Thursday, 21 September 2017

Success stories of Scandinavian Countries in the area of education and innovation

By Jenni Rohrbach, President of the Finlandia Foundation of Montana
A get-together for the Scandinavian exchange students in Missoula, Sep 19, 2017.

I did put together a small speech, as I thought it would be good for all of us to think about and be reminded of the success of the Nordic Countries in the area education and innovations. And this speech goes out to our young audience, because of you, students, you are the examples of, and sort of ambassadors for delivering messages about the Scandinavian know-how, especially as it comes education. So if you run into somebody saying hi and asking where is that accent coming from, make sure you have something good in your back pocket to say about the Nordic countries and feel free to also promote our Nordic Group here in Missoula; our programs and events.

We all know that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland spend the most money on education and have placed at top in the international rankings. Education has been an investment, cause knowledge-based economy is attractive and because Nordic Countries, do not have many or any, except Norway, natural resources or strong manufacturing, so I would say that this type of social capital driven and collective impact, innovation type economy has been the driving force for the Nordic countries to market themselves.

I took a look at the recent statistics and the Times Higher Education released in March its European Rankings for 2017 and it shows that from 200 universities, the top 15 were in the Scandinavia and that there is a steady increase in the teaching quality and research too, especially in Finland and Sweden. Here’s the top list.

  1. Karolinska Institute- Sweden
  1. University of Helsinki- Finland
  1. Uppsala University - Sweden
  1. Lund University - Sweden
  1. Aarhus University - Denmark
  1. University of Copenhagen - Denmark
  1. University of Oslo - Norway
  1. Stockholm University - Sweden
  1. KTH Royal Institute of Technology - Sweden
  1. University of Gothenburg- Sweden
  1. Technical University of Denmark - Denmark
  1. Aalborg University - Denmark
  1. Aalto University - Finland
  1. University of Bergen- Norway
  1. University of Oulu - Finland
  • Most universities have good overall reputation and high enrollment number
  • Sweden has a high level of English language skills - an advantage when it comes to publishing research papers.
  • Universities have a strong bond with communities.
  • Free tuition for most European students, Imagine that 85% of funding for Swedish higher education comes from the government.
  • There’s cooperation between universities, including joint research facilities and strong industry connections.
  • And there’s generous investment in research from governments.

Top reasons why the universities have been so successful are the following:

So this is good news for the Nordic countries, but next, I’d like to say a few words about Finland as an educational superpower! Not to undermine the other Nordic countries, but since Finland is turning 100 years old this year, our job as a Nordic group is to recognize this. There actually are quite a few events across the USA taking place to celebrate the Centennial Finland and I’m sure our Finnish students know that there are lots of celebrations going on in Finland.

You must have heard that according to the PISA survey, Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world. Finnish educators have traveled across the globe to share our stories, but it has somewhat been challenging to make other countries understand our techniques. It’s been especially hard to explain Americans that our success it’s not about competition, rankings, standardized testing, best teachers or best “private” schools and also not based on performance or excellence, but our success was build upon cooperation and equity.

In Finland, we share this idea of that Less is More, meaning we get better results for not trying too hard. Less homework, more creative play. Less sitting down and listening in the classroom, more time for recess and breaks. More time for recess, also means more time in the teacher’s lounge for information sharing, more time for planning, evaluations, and simply resting and getting ready for the next class.

And there’s a whole lot of Trust in the system, meaning trust between administrators, teachers, students, and parents, also government and communities. Teachers enjoy a lot of freedom, they can recreate and self-evaluate, and see what works best for their classroom of kids. We have decentralized curricula and teachers usually stay with the same class of students for several years. Teachers are not being questioned by administrators or parents, but given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession.
And there’s trust in the system for the students as well- Finnish students are given a lot of independence and freedom of choice. The students are seen almost as equals to their teachers.  They are encouraged to teach themselves and each other.

And the last “ideal” is that Finnish schools try to be and like to be healthy and safe environments. This starts with the basics; free and nutritional school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and personal student guidance.

To conclude, while Americans love to talk about competition, we avoid that, cause that makes us Finns very uncomfortable. We like to think that "Real winners do not compete." Since the 1980s, we experienced our educational reform and success, the main driver for the Finnish education policy was the idea that every child should have the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. So education was never set to produce star performers, but to even out social inequality. In the end, our success was not our goal, but an outcome and a good surprise.

And, I’m not going to talk much longer, but I must say something about the most recent development.  Finland will be adopting a "phenomenon-based learning system" allowing students to drop the standard subjects and experience more holistic learning.

