Sisu -the Finnish art of resilience

I was reading a BBC article on the Finish concept of sisu and I was intrigued by everything it stood for and decided it needed further exploration!

The notion of sisu was popularised in the 1920s and literally means ‘guts’ but often refers to a person’s courage, resilience, tenacity or just sheer doggedness.

Sisu as a concept has shaped the Finnish people and a whole nation.

These are qualities not unique to Finns alone but they have been able to articulate it as a concept and as a form of national identity to build their own narratives.

Ultimately, sisu is not about boasting about one’s bravado but rather the inner strength one needs in the face of adversity.

Sisu as a philosophy was instrumental in galvanising the Finnish nation in 1939 when it was overrun and invaded by the Soviet Union who had three times as many soldiers and over a hundred times as many tanks. In order to defeat a materially superior foe and regain their independence, the Finns had to call upon their spiritual abundance of sisu and a combination of tactical nous and mastery of the terrain.

 

“Rather than the stamina to run up a mountain, sisu is the strength it takes to put one foot in front of the other.”

–         Joanna Nylund

 

Sisu though is not just about the individual, but rather the collective. It is about communal strength; it is about equality, across genders and tribes; it is ultimately about collective unity and strength.

The Finns claim that it’s a combination of their weather, their stark landscape which they have survived over centuries and their sense of independence and purpose that has cultivated their sense of sisu.

Ways one can consider building sisu is through being one with nature, observing and appreciating the natural life around us; being comfortable in silence and appreciating the meaning of the gift of time; and ultimately being resilient by dealing with a difficult or uncomfortable situation in a positive manner.

So go forth with sisukas (full of sisu) and live life with sisulla ja sydämellä (with sisu and heart).

 

For further great resources on sisu, I will suggest some of the following resources:

Sisu – The Finnish Art of Courage (Joanna Nylund)

What is Sisu – by Emilia Lahti, a Finnish researcher and activist

Advertisements

Why The Finnish Education System Works.

I’ve previously written about my admiration for the Finnish education system.

I just finished reading Cleverlands, a book by a London teacher, Lucy Crehan. Lucy decided to visit five countries with top-notch education systems: Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada – spent time there with teachers and tried to understand what it was about the culture, the education system, the philosophy and the approach that have allowed for these nations to be amongst the top for quality of education.

Upon reading this very informative and thought-provoking book, I revisited the topic of Finland’s education policy and thought it’d be useful to share some pertinent details.

Start of formal education

Formal education in Finland only starts at the age of seven, significantly later than in most other countries.

The late start of formal education has had no impact on the competency attainment in literacy, maths or science by the time Finnish children turn 15. Finland still ranks amongst the top nations in the PISA rankings.

Before the children turn seven in Finland, quality time is spent on creating the right conditions that support the children’s holistic growth and development. There is a predominant focus on the development of social skills, positive self-affirmation, reflection on right and wrong and creating the basis for much more positive interaction with their peers.

This emphasis on holistic development before they start school has allowed for Finnish students to rank amongst the top of their peers globally despite starting formal school later than in most countries. This is further supported by a generally high staff to student ratio and where the teaching and support staff are all highly trained and qualified professionals.

Free compulsory and comprehensive education

Finland also runs a free comprehensive education system for all children for the first nine years of their formal education (from seven to sixteen).

All of the children are trained to the same curriculum during their time at comprehensive schools.

In their first few years in their comprehensive schools, children with additional or special needs are identified early by their teachers. These students are then given greater support and guidance with teachers who are equipped with the right training and skill sets. These children may then be placed in smaller classes where they are given greater bespoke support and guidance by teachers. Beyond this though, there is no further ‘streaming’ or classification of students into different ability groupings and the children remain in class together till the age of fifteen/sixteen.

Despite the relatively late start of formal education (from the age of seven), Finland not only has one of the highest ratings of their children’s performance in international education rankings, it also achieves one of the top scores in terms of equality across students – where the gap between the best and worst performing students is narrow.

Another important aspect of Finnish education at the comprehensive school level is that schools have a multi-disciplinary approach to children’s development. All schools or clusters of schools in each area have a support team including a nurse, dentist, speech therapist, psychologist and counsellor. This child welfare support team form the base support for all schools where each child’s progression is considered.

This approach to education has a significant investment outlay. However, the Finnish attitude to this is that it is much most costly (and wasteful) when any Finn is excluded from active society due to a poor start during their schooling years.

As Ilpo Salonen, Executive Superintendent of Basic Education in Finland (in an interview to Crehan) says, “When we are five million (population-wise), we cannot afford to drop anyone.”

Empowering the teachers who are educating the youth of the nation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to year for the vast and endless sea.”

Anotine de Saint-Exupéry

The Finnish approach to the development of their teachers is a fundamental underpinning of the Finnish education system

There is a significant emphasis on teacher training. All aspiring teachers need to first go through a rigorous and robust training programme, to Masters level, at one of eight prestigious Finnish universities.

Here, the teachers are all deeply immersed in understanding the pedagogy and educational approach towards a nationally coordinated curriculum.

