Tom at the Oppi Festival - Learning, laughing, holding hands, crying (part one)

11th April 2014 at 23:30

Finland is, educationally speaking, so hot right now, it's Hansel. The Finnish miracle has mesmerised and perplexed the world, understandably. Comparisons may be odious, but not in education, where Pisa has become either the new gold standard or this year's Brain Gym – depending on to whom you speak. Everyone wants to know the best way to teach children, of course. Given that large scale educational trials are cripplingly expensive (see: EEF) and require navigating through great plains of ethical minefields, far easier to look abroad where national experiments are already underway, funded and assessed. Finland, along with the tigers of south-east Asia, is the Top Trump in almost every category. Pale-faced educational ministers have plagued it recently, like sailors on shore leave, all of them going home safe in the belief that the lessons to be learned are exactly the ones they want to believe.

But I come today not to read the entrails of success. I come instead as Educational Renta-Moomin. I've been asked to speak at the Oppi Festival, a very grrr! couple of days in Helsinki with an emphasis – as the programme says – on design, innovation and play, which makes it sound ineffably groovy. They advise a casual dress code, because it's a festival, natch. I'm not sure they understand just how casual I can go when it comes to uniform. Such things are difficult for men: smart casual is easy – it means no tie, or a tie with a pattern. Casual? I'm torn between the onesie and the frog suit.

I confess, I adore the Scandinavian peninsula, and all its highly taxed ways. I could put down roots and raise a family of scrubbed, blonde children in an Ikea. I could gnaw on reindeer and solve crime in remote, agreeable white wood cottages full of well-designed storage solutions. Is there a downside to the lands of trolls and ice giants? Finland is the only country in the world it appears that the UK hasn't invaded, and that alone qualifies it as special. At one point I was offered an IES school to run in Sweden, and I nearly had to chain myself to the mast to avoid jumping in, chest first, shouting, "Yahoo".

Tomorrow, I'm giving a session on behaviour, in a Q&A with Michael Shaw. I'm not sure what I have to add to the debate, in a country of well-behaved, high-achieving young men and women, all wearing their own clothes, going to school at 7 if they feel like it, calling their teachers by their first names, and notably, not telling each other to **** off.


Finland may look familiar, but this is a strange, seductive land. For one, you don't tip; indeed, tipping is seen as rude, which breaks my heart as an ex-waiter. My friend was here recently on graduation day, when students all dress up in military uniform and get smashed, civilly and sociably. Schools have drying rooms because children play in all weathers. They have a word, hyppytyyny, which means bouncy cushion, but there is no word for accountability. It is the land of Nokia, of Angry Birds – the world's deadliest sniper was a Finn. The Molotov Cocktail, almost as rough on the palate as a Dry Manhattan, comes from Finland. The population is around 5 million, which makes it as wee as Scotland. It's the eighth largest country in Europe and the least densely populated.


Ladies and gentlemen, I would urge caution before taking any simple lessons from the Finnish example. Draw easy comparisons as carefully and cautiously as you would draw the chain of a mine.

Because my schedule, even when off school, resembles the flight path of a bumblebee, I could only get in for the evening of the first day, which meant I missed Pasi Sahlberg. I also missed Sugata Mitra, and Simon Breakspear and a whole pantheon of Nordic superheroes. I even missed the Angry Birds guy – who apparently refers to himself as The Great Eagle, which might mean that if you shell out a buck he flies out of nowhere and fixes all your results, I don't know.

I'm sceptical about this neo-neoism movement we currently see in education. Advertisers have long known that slapping new onto a slightly modified product increases interest in it, from an audience jaded by familiarity. New, of course, does not mean improved, except in soap powders – see New Coke, and the New Adventures of Scooby Doo for details. Unless the human brain has changed substantially in the last 100 years – which isn't evidenced – or unless the way we learn has changed – ditto – then I suspect that innovation should be approached carefully.

I'm really looking forward to this. There are some brilliant speakers. But the minute someone starts banging on about 21st century learners, I'm bringing out my Bullsh!t Bingo card. Building a school takes more old, wise wood than it does soft birch branches. Give me change, but change we can believe in.