Why Wellesley might want to be more like Finland

Wellesley High School Principal Andrew Keough, fairly fresh off a fact-finding mission to Scandanavia this fall with other educators and state educational officials, says we could learn a few things from Finland and its “success in recent years on international educational testing measures.”

He’ll share some of what he learned overseas at next week’s School Committee meeting. Among the topics Keough had said he was interested in exploring in Finland and Sweden was the role of athletics in those countries’ school systems, concerned that there might be an “unhealthy” emphasis on athletics at Wellesley High (links to PDF of Wellesley PTSO September newsletter). (UPDATE: Principal Keough says he’s a big supporter of Wellesley High athletics, but does have concerns about some attitudes toward high school sports.)

Keough says that as a nation of 5M people, it’s easier for Finland to establish a national curriculum than it would be for the United States. The education system is also backed by a nationalized university program.

“It was not so much the curriculum, or the political ideology of Finland that impressed me most, but rather the general philosophy of the people,” Keough writes of his trip. “They speak with great reverence for the ‘culture of trust’ that permeates their society. It is a belief system in which every citizen is counted on and trusted to work cooperatively and diligently to ensure that no one is let down or left out, so that ultimately the country can thrive.” Finland holds no national exams and has no inspectors, he says.

“If I had not had the chance to ask every individual I came in contact with whether this was true, and continually received the same positive response, I would have thought this was some sort of well-orchestrated hoax!” Keough says.

“As I reflect on the trip and the implications for me as a school leader, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps the Finns are onto something. Perhaps in our pursuit for standardization, accountability, and teaching to the test here in the United States, we have lost sight of the importance of having trust in one another to work for the greater good of our society.”

For more on the trip, read here.

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4 Comments

  1. Bob Ward
    Posted December 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad that Wellesley offers the opportunity for my children to participate in a wide range of athletics. Being a member of a team, striving to improve, experiencing the “agony of defeat” – great early experiences for dealing with the competitive work environment that they will experience as adults.

    Finland has many favorable attributes – a healthy encouragement of arts that leads to wide spread community participation in singing and theatre groups. Certainly there are other influences that may work for Finland but fall apart once they are applied in culturally diverse, economically competitive societies.

    Fortunately, Finland has recently shown significant improvements in reducing the high national rates of suicide. Over the past 15 years the suicide rate in Finland has dropped from the highest rate in the world to the highest in Western Europe. Particularly troubling has been the high rates of teen suicide.

    ‘I think our suicide rate is a cultural problem,’ explains Tuomo Tikkanen, President of the Finnish Psychological Association. ‘There is a lot of loneliness, a lot of not speaking, a lot of not expressing your feelings.’

    ‘It is particularly prevalent in the traumatized, post-War generation. And our general culture is reserved about expressing feelings and this is not healthy.’

    For Tikkanen, it is the rise is therapy – especially in schools – which may have helped to reduce the suicide rates. ‘Pupils no longer feel there is a stigma. They want to talk to the school psychologists.’

    Here in Wellesley, athletics can serve as an outlet for feelings – allowing students to gain emotional release/support through participation. Let’s not underestimate the value of “team spirit” for the athletes and the community. As we look at other cultures around the world it’s important that we review the overall cultural context in determining which lessons we may choose to import.

  2. Kristin Lynch
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    I also am a bit surprised by Dr. Keogh’s remark that the emphasis on athletics at
    Wellesley High School might be unhealthy. I do think that in many American high schools, competitive sports are sometimes emphasized to the exclusion of other activities. However, I have been very pleased to see that the high school’s focus on athletics has not precluded strong support for the arts and community service, along with academics.

  3. Glen Magpiong
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    I am also surprised and saddened to hear that Dr. Keough feels there is a “unhealthy emphasis on athletics at Wellesley High”. As a coach of team sports at the high school, I believe team sports are a great arena to teach the importance of trust in one another to work for the greater good of a team (their society). I also believe that other terrific life lessons are taught by participating in athletics (team or individual) at the high school. I am very interested to hear how he has come to his conclusion that there might be an “unhealthy” emphasis on athletics at the high school and in the athletic department I take great Pride in coaching at.

  4. Barbara McMahon
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Wow! While I applaud the HS principal’s efforts to explore ways to improve our education system and his willingness to share his thoughts with the community, I am more than a little surprised to read that he feels there might be an “unhealthy” emphasis on athletics at the high school. Our experience at the high school has been terrific and I feel strongly that there is a really positive balance between academics and athletics. I will be really curious to hear how he will expand his thoughts on this topic as athletics are a HUGE part of the high school experience for hundreds of kids…and this is not a “Wellesley” thing but part of our American culture.

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