Gio Om has been analyzing my dreams from our trip to Qatar. “Are you still dreaming of women in black abayas walking down the beach, Ms. Nathan?” he queries most mornings when he sees me. A couple of weeks ago, when I was just back from Helsinki, Gio, a BAA senior, repeated his question then added: “Where have you been?”

“I’ve stopped those dreams,” I tell him. “But now I’m dreaming of 13-year-old girls with long black hair and multiple piercings in their eyebrows being lost in the forest listening to heavy metal music.” Gio looks at me quizzically. “I’ve been in Finland,” I try to explain.

“I dunno, Ms. Nathan. Maybe you need a real doctor! I’m just me!” I laughed and gave Gio a hug. “Yeah, I need to figure out what these dreams really mean….”

So, Finland. Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, invited me to participate in something called the Helsinki Design Lab: Education Challenge. Eight of us considered how to implement systemic changes in society related to education. We represented different sectors: health, neuropsychology, development and strategic planning, software development, structural engineering, education, and a facilitator known for his thinking on design and innovation. The purpose of the so-called ‘studio’ was as much about dropout students in an otherwise very successful education system as it was to experiment with problem-solving using design methodology. The participants included:

I didn’t know much about using design methodology. I assumed I was there because I know a lot about schools, teaching, learning and kids. That may have been partially true. Another criteria, it seems, was a group able to get along and work well together. We had been vetted by the Helsinki Design Lab folks. I was as impressed by them (Marco Steinberg and Bryan Boyer – both architects by training) as I was by the other members of the team. Two were Finnish, one from England by way of Serbia, one from Singapore, two from Boston and two from California.

The Amazing Team

What did we actually do?  We arrived in Finland and that was strenuous enough. My bags didn’t arrive because of the lousy connection in England. Since I’d been told that the Finns dress informally, I wasn’t too worried, except for a concern that I might smell! We had a welcome dinner at a local restaurant near our hotel just to meet one another as best you can at a long table. In my jet-lagged state, I talked to our facilitator, Daryl, who immediately impressed me as a very intelligent and experienced facilitator. I was a bit embarrassed at not knowing Cheskin Added Value, his umbrella company and all of the pioneering work that Mr. Cheskin had done in advertising in the ‘50s.

As homework, we all read a short brief on dropouts in education in a diverse world prepared for us by the Sitra staff.  Monday began with a series of presentations from various sectors of education and life in Finland. First we heard from someone in the Education Minister’s office.  Next, a short lecture from an economist about the state of the Finnish economy and society. While he acknowledged that the Finns have led the world in many ways, including Nokia and the cell phone industry and the forestry industry, both were tapped out and the country needed to develop its workforce, including immigrants, in other ways.

A university professor discussed multiculturalism, including how the Finnish school system and universities are dealing with diversity and a growing influx of immigrants. She worried aloud about her society’s ability to welcome immigrant groups that may not “act” Finnish or have a cultural reticence that is a source of pride for many Finns. She spoke about how Finns don’t like to “cross the line” and have individuals stand out too much. She was very proud of the fact that the top 20% of high school grads go into teaching, which is a very highly esteemed profession. Finland has no testing until grade 9. They also have tremendous autonomy about curriculum materials, yet with very clearly mandated standards and even hours of courses that all students must take and pass.  For the past six years, Finns have scored very high on international tests. Only this year did Singapore surpass them in test scores.

Finally, a police sergeant talked about youth and online policing. We were floored to learn that 94% of people trust the police. In fact, the more we learned about Finnish culture the more we learned that, for the most part, people trust their institutions. We sensed a positive social contract between government and the common citizen. Another interesting piece of data: the wealthiest people in Finland earn only six times more than the average worker, compared to the United States where the wealthiest people earn at least 100 times more than the average worker. Staggering!

My day culminated in learning about the Finnish system of public pools and swimming. Monday was an all-female swim at the pool next to our hotel. It cost very little to swim and you didn’t need a bathing suit! After hearing so much about cultural reticence I was amused at how in your face the swimmers were. While a great deal of distance exists between people when they talk fully clothed, swimming was altogether different. Women swam within inches of one another—almost like a school of fish. Passing seemed to be frowned upon. The sauna was yet another experience. I went in expecting just a few minutes to get a sweat, but I couldn’t tear myself away from watching two older women who seemed to compete to throw water on the rocks. They threw with such vigor and power that I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the sauna without getting hit by a hard spray of water. I thought perhaps my swimming experience was just a “Monday” one, but I went back on the other two all-women days and saw the same scenario – women swimming (mostly breast stroke) very close to one another and competitive water throwing at the sauna.

Tuesday we were off to visit a comprehensive school for grades K-9 considered one of the best in Helsinki with the children of many diplomats and high-achieving families. The classrooms were multi-racial and impressive for other reasons. First of all, six year-olds put on their own boots and coats in the hallway without any teacher supervising them.

They go outside by themselves, with no pushing or shoving. Children reflect a great deal of trust; the idea of a teacher monitoring them to get out to recess is unusual. Teachers are in the yard, but mostly to have a classroom break of their own. In fact, the school day revolves around breaks – two recesses, lunch and snack. Children control themselves with little need for adult supervision. Thus, when kids have a break, so do the adults. I saw one incident of rough-housing in the main lobby. The principal’s look of anger and her vocal reprimand did little good – they went right back at it when she went away. Nevertheless, I was reminded that young people can be trained, if supported by families, to act responsibly. A great deal of family involvement permeates this school. The complaint we heard from principals and teachers was: “what do you do with kids whose parents refuse to parent?” Many described this as a new kind of parent who really doesn’t want to be involved in their child’s education and wants the school to do all the disciplining.