What this phenomenon-based learning means, is getting rid of all school subjects. Instead, students take one concept or event, and look at it through multiple lenses. For example, students could look at the European Union, and incorporate languages, economics, history, and geography, and then they could look at climate change the following week, involving science and environmental studies.

I think this approach is brilliant when you think of all social sciences, for instance, they are narratives that are interconnected. Whether you are learning about world war II, it combines religion, immigration, economic development, they all relate. And at the elementary and high-school level, you can think of acting out  “running a restaurant”, and learn about advertising, accounting, English-Spanish menus, design, home economics etc.

An article I read said that about 70% of the teachers in Helsinki are in some ways involved in shifting the education system towards event-based learning. This isn’t really surprising to me, as it seems like it would be more rewarding for teachers to be able to connect with students more and to teach them what they actually would like to learn. Finland plans to gradually change the system by 2020. So we’ll follow and see what this change brings!

Delivering a message about culture in the context of local versus global: Sharing a personal story to high school students in Hoboken, New Jersey.

By Jenni Rohrbach, President of the Finlandia Foundation of Montana
Place: Videoconference, Missoula, Sep 19, 2017


Good morning Hoboken, New Jersey. Students and teachers. I must say that I am very excited to be part of this event and I’m fascinated by the IC challenge as a learning tool. I just love how you are going to be learning valuable information in direct connection with real-life situations. You are going to be learning through an interactive problem-solving process that really engages you to find solutions to problems that are worldwide. I’ve heard that you’ll be covering topics such as Water Stress and Resilient Communities that are global in scope. And I’m here to give you a few examples how IC Challenge relates to my own experience when trying to find solutions to global problems that we are facing together as individuals, communities and as nations.

Who am I:

And I guess I should say a few words about myself. My academic background is in global and rural development. I started college in Finland, finished two master’s degrees, and also spent two years abroad as an international exchange student in Germany and in the USA.
During school, I enjoyed learning about how people and environments change over time due to different natural causes or cultural influences. And these questions about social and environmental change brought me first to do research in Vietnam and then back home to work with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland in Helsinki and then again back to America to work with the United Nations in New York. And now in Missoula, Montana, I have started a community based non-profit organization called the Finlandia Foundation of Montana. We advocate for global peace and understanding and are committed to the preservation of Finnish and Scandinavian-American cultural heritage in Montana and throughout the Rocky Mountain Region. And if you wonder why the Finlandia Foundation, it’s because I still am passioned about these same questions: what are the impacts of local versus global and how do we face challenges as individuals in our communities to keep up with the change.

And even though I feel my work and service to Finland and to the UN was interesting and important, I feel it is just as important to do the same kind of job now at the community level, because we need to adapt to and understand our changing environments, where this kind of community-based collective impact and diversity of cultures play a significant role.


But let’s get down to business and start with our “IC Challenges” in connection to my personal story. First, I’d like you to think about these words that I’m sure you’ve heard before: Globalization, Consumerism, Western Culture, Adaptation, Modern, Traditional. I’m going to tell you a story that will help you conceptualize. It will help you understand the meaning of these words and how they relate to real life situations. When you listen to my story, I’d like you to think and imagine so that you can make connections from my experience to your own self. I believe, the heart of the global problem solving lies in the connections we make and the relationship we built. I think it is so important to be observant, sensitive, responsive to the people and the environment around you. And it is so great that you’ll be learning about these exact skills in IC Challenges.

So I have two examples to tell you. The first is about Young Vietnamese Students in Ho Chi Minh City and it shows how global challenges are experienced at local level. The second example is about my diplomatic work at the United Nations in New York and it shows how global challenges are handled in the realms of the multilateral development cooperation among the UN member states.

My Stories:

So let’s start our journey. Myself as a student was always interested in cultures and traveling. And in my final year in college, I decided to do my master’s thesis field research in Vietnam. I travelled to a place called Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. As a Human Geography major and a young student, I knew Vietnam was a fastly developing country, or a country with a fast growing economy. I was interested in seeing in my own eyes how globalization or western consumerism was making it’s way to Vietnam and culturally changing the environment there and shaping the lives of young Vietnamese students. I was especially interested in popular culture and consumption, which mean “what people buy to stay up-to-date or what is cool and modern in Ho Chi Minh City”. So in my research I was solving this problem. I was trying to understand “how young Vietnamese female students at were adapting to modern culture coming from the West; from the USA and Europe due to the spread of western consumerism, in other words, due to the impact of globalization”

To get some answers, I needed to get my facts right and really dive into my topic.  I needed to developed skills, gather information and put everything in context. And this is what I cannot emphasize enough…I needed to make connections and build relationships, simply by being knowledgeable, kind and brave cause I needed to earn the students’ trust and feel comfortable on campus to do my observations and in-depth interviews. It actually all worked out great. I became good friends with Minh and Chi and a few other Vietnamese and I found my way into theirs lives. And I discovered that the life of the young Vietnamese students was not exactly what I had expected. Even though the students lived surrounded by Western billboards and modern Shopping Malls, filled with brands and designs, and even though they lived right next to the street market booths, full of cheap consumer products such as Nike T-shirts and baseball hats, pirate CDs and DVD copies of Hollywood movies and songs, and counterfeit watches and handbags, the students were not part of this crowd of consumers.

