Finland: An Unanticipated Paradise

A Conversation with 
Randall Everett Allsup, Professor of Music Education and Fulbright Scholar

Right now, Finland and its educational system are enjoying their time in the sun.  Bolstered by the attention of progressive educators (see Samuel E. Abram’s January 2011 New Republic article, ‘The Children Must Play’) and sky high PISA scores, the nation is portrayed as an educational utopia where children thrive and teachers are afforded the freedom and creativity that eludes their U.S. counterparts.

Is it all that rosy, or is there more to the story? Randall Everett Allsup, Assistant Professor of Music Education and Fulbright Scholar, spent seven months at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki during the 2009-2010 academic year.  For first-hand insight, the Gazette turned to Allsup to learn about his experience in Finland, plus hear his observations about how they educate their children, what the Finns get right, and how that nation is responding to their newly emerging pluralistic society.

And what of the paradise that is supposedly Finland’s education system?  There is much that is good, and much that works well, according to Professor Allsup.  “In many ways Finland is enacting the dream of TC constructivist, democratic education in a way that we are having more difficulty doing (because of) our test taking and our accountability mania.”

Allsup directs us to the national educational standards in music of both the U.S. and Finland.  He explains that Finnish standards “are all actually about values and not about behaviors.”  For instance:  The U.S. national standards are “Children must learn to sing alone and sing with others.  Children need learn to play an instrument.  Children must work together.”  But in Finland, the standards are “Children need to enjoy singing.  Children need to enjoy making music.  Children need to value and respect the work of their peers.” These tenets form Finland’s national curriculum, something which Allsup perceived as being “sacred” to the Finns, and treated with as much reverence as Americans hold their Constitution.

What are the implications of a national curriculum based on educational values versus one based on educational behaviors?

Allsup believes it is the way in which teachers interpret their role in the classroom.  In the U.S., when standards in music address behaviors like “Children must learn to sing alone and sing with others.  Children need learn to play an instrument,” Allsup feels “…then it actually doesn’t matter what music you sing, what tradition you investigate, or whether they like it or not.  The teacher, then, teaches what he is comfortable with, what he was trained in, or what he is good at, without necessarily a concern for the students’ well-being.”

It is the Finn’s regard for well-being that Allsup recalls being so deeply engrained in their culture.  “One of the things I did as a part of my Fulbright summative experience is that I thematized some of my experiences there, and I think this idea of well-being surfaces in every aspect.”  He cites a dedication to green technology and healthful food in the schools, with this “wellness perspective” even embedded in the way teachers work. They are afforded space and a place for creativity in “giant rooms…with desks and papers everywhere, with teachers collaborating, talking, and planning classes together.”

Described by Allsup as “an odd paradise, not without its problems,” he goes on to share a contradiction in this nation with a world-renowned reputation for classical music, with the best conductors and singers in the world, with the hottest young composers. In Finnish public schools, there is a great emphasis on children liking what they are learning, and in music, this translates to an emphasis on popular music. (Classical music can still be had, but it is mostly taught on evenings and weekends in rather excellent government-subsidized academies).  The classical musicians feel their heritage is not being valued by public schools and is instead being lost to a child-centered, help-kids learn-what-they-already-like perspective.

This battle is not a new one:  Allsup cites Dr. Bill Bennett’s 1983 study, “A Nation at Risk” where the then-U.S. Secretary of Education talked about how permissive American education had become and how “…we are serving students dessert before we serve them broccoli.”  As it applies to music, Allsup explains that “in music we have this same script going 30 years later.  We are afraid to bring popular music in the classroom because we are so scared that the kids will love it so intensely that they won’t want to do anything else.”

In Finland’s public schools, then, kids are having their “dessert” before their “broccoli”.  But what Allsup observed, “was one of the contradictions, and it made me smile a little bit.  I saw many popular music classes with highschoolers…but I was surprised to see that they were just regular teenagers, slightly disinterested, still kind of talking and gossiping…It wasn’t this Willy Wonka Factory of kids gorging themselves.  It was just another subject being taught moderately well by a teacher with most kids interested to some degree, and it looked very normal.  It didn’t look like this strange vision that we are so terrified of in the U.S.”

There is a new musical canon in Finland; one that includes pop songs; Beach Boys-sounding tunes from Finland in the 60’s, and oddly enough, a reoccurring Deep Purple Song, “Black Night” that Allsup said was pervasive in classroom many different settings.  He asked his Finnish colleagues, “Was there a discussion about replacing Mozart with ‘Black Night”?…Was there ever a discussion that Deep Purple is replacing Sibelius?  And the people I spoke with said, ‘No, not really’.”  Allsup counters with the fact that “In the U.S, at least there is a conversation because we are struggling with that question.  If we are going to replace our mostly classical music education, what are we going to replace it with?”  He asks,  “How then, do we help teachers create their own canons?  I am more comfortable living in the tensions….This is where the conversation should be.”

Finland is historically a highly non-pluralistic society, which is “the caveat that’s missing in all these discussions about Finland’s education”, Allsup explains.  But, as a European Union nation, Finland must accept a certain percent of refugees; from the African  continent, from Libya, Turkey, and all over the globe.  As they become less homogenous, the Finns are struggling with ways to be inclusive and tolerant in an increasingly multicultural society.  Allsup explains that the Finns don’t have “hyphens” as we do in the U.S. (ie, Asian-American).  He recalls an incident when he was watching two girls—newcomers—sitting apart in a classroom.  “I kept referring to them as African-American, and I thought, ‘Wait, they aren’t African-American’.  So I asked, ‘Are they African-Finns?’  My colleague slammed her fist on the table and said, ‘We call them Finns!’.  I stopped talking because my next comment would have been ‘But I’m sure they don’t call themselves Finns.’”  While there is something pleasantly inclusive in calling newcomers “Finns”, there is also a sense that the recognition is “unrealistic and naïve”, posits Allsup.

The depiction of minorities in textbooks was also problematic, according to Allsup.  White native children were shown in a spectrum:  from skateboard rats to altar boys, there was a range of depictions.  On the other hand, minorities were often stereotyped:  In these music books Africans wore tribal clothing, Indians played a sitar, adult homosexuals were photographed dressed as drag queens – one chapter explained “gay music” to children, with favorite songs that included “I Will Survive” and “Macho Man”. Allsup explains, “In one regard you think ‘Wow, here’s this country that is trying to be so inclusive that they’re addressing all aspects of the rainbow’…there’s a kind of effort to be inclusive and to embrace everybody and be tolerant.  But then, they essentialize and reduce the very people they are trying to protect.”

Allsup called the Finns to the mat on this naïve reductionism in an article which was published by the Nordic Education Journal.  He was happy that his critique made it to press, and adds, “They’re tolerant enough that someone took their tolerance to task.”  And Finland?  “It’s a complicated place,” he concludes.

Currently, Allsup and his Sibelius Academy colleague Heidi Westerlund are in the final stages of a book review process with Indiana University Press.  The work is intended to be an exploration of music teacher education in the 21st century as it responds to changing cultures and pluralism.