Anna Marquardt 2015-16: Sampo Search: A Different Way of Thinking about How Finns Think Different

Not so long ago, on the bayous of Louisiana, I dreamed that if I could discover how language classrooms nourished Finnish creative power, I could return with the magic, exportable sampo.

It all began with another leading ranking for this Nordic wonderland. The latest Global Creativity Index places Finland’s creative powers among the top five nations, largely due to the strength of its talent (share of highly educated adults and creative class workforce) and technology (research and development measures and patents per capita). What are Finns doing to prepare their students to invent, design, make, hack, discover, innovate, think different?

Language classrooms are academic hotbeds of creative thinking and expression- therefore the risk-taking, divergent thinkers driving yet another leading rank must be nurtured here. Further, this connection between the GCI ranking and language classrooms must be strong, considering the dizzying number of hours upper secondary students spend in Finnish, English, Swedish and other foreign language courses.

Yet in a language curriculum where the focus is acquiring vocabulary, conjugating verbs, perfecting grammar and structure, pronunciation and recall exercises- where is the room to create- express- imagine- invent? The mental gymnastics of pattern building, memory work, precision exercises- seem opposed to American-style creative writing classes, lessons, and clubs, poetry performances and the lively writing contest participation. How do these young, multilingual Finns get creative with language? And how does that creativity translate into Finland’s idea-generating, patent-producing, world-class creative workforce?

Turku language classrooms were scoured for the answer. In the spring of ‘16, only one upper secondary creative writing class was offered – at the Turku Classical School, where students focus on creative expression. A roomful of fairy-haired young writers clad in mismatched florals and plaids, lead by a lively theater teacher, worked on short stories and poems. Eight of these Classical student writers had even published a book of poems, sold out the first printing, and were collecting material for a second publication. My hours with these word artists were magic. They shared stories of their lifelong love of writing, where social gatherings usually involve writing and creating hijinx. All enjoy belonging to a school that embraces “writing nerds.”

Thirsty for more, I visited dozens of upper secondary Finnish classrooms- convinced that more writing wizardry would be uncovered. I spoke several lyseo language teachers, chatted with students and dabbled with them in poetry writing workshops. But aside from a few short writing samples, I learned that upper school students did not engage in creative writing.

I discovered that creative courses are also rare at the university level and local creative writers are concerned about the lack of these kinds of student writing opportunities. One local writer, Emilia, shared that the relatively new creative writing program at the University of Turku is popular among undergrads, who report that the writing skills they master in creative classes give their writing the confidence and strength needed to be successful college writers. Satu, at the University of Jyvaskyla believes that creative writing opportunities are important to the growth of competent writers and that students need this kind of writing training.

As a language teacher firmly committed to the power of regular creative writing opportunities, I was disarmed by the absence of this genre in the classroom. While puzzling over how these Finnish students would grow into the creative world-class workforce, I visited other classrooms - both upper secondary and vocational. I enlarged my scope and considered cultural forces. I looked beyond the classroom. I got creative. In my efforts to understand the lack of creative writing opportunities in Finnish upper schools, I received an education about Finnish myths and magic and some insight into why Finns think different.

With almost the same frequency that we hear about respected Finnish teaching professionals, trust, personal responsibility, free lunches, sisu and long recesses, we hear that Finnish schools don’t “teach to the test.” My experience has shown that this observation is as misleading as the list that precedes it. Many Finnish teachers readily admit that they follow the curriculum and prepare students to perform well on the rigorous six-hour matriculation exams. Students are concerned about their performance as well. One of Turku’s larger lyseos recently removed a creative writing course from its offerings because students, believing the class would not help them prepare for the matriculation exam, did not enroll. Ottava education publisher Tuevo Sankila agrees that textbooks, written by classroom teachers and exam censors, focus on preparing students for the exam; a creative writing text has never been published. I’ve sifted through scores of Finnish student course-end exam essays- all responding to prompts similar to the matriculation exam prompts requiring four-page essays. Finnish classroom teachers use the same guidelines in assessing the longer essays that students at the end of each course.

However, the test in question must be considered.  The Finnish matriculation language exams abound in real student choice- the writing portion features a dozen options ranging from poetry analysis to personal memoir to analytical essay. The topic choices range widely- from innovation, to poetry, love, social justice and the nature of art. Teaching to a test where students have a broad range of authentic choices to show what they can do best is challenging and liberating.  

The Finnish testing myth relates to the unbridled teacher freedom legend. In fact, most of the language classes I’ve visited use the course textbooks that they have asked students to purchase. I’ve visited one school on a Wednesday and then another on a Thursday; both classrooms working on the same lessons at the same pace. However, the textbooks that provide this structure are attractive, current, engaging, humorous, controversial, differentiated, multicultural, newsworthy, and diverse. The publisher affirms that they are written by practicing classroom teachers from schools throughout Finland. With these books as guides I’ve enjoyed in-class conversations with language students about time travel, global warming, aliens, civic responsibility, religion, political correctness, bullying and celebrities. These discussion questions are open-ended and invite a broad range of responses. This kind of flexible, analytical thinking is not only a good substitute for creative writing, but excellent brainstorming for future writings.