Following this rigorous training programme, in their initial years, they observe senior teachers and have a programme of mentoring that help them further develop and refine their skills.

They are subsequently given greater autonomy when they are in schools (there are no lesson observations, no school inspections for example), and have the freedom to grade students to the age of fifteen (when they are in comprehensive schools) and even have the freedom to choose their own books for children!

This autonomy and trust provided to the teachers provides them with greater motivation and passion. In return for the trust shown to them, the teachers have a very disciplined approach to continuous professional development, where they spend time each year to learn new concepts and best-practices in teaching.

This Finnish approach of providing all teachers with the mastery in the art and science of education and teaching, creating a peer community of teachers, continuous training and respecting them by providing them with greater autonomy has reaped significant benefits for the education of children in Finland.

The power of culture

One cannot underplay the role culture plays in ensuring the overall approach to a high-performing education system.

In the case of Finland, the educational framework has a thoroughly egalitarian approach – where both vocational and academic pathways, post the basic comprehensive education phase, are deemed to be equal.

Children are also reinforced with positive affirmation and motivation rather than be shepherded early only in their childhood towards educational pathways which they may not necessarily understand.

The Finnish traditions also consider teaching to be a highly respected profession (despite the average pay) and hence the teachers who join the profession are intrinsically motivated and are committed to delivering public value through their custodial responsibilities of their nation’s youth.

For long stretches of their history, Finland and her people have been ruled by various colonial powers and were subjugated as second-class citizens. From the onset of independence, the Finnish people were determined to ensure they would never again be second-class and education was seen as an important lever to enhance themselves and their sense of self.

Finland remains a model of education for educators and regulators everywhere and has much for us all to learn from.

Finland’s progressive philosophy to education

Having just visited Helsinki, a city I would strongly recommend visiting, I learnt a fair bit about Finland’s overall philosophy to education, learning and development. This came through discussions I had with a number of people whom I met whilst travelling there.

Learning to skate in Helsinki city centre

Introduction

Finland provides a great blueprint for establishing a world-class education system that instills a philosophy of holistic development, lifelong learning and an ethos geared towards the progress of not just self, but of society as a whole.

The Finnish education standards are also amongst the highest in the world, under most global indicators, from the Education Index produced by the UN Human Development Index, to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), to surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

I think it will be useful to start this short discourse on Finland’s education system with this quote:

“Finnish early childhood education emphasizes respect for each child’s individuality and the chance for each child to develop as a unique person. Finnish early educators also guide children in the development of social and interactive skills, encourage them to pay attention to other people’s needs and interests, to care about others, and to have a positive attitude toward other people, other cultures, and different environments. The purpose of gradually providing opportunities for increased independence is to enable all children to take care of themselves as “becoming adults, to be capable of making responsible decisions, to participate productively in society as an active citizen, and to take care of other people who will need his [or her] help.” – Anneli Nikko.

This pretty much encapsulates the overall philosophy the Finns have adopted towards education and learning.

It is worth noting the following points about education in Finland:

  • All education is free (including fully subsidised hot meals for all students).
  • Parents of new born babies are given books to read to the children – to inculcate a habit of reading!
  • There are no university tuition fees and benefits are provided for university students.
  • All children have to learn 2 foreign languages in addition to Finnish.
  • The values of living in harmony with one another and respect for all cultures, traditions and faiths are taught very early on in a child’s life.

A happy, multicultural childhood

The advent of ‘phenomenon’ teaching

Finland’s leading educators, despite their formidable achievements, have not sat on their laurels. They have continued to identify the changing trends taking place within the wider global economy and labour trends and are adapting to meet the rising challenges.

Across most parts of the world, there is a pressing issue of youth unemployment, which ranges from 25 to 50%, across Spain, Greece, Saudi Arabia and major economies. This is partly due to ‘skills mismatch’ that occurs as a result of employers not getting the skills they need from individuals who leave the schools’ systems.

What Finland is undertaking now is a radical reform that is scrapping, in a phased manner, the traditional teaching by subjects (such as learning maths, English, history, etc discretely) and instead focussing on teaching by topic areas.

For instance, students may learn about ‘business planning’ which will be a combination of languages, Maths, communication skills and writing skills. Some students may learn about the European Union, which will be a combination of history, economics, languages and geography. This inter-disciplinary approach will also help students make the links between the subjects they learn and how it can be applied in the real world rather than learn them as mere abstract subjects without necessarily viewing why they are important.

As part of the reforms, students are also working in smaller groups from an earlier stage to improve communication skills, embed a spirit of collaboration and solving problems and thinking of new ideas.

Interestingly enough, pupils, under this new education framework, will also be more involved in the planning and assessment of these phenomenon-based lessons, encouraging pupils to take ownership of their education and development.

Marjo Kyllonen sums it up best: “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow”

Best education in the world

There is a significant amount for the rest of the world, and particularly Asia, to learn from the Finnish education system. The education systems across most parts of Asia do produce technically competent and highly skilled individuals, but are more geared towards exams and merely scholastic achievement when learning should be more holistic.

As I said at the start, Finland – a great country and a great place to live and learn!