Is it education or crowd control?

I watched an interesting TV program on education in Finland last night. Nokia may be up the creek but, by all accounts, the Finns sure know how to educate kids.

The program was particularly illuminating when compared to the one I watched the previous night about the first day of the new school year in Israel.  Put simply, while the Finns are grappling with the serious issues of how to get and keep the attention of schoolchildren and whether there is any value in testing, the worthies responsible for education in Israel are busy clowning for the camera.

That’s all it was; a photo-op for the prime minister, his minister of education, the mayor of Jerusalem, the president and other geniuses who wouldn’t know a good education if it farted in their faces. And wouldn’t care either. The kids in the clips were simply extras and the bemused looks on their faces showed it all. They thought that school was all about them, but they were wrong. Like everything else in Israel, it’s all about the politicians.

This is what I took away from the program about education in Finland.

Education is serious business and it needs to be run by serious people. A country that does not put the teaching profession at the top of its social ladder, and pay the teachers accordingly,  will never create a decent educational system. In Finland, teacher training is the most sought-after post-school education and only 10% of the applicants get accepted. In Israel, teaching is the last resort of those who can’t do anything else and an experienced teacher is lucky to earn $1,500 a month.

It shows. Finland ranks #1 in the world when it comes to maths, reading and physical sciences; Israel ranks somewhere in the late-forties. That, despite the fact that Israeli kids spend more days a year in school than Finnish kids do and more hours a day.

Another thing I took away from the program is that education is not about being taught what to think, but how to think. Teachers do very little standing in front of the class and instructing. Most of the time the pupils work in twos and threes; solving problems, building models – active stuff. Every class has at least two teachers at any one time and their engagement with the students is mainly one-on-one or one-on-two/three. It’s all about independence; building confidence by allowing the students to do things for themselves.

Remarkably, in all the classroom footage, there was not one mention of Finland. Imagine that. Nothing about the greatest country on earth or the ancestors who fought so the kids could be free; nothing about how God promised Finland to the Finns, nothing about heroes dying in glorious battles, nothing about sacred books or why the Finns are better than the Swedes or the Norwegians.

No nationalism, no patriotism, no religion and no political clowns who love to have their pictures taken patting little heads but prefer to invest in tanks rather than books (when they’re not putting the money directly into their pockets, of course.)

Here’s the difference: Finland looks at its young generation and sees individuals who need the tools and skills to succeed in their future lives. Israel looks at its young generation and sees a mass of potentially patriotic pawns in the never-ending, all-consuming battle for Zion. For the Finns it’s only about education; in Israel it’s essentially crowd control.

There’s more to it than simply a great education system, of course. The program showed the kids on their way to and from school and at the start of the school day – i.e. in the seam between home and school. They really weren’t like any other kids I’ve seen in a very long time. They seemed abnormally relaxed and unstressed, as if they were on heavy downers. None of them shouted at the teachers or at their parents. They didn’t push each other around or scream hysterically. There was no showing off in the classrooms; no smart-ass kids who have to be the center of attention. It was all so … normal.

That’s another thing I understood. Kids go back to their parents at the end of the school day. The best education in the world will fail if the examples the kids have at home are coarse, impatient, intolerant, ignorant, aggressive, corner-cutting and so on. Good education relies on the child arriving at school in a state of mind to learn. If that is absent – and it will be absent if the conditions at home aren’t conducive – it’s an uphill struggle for both the kid and the school.

I was left pondering the chicken and the egg. Is a peaceful, relatively affluent and self-assured polity a necessary condition for the existence of a decent educational system or is a good educational system the first step in building a sane society? I’m not sure of the answer; it probably works both ways.

One thing’s for sure: it’s not going to be happening in Israel any time soon.  The program left me really depressed. I thought of my child, who has just started sixth grade, and I nearly wept, Honestly. Through no fault of her own, she’s getting a lousy education from teachers who get paid a pittance and whose function, in the eyes of those who run the system, is to be propagandists and brainwashers. Poor kid.