As I adapted to the absence of creative writing work in the language classrooms, I considered the role of language classes in a multilingual country. I am reminded that English as a university major is a relatively new one. It was considered too soft as a discipline; those who studied language previously engaged in rigorous Greek and Latin studies. Titles like “Your Mind on Language: How Bilingualism Boosts the Brain” and “For a Better Brain Learn Another Language” abound; language learning is an exercise in creative thinking. It has been demonstrated that polyglots have improved cognitive skills and overall brain function, are more empathetic, are able to focus and concentrate better, have more mental flexibility, can multi-task easier and even have decreased brain ageing. Several studies have shown that multi-linguals are more divergent thinkers- the creative capacity for flexibility and originality. Finnish language classrooms align to the thinking that parsing a text is as legitimate a creative exercise as writing a sonnet.

Finland’s deep equality commitment is seen in classrooms that strive to make sure that everyone does well. Equality also informs the way Finland’s schools train writers. Examination of PISA scores show that while Finnish students make few relatively low scores, there are also few high achievers. Typically, creative writing courses and lessons attract a very small number of students - outliers- too far from the middle to command attention.  In upper school classrooms not differentiated by gifted and talented, advanced placement, honors, dual enrollment- writing at a more demanding level cannot be expected.

However, students enjoy true equality in the authentic choices they are offered. Like many other Finnish schools, Turku offers specialty programs at the upper schools and creative writers prefer arts schools. The flexibility inherent in the Finnish system allowing liberal choices for students and the built in time for socialization and relaxation promote the risk-taking and down-time that creative thinkers need. The equality commitment, focusing on the middle learner and driving the choice available to all learners, effects the rarity of upper secondary creative writing opportunities.

A deeper understanding of how Finns become creative thinkers demands a look at what Finnish schools do not do.

It is not unusual at my own smallish, average high school for a student to arrive at 6:00 am and stay on campus until the game ends at 9. Most arrive and depart on the school bus. The school library opens at the crack of dawn and closes after the day is done. After school, students participate in clubs- salsa dancing, creative writing, poetry, speech and debate, prom, student council, cheerleading, dance team, Beta, NHS, Interact, robotics, agriculture- and many more. Many students play sports – football, baseball, tennis, volleyball, soccer, basketball, cross-country, track, swimming, and bowling. Most students eat breakfast and lunch at school. Full-time counselors, police officers, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, coaches, attendance clerks, receptionists, administrative secretaries, social workers, visiting therapists, a data specialist, an instructional strategist, four principals, and a nurse are officed at the school. The school is the village.

Finland’s upper secondary schools are not full-service operations. Schools are not in the transportation business. There are no committed upper school libraries in Turku lyseos. While schools offer PE course, there are no competitive sports teams. Handfuls of “clubs” are mainly study groups. Finnish upper schools focus on subject teaching and learning.  

Yet, as limited as Finnish school functions are, high school students participate in sports, create, play, socialize, work, and integrate into the community. Just look at any bus crowded with kids armed with hockey sticks, pop into Vimma to check out the art and craft sessions, or enjoy the vibrant music and social scene in the city center. I had expected the school to provide everything a young creative writer needed and was flummoxed by the poverty. When I enlarged my scope and looked outside the schools, I found a community rich in opportunities for young writers.

Students write a page for the city weekend paper. A range of services and opportunities attract young writers to the city library. Word Art School Kratti – a group of local writers currently lead three youth writing groups during weekday afternoons and evenings. The library sponsors several writing contests and events throughout the year. A rap championship took place a few weeks ago. Young writers now look forward to Poetry and Journey, a festival in Turku will give youngest writers a chance to grow and perform.  

Another organization, Kirjan talo, offers several opportunities for young writers to work with experienced local authors.  This creative space supports writers with regularly scheduled workshops, author spaces and a number of other events.  A book written by students who have dropped out will be released in the fall. This group sponsors a creative young writers camp during summers as well as an author summer school. The Kirjan talo site links to a number of Finnish sites with opportunities for young writers to grow. These include Lukukeskus, a central organization that arranges visits between local writers and schools. Vantaa Word Art is another, offering regular workshops for young writers.  

Finnish schools are not isolated villages, but neighborhoods thriving in a healthy country. Finland’s young creative writers – confident and self reliant – can find what they need in places other than classrooms.

I cannot return to the bayous with a magic, exportable sampo. But Finland’s educators are to first to understand that achievement is complex and interrelated. They know there is no magic to help with their own concerns about educating and integrating a growing immigrant population, budget cuts that limit student choice, or the best way to serve the achievers at the edges of the Bell curve. Their own young legend of success shows that the unique Finnish culture and apt decision-making forged Finns who think different. The heat that tempered these thinkers glows from a culture with a solid commitment to equality , one who recruits and encourages professionals, a place where most children come to school from homes unchallenged by poverty, a nation where each community strives to ensure each student grows and where authentic choice exists, a country with a flexible system where risk-taking is encouraged and a work-life balance is a norm, where personal responsibility, a solid work ethic, and trust are warmly constant.

My sampo search has educated me to think differently about Finland’s creative thinkers and have confidence in their power. Finland will take on new challenges –budget reductions, a changing population, education - as new opportunities to think different.

Anna Marquardt, U.S. Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching 2015-16, University of Turku

(photos by Anna Marquardt)