to the school or to the bus stop, when heavy semi-trailers pass them on hilly and complex roads. They are no sidewalks in the countryside.
    That looks really dangerous, but they survive because their parents and teachers keep teaching them to do only right things.

    Finland is a peaceful country as many other countries in Eastern Europe, (Poland, Republic of Karelia). Our policemen don’t shoot people but they protect people and their property. They behave like teachers and advice people to do right things!
    Yes, we ae are a nation of trust. Thank you for reminding us for this.

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  22. One critical issue often not mentioned in Finnish school system is that Finnish language is written as it’s spoken. Once you know alphabets, you can read and write basicly anything, this means that about half of the kids know how to read before they even go to school. This means that school age is later, school days are shorter and more time is used on things like math instead of writing and reading.

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  23. A Finnish (kindergarden) teacher’s perspective; yes, we give the kids a lot of freedom, even in daycare / preschool (the latter starts when the kids are 6 years old, but you probably knew that) but with that we also expect a lot of responsibility from the kids – ie. if someone brings a toy to the kindergarden and it’s lost/broken/whatever during the day, the responsibility falls to the kid and his/her parents. Aside from that, constructive learning theory is widely used and accepted from kindergarden to all ages, at least it’s been like that for many years now.

    Anyway, your comment about Finns waiting for the traffic lights is absurd, at least in Helsinki – nobody does that here, at least the people who’ve grown up in Helsinki or other bigger cities. Visit the city centre and you’ll probably grasp my point. A lot of Finns are subservient, conservative and pretty much oblivious to the outside world – as much as everyone would like to think so, Finland is not the dream-come-true society as it appears to the outside world. Our education system is slowly falling apart because of budget cuts, in Helsinki and pretty much every other city there’s a huge shortage of qualified teachers, since the wage is way too low in regards to the workload you have to put in as a teacher, and because of this kindergardens and public schools are in a turmoil, and have been for many many years.

    I’m not trying to be negative here, just a realist. We had a good system, which is falling apart. I’ve been working with kids for 10 years and year by year I’ve seen the system deteriorate piece by piece.

    My 2 cents.

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  24. Thank you for the interesting article! Maybe it gives a little bit too rosy a picture of the Finnish society but yes, trust is the key word, from elementary schools to prisons.

    Finland has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment in Europe (and a LOT lower than in USA) and about a third of Finnish inmates are housed in open prison where the inmates have a lot of personal freedom. The open prisons are the last step of a prison sentence before inmates make the transition back to regular life. You are trusted if you show you are ready for that. This probably is something typically Finnish pragmatic thinking, the rehabilitation makes more sense than locking people up for the rest of their lives.

    An article on Finnish open prison system:
    http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-15/finlands-open-prisons-inmates-have-keys

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  25. One way of looking at the traffic light case is to remember that in Finland car drivers expect people to wait, so they are not prepared to stop, or even slow down, if someone decides to jump on their way. They trust the speed limits and the lights even more than people on foot. So as the basic rule in traffic is that the car always wins, no one should have a need to play with ones life!

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  26. Mostly true, still today, the things you write. But here’s one interesting counterweight concerning locked doors in schools. My Canadian English teacher in a Finnish university was astonished that here all campus doors were locked and could only be opened with individually customized electronical keys. According to her, such a control society was unthinkable in Canada, where students could move freely on campus without keys. This was in the 1990s, maybe things have changed. And maybe Canada is far from equal to USA.

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  27. Pingback: >Lait condensé>  20150518c Educational Issues | La crème du Fouque

  28. This is a good reminder of all the things I take for granted living in Finland.

    Doors at my kids school are never locked. I have never even thought about that.

    My kid has walked alone to school since first grade. He has played alone outside since he was 5. I could see him from my window though.

    I have never had anything stolen from me. I have lost both my wallet and my phone and had both returned to me.

    I walk home through park at late hours all the time without thinking it twice.

    Well, this is a small town. Nothing ever happens here. Bigger cities are not this safe anymore. And it’s getting worse year by year.

    And yes, I always wait for the green light- even when there’s no cars at sight. 🙂

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  29. Pingback: Finland–A Society of Trust | saboteur365

  30. Pingback: Understanding Americans… | Elämää Amerikassa

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