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Why Is Finland Tops in Civics?


Why Is Finland Tops in Civics?

Source:Huan-Shih Yang

Finland often emerges a champion in a variety of educational evaluations, and civic education is no exception. With no formal civics classes, how is it that Finnish kids produce the best civic education achievements?



Why Is Finland Tops in Civics?

By Yi-Shan Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 486 )

It's no accident that Finland, a habitual overachiever in international educational achievement evaluations, is also tops in the area of civic education.

The results of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's (IEA) "2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study" (ICCS), measuring the civic and citizenship knowledge of eighth grade students, were released last year, and once again Finland and Denmark scored tops in the world.

The strange thing is, in the elementary, junior high or high school curriculum syllabi published by the Finnish National Education Commission, the words "civics classes" are nowhere to be found.

So how does Finland, with no formal civics classes, score top honors in international civic and citizenship education evaluations? How do teachers turn out such highly achieving Finnish citizens?

Rather than teaching civic education per se, Finland in fact offers a variety of classes that comprise a system of holistic education.

Taiwanese author Yolanda Chen, a resident of Finland for six years, says Finnish civic education begins in the first year of primary school and continues for 12 years, with students required to choose each year between either ethics or religion classes. Students only start taking social studies courses upon entering junior high school. Beginning their freshman year of high school (10th grade), they are required to take additional courses in psychology and philosophy to mold Finnish citizens through the principle of a well-rounded education.

Values First, Citizenship Second

Finland's approach of civic education centered on ethics and religion classes differs from the approach emphasizing patriotism favored in the United States and many Asian nations.

"Finns believe education should begin with teaching universal values, like human rights and respect, rather than absolutist doctrine, because doctrine can change over time," Chen says.

What do Finnish elementary school students learn in their ethics classes? According to the curriculum syllabus, Finnish students in grades one through five focus on four core content areas, the first being "human relations and ethical growth." Teachers lead students in discussing what empathy means, how to differentiate right from wrong, what friendship means, how to realize justice in daily life, whether wealth or poverty influences one's judgment of what is just, what the meaning of freedom of thought is, what religious freedom means, how to practice tolerance and how to refrain from discrimination.

The second core content area is "self-identity and cultural identity." Here, teachers prompt students to ask themselves who they are, what they are capable of, who close to them comes from a different cultural or life background, what the characteristics of Finnish culture are, what the characteristics of the world's remaining ancient civilizations are, and what different beliefs and life philosophies are extant in various countries throughout the world.

Finnish ethics classes also seek to imbue elementary school students with "concepts of human rights and a sense of community."

Elementary school students must be capable of comprehending the true meaning of living together. Living together requires abiding by certain rules, an awareness of how to reach agreements with others and the golden rules of fairness, trustworthiness and keeping promises made in dealings with others. How does one reconcile rights and privileges with obligations? What are children's rights? What indeed are human rights? What will the future impact of peace, equality and democracy be on the world?

The final core area of content involves an exploration of the relationship between "the individual and the world." This includes the natural environment, human evolution, the earth and the cosmos, sustainable development and other topics.

Those kids that opt not to take ethics classes must take religion classes. Yolanda Chen's daughter chose to take religion classes, which Chen assumed would involve the teaching of Bible stories. She never imagined the questions her daughter brought home would be: What is the meaning of life? What brings you true happiness? What experience has prompted you to ponder the question of life and death?

"What Finland teaches is not a narrowly defined religious dogma but is rather an attempt to seek out and ponder the questions for which all religions seek answers," Chen says.

Finland begins teaching the "national affairs" about which citizens must be informed in the seventh grade, as part of social studies classes. At an age equivalent to a Taiwanese junior high student, Finnish youths have begun to ponder the roles they themselves might play in local, national, regional and European Union affairs.

Required areas of public affairs study here include: various social welfare policies, democratic electoral systems, media, the judicial system, national defense policy and foreign policy, as well as the impacts each of these can cause. Finnish junior high students are also required to receive financial planning education and to take classes in tax policy and economics.

In a Taiwanese education system dominated by advancement-ism, civic and citizenship classes are often reduced to a mere sideshow. In Finland, where high school students are required to take classes in psychology, philosophy, ethics and social studies, fully 16 percent of class time is spent on civic and citizenship education.

Aside from the hours spent on civics, "Finland does education well, because it has seized upon the most critical element – their teachers are well trained," Chen says.

You Need Good Teachers to Make Good Citizens

Whether it's in ethics, religion, social studies, psychology or philosophy class, civic and citizenship education is the most abstract, the area most difficult to come up with a standard answer to any question and also the hardest to teach. Teaching civic and citizenship education well is exceedingly reliant on the fundamental attributes of the teachers. 

In the 1970s, Finland's Education Ministry began a decade-long, top-to-bottom program of education reform, the results of which were unimpressive, Chen notes. Ten years on, Finnish authorities made the painful determination that thoroughly raising the standards of front-line teachers would be required. So in 1979 legislation was passed prescribing that all of the nation's public school teachers would be required to possess a master's degree or higher, specializing in education. 

"These are high standards even now, let alone when Finland set forth their program 30 years ago," Chen elaborates.

The legally mandated master's degree requirement was a wakeup call to elementary and junior high school teachers that they were not merely lecturers, but also needed to possess research capabilities. This cultivation of teachers grounded in research quickly won the respect of the society at large.

The most obvious indicator of this is the fact that Finnish students do not take their first national academic achievement examination until age 19. Prior to that, the teachers certify students' academic achievement results independently.

"Standardized national examinations show that a society lacks faith in its teachers – the examinations are needed to verify their work," Chen says. "Finns respect teachers, believe them to be professional and certainly capable of teaching their children well, so there is no need for exams to confirm this."

The admissions rate for education departments in Finnish Universities is just 10 percent, the second hardest discipline in which to gain admittance.

Humanity First, Citizenship Second

Aside from its quality teachers, Finland's success in civic and citizenship education is also largely a reflection of predominant social values. Like other northern European countries, Finland emphasizes human rights, equality, transparency and social mobility; people have faith that their participation can make a difference.

"If the fundamental precept of a society is cutthroat competition, and resource allocation is inequitable, then teaching students to love, work together, be generous and not greedy through a civic education program is too much to hope for," Chen deeply believes.

Convinced that good educators are the prerequisite for a good education system, Finland invests the most in its front-line teachers. Returning to a focus on the human level, schools first teach students what it means to be a good person, and then how to be a civil person, and a citizen.

Finland's civic and citizenship education, the world's best kept secret, is really all rather fundamental.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy