Finland’s Educational System Works. Why? Because of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty.

Finland’s Educational System Works. Why? Because of Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty. March 29, 2016

school_suppliesIn a recent Op-Ed piece, William Doyle, an American who recently accepted a position as Lecturer on Media and Education at the University of Eastern Finland, wrote about his extremely positive experience with the Finland public education system.

“For five months, my wife, my son and I experienced a stunningly stress-free, and stunningly good, school system. Finland has a history of producing the highest global test scores in the Western world, as well as a trophy case full of other recent No. 1 global rankings, including most literate nation.”

Doyle explains further:

“In class, children are allowed to have fun, giggle and daydream from time to time. Finns put into practice the cultural mantras I heard over and over: ‘Let children be children,’ ‘The work of a child is to play,’ and ‘Children learn best through play.’

The emotional climate of the typical classroom is warm, safe, respectful and highly supportive. There are no scripted lessons and no quasi-martial requirements to walk in straight lines or sit up straight.”

Finland’s education system is a perfect Case Study for the Christian Social Theories of “Subsidiarity” (Catholic) and “Sphere Sovereignty” (Neo-Calvinism).

Better than the Top-Down Approach

The principle of Subsidiarity is that public institutions closest to the needs are best suited for meeting those needs. Rather than a top-down approach, Subsidiarity stresses that those who are more local and more intimately involved are better suited to know and meet needs. This principle pushes authority down from the national government toward local authority. When local authority fails in those duties (and only when that happens), broader more national government then needs to step in.

Doyle contrasts the United States to Finland.

“In the United States, teachers are routinely degraded by politicians, and thousands of teacher slots are filled by temps with six or seven weeks of summer training. In Finland teachers are the most trusted and admired professionals next to doctors, in part because they are required to have master’s degrees in education with specialization in research and classroom practice”

In a report that appeared in The Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, Lynnell Hancock wrote,

“By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms (in Finland) free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines.”

Better to Let the People Who Know Best Actually Run Things

The principal of Sphere Sovereignty states that God places institutions in society’s spheres as the primary authorities (sovereigns) over those spheres of responsibility. Each sphere in society needs to be handled primarily by the specialists in those institutions that are best suited to do so. Thus, education is best done by educators. Medicine is best done by medical specialists. Families are best run by parents. Business is best done by businesspeople. Labor is best done by labor unions. Government is best done by governmental specialists. Etc. And one of the government’s primary responsibilities is to keep institutions from one sphere from infringing on the authority of institutions in other spheres (for instance, business should not be telling education how to educate, etc.)

In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Anu Partanen reported that Finland has no standardized tests with the only exception being the National Matriculation Exam. Partanen writes,

“Instead, (Finland’s) public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”

Or as Doyle reports that one Finnish childhood education professor told him:

“Our mission as adults is to protect our children from politicians… We also have an ethical and moral responsibility to tell businesspeople to stay out of our building.”

In fact, any Finnish citizen is free to visit any school whenever they like, but her message was clear: Educators are the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats, and not technology vendors.

What can we learn from Finland that we can apply here in the United States?


Image by Nick Amoscato. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

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