The curriculum is heavily academic although all students take home economics (cooking includes a fabulous kitchen facility), textiles, wood and metal working, music, visual art and physical education.

Amazingly Well-Supplied Wood Shop

Home Economics Class


That afternoon we met with a student support team that works particularly on the topic of violence against boys by boys. This team of researchers/counselors/writers believed the country was at a near crisis with regards to the lack of understanding of how boys learn differently than girls. They vigorously criticized the university teacher training system that doesn’t require student teachers to take courses in psychology, child and adolescent development and gender issues. We also met with doctoral students who concurred with this group and believed that teachers grade boys unfairly and use behavior rather than achievement to assess student work.

In another part of the city, we met with Panu Maenpaaa, a Cultural Planner in charge of arts and culture. The Finnish system, like much of the European system, supports gatherings and performing groups as well as visual arts exhibitions. This support manifests through a series of festivals which begin at the village or city level and then move to the regional level and finally the national level. Groups get government funding to support their operation and work and present in the summers with critiques and competition, if they choose, to be the national ambassadors. Panu stressed the need for cultural and artistic outlets for young people since so much of Finnish society revolves around ice hockey and soccer. I was very impressed with the level of government support for arts and culture, but wondered aloud why the system was so separate from school. This separate system relied on volunteers to form groups and find interested students, and meant that few students actually had access to high quality arts instruction. Sound familiar?

The next day (Wednesday) was our day to begin synthesizing our findings, although I’d seen little of students and attitudes about the “dropout problem.” True, I had traveled out to the Marimekko outlet store and seen some behavior of young people in the shopping malls and subway station (somewhat typical teenage behavior but with young teens drinking in public at 13 or 14). I certainly had noticed the “heavy metal” look of many teens. Our researchers had given us the lyrics of the top 10 songs, which were filled with angry exclamations of ennui and alienation. Popular music seems to embrace drinking and not conforming to social norms, but I wanted to know what kids actually thought.

I and another team member visited a school in a less privileged neighborhood than the first school. Still, the school was an absolutely beautiful facility, set in the woods with lots of natural light and rocks all around and beautiful paths and an outside area for play and recreation. Yet the classroom we visited was disturbing. The 10 students in the class were all deemed behavioral problems and therefore special needs students. They were not drop-outs yet. Three were girls and the rest boys. One was from Somalia and another young man from Ireland. They had three teachers who had generously agreed to let us talk with their students. The kids were pretty sullen and unexpressive (except for the two immigrant kids who were very talkative).

The girls were the least expressive. In some ways, they were typical middle schoolers of 13 and 14 years old as they teased one another and laughed at stupid jokes. In other ways, I saw an emptiness in their responses and their lack of connection to any future planning. They lived in this very wealthy country of so many opportunities but they couldn’t describe anything that they aspired to become or that they were passionate about. They talked openly, even with teachers present, about the amount they drink (two six-packs at least two weekend nights every week). When we asked what they’d like to change about school they said make it shorter. Why? So there would be more time to hang out in the mall. Later, when I asked the teachers why these students seemed so alienated and unfocused they shrugged a bit and said it was many things: lack of family support, too much drinking, a feeling of lack of self-worth.

I tried not to go into a problem-solving mode, but still I asked about arts integration and about the possibility, for example, of giving the students video cameras and letting them make documentaries of their lives. The teachers told me that they had all the equipment in the school for this, but that the kids wouldn’t be interested in doing such a project. In some ways the teachers seemed to reflect the alienation that I felt from the students.

I know every society and school system has those students for whom things just don’t work, but I was deeply troubled by the responses of the kids and teachers in a school system that seemed to work on so many other levels. How could a country that is so functional not figure out a way for these alienated young people (and their teachers) to feel empowered, integrated and successful?

For the next day and a half we pondered this and other questions in preparation for our presentation to the Helsinki ministry of education among others. How does a system that is doing so well go from good to great? How can the school system, which is obviously a reflection of the larger society, begin to provide opportunities for students to stand out, to take charge, to create work that matters individually and communally and is not just about taking and passing credits? We asked hard questions such as: What is the commitment to developing civic participation and responsibility in the schools? Was teaching occurring in ways that were deeply meaningful to students or just about going through the motions? We even asked whether schools (and by extension society) cared about non-conforming students? We learned that only after 200 hours of absences are students’ parents alerted.

We asked these questions, and more, in the context of describing a school system that basically works and that we admired. How many places in the world can we point to where teaching is a revered profession and with such trust towards teachers?  Our suggestions from improvement were embedded in our admiration for much of what we’d seen.

Our conclusions, while not revolutionary, were provocative.  We made suggestions that included the idea of a senior project of sorts. We encouraged more arts integration and more entrepreneurial experiences in schools.

I am grateful for this opportunity in Finland. It was exhilarating to be in a country that appreciates education and that calls a 9% dropout rate a national crisis. (Just for comparison some research shows that 50% of students drop out of the Boston Public Schools).  I keep wondering what it would take to have our country respond in half that degree. But for all of the faults in the US, I still admire the energy that students, teachers and even administrators bring to our work in schools. We are constantly asking questions, trying to improve and never satisfied with being just good. Together, both the Finns and the Americans could create unbelievable schools by sharing our ideas and approaches more regularly. I look forward to figuring out how.