I was part of that crowd, as I had grown up with western values and with more money, but these girls were still very traditional Vietnamese. And as it come to style and consumption, they were not dressed up like me, in a tin top, shorts or a mini skirts. Even if it was over 100 degrees outside, they’d rather covered their bodies, wear long sleeves, long dresses and dress pants. I’m happy to show you a few pictures here..

But through my interviews I learned something different. What was important to these girls was their education. The reason why they wanted to become modern and more like Western, was to excel in English language and to have that first professional job. The students had very little money, but education was their fortune. And what the Vietnamese students could consume and afford… and this is as close as it gets to modern and western, please see this… a French baguette and a paper bag from a famous shopping mall!

These items symbolized the American Way or Western Culture to them. Maybe they also knew a few popular English songs that they might have heard from the radio somewhere. But they would not buy the movies or CD’s from the street vendors, no. But man, did they like to carry these “take out” baguettes or sandwitches. It was funny, it looked like they wouldn’t even take a bite to eat, cause they just wanted to show off. The baguettes cost 25-50 cents. Normally Vietnamese students would eat noodle soup for breakfast at home and that would cost less than 25 cents, but the baguettes were cool and up-to-date. And the paper shopping bags they carried around on campus too- was clearly a status symbol! Maybe a parent or a relative had bought something from this expensive shopping mall or a student had once visited the mall and bought something small and inexpensive just to receive the bag that represented sophistication and style.

So this story I told you is partly a result of my thesis, and now you know how globalization or western culture touched the lives of these young Vietnamese students and you know what methods (skills and tools) I used in capturing this reality. After Vietnam, I ended up working at my home country embassy, the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations in New York City, which brings us to my second story.

So I was able to continue learning about global problem solving next in a highly political playing field through the multilateral development cooperation that’s done at the United Nations. The UN in a nutshell, truly is one universal engine for development and it’s handling global challenges and brings them onto the most international platform of interaction and communication. You must have heard about the United Nations MDGs and SDGs that were set and agreed by 193 world leaders. As overwhelming and vast the scale of these global problems and goals for improvement may seem, they are being worked on and dealt with. At the UN I used the same kind of problem solving methods and understanding that I learned in Vietnam. I never forget how important it was to engage. As the Vietnamese girls told me their stories and opened my eyes, at the UN too I seriously listened, interacted and learned from my colleagues.

It actually is pretty simple. When making multilateral policies for development, one cannot forget the local perspective. At the meetings, we discussed global issues with several country representatives, but each of us reported the negotiations to our capitals and from then on, the messages were delivered to the cities and to the communities. So in the end, even the top-level decision makers at the UN can not to apply their policies without being in touch with the realities at the local level.

And the diplomats are using the same kind of skills as you and I- making connections and building relationships; from local to global; from top-down and everything in between. What I have taken from my experiences in Vietnam and the UN is that we can never underestimate the power of the locals; individuals, groups, NGOs, activists and this approach is greatly recognized at the UN as well. Even if we are talking about the most economically successful, culturally influential or politically powerful nations, the top-down policy making for development does not apply, because the importance lies in the observations and face-to-face interactions at the community level.

Wrap up:

To conclude, we’ve talked about this, when solving global problems, it’s important to connect with real life situations and to interact, right? So ask a question, raise your voice, talk with your peers and teachers cause I want you to understand that you students are ambassadors for the next generation just like the UN country representatives. the Inspired classroom will take you to this amazing journey, and you can start solving global problems today. So congratulations!

These IC Challenges will guide you to become ambassadors for delivering messages and representing your ideas to your neighborhood and community. Your knowledge and skills will matter throughout a lifetime leading towards, who knows, preserving our earth, keeping the peace and resolving conflicts. It's really is about giving that first firm handshake, being brave, kind and knowledgeable to connect with people and the environment. Even at the UN, the work is done using these basic ambitions and skills. No matter where, in all places on earth, from local to global, we all need to be self starters, to share the burden and to find solutions.
Thank you.