Imagine 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?
I 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. 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. I 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!
Sometimes 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.
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.