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Ashley Simpson is defending his doctoral thesis “The dialogism of ideologies about equality, democracy and human rights within Finnish education: Many voices and many faces” at the Learning Centre Minerva in Helsinki on February 16, 2018. He’s being observed by Dr Leena Robertson, visiting from Middlesex University in the UK to interrogate Mr Ashley Simpsons thesis. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

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A headline this week in the British Guardian newspaper: “Safe, happy and free: does Finland have all the answers?” There are regular similar bulletins in the world press about the position of Finland in global democracy, economy, education, or happiness indices. “Google it” — you don’t have to look very hard!

According to the Global Democracy Ranking Organisation based in Vienna, Finland is the fourth most democratic country, with all the Nordic countries featuring in the top five. The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network published the latest Happiness Report in 2017, and Finland was in fifth place. A myriad of different organization’s surveys shows Finland in a very good light and a survey that many people watch is the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for indications of education success, where for several years Finland has come near the top.

All this country branding is happily endorsed by the Finnish government because it is thought to encourage trade and tourism and with world trade and liberalization globally, the Ministry of Education actively promotes the export of Finnish education.

In his recent doctoral thesis submitted to Helsinki University, Ashley Simpson asks how this affects those engaged in education as teachers and teachers of teachers in Finland. The dissertation research demonstrates the problems in terms of how democracy, equality and human rights are discussed within Finland and internationally.

[alert type=white ]The stereotypes of Finland have developed because of popular press coverage.[/alert]

Ashley Simpson’s interest in democracy started in England with a school that was set up to actively engage the students in the running of the school. The students had a “supposed democracy” but it ended up “just being a front” to obtain funding and the students had no real control. His research uses techniques grounded in the work of the Russian philosopher and scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 – 1975), who worked on literary theory, ethics and the philosophy of language.

Simpson analyzed various commentaries regarding democracy, human rights and equality, from teachers and representatives of non-government organizations. Apparently, getting educationalists to talk about these three important subjects was challenging for the researcher. People worry about political correctness, fear of saying something wrong and their own self-projection which produces reluctance to discuss these important topics.  Many teachers assume that democracy, human rights and equality are normally included in their work without any critical thinking of self, or whether the students grasp the topics fully. It is also generally assumed that teachers are neutral in all opinions, but people are naive to think that is always the case.

Simpson recommends educating political emotions — why do we feel collective national pride? Do we get heated about injustices?  There is a need to revive an understanding of the political, to accept debate and accept the consensus or not. Essentially to develop political literacy and give educators the practical tools to be critically reflexive. Simpson also suggests to stop using the other as an example of “poor practice” because it does no one any good, apart from pumping up national esteem and reinforcing stereotypes.

The stereotypes of Finland have developed because of popular press coverage. Many foreigners believe Finnish children don’t ever have homework, but they do. They know Finns don’t start school until age seven but fail to realize that most kids have “play school” from age three.

There are many positive things about Finnish schools but to maintain and improve Finland’s high education standards, self-critical thinking may be the way forward to address the problems posed by this research. If more of the world’s population were better educated about political literacy and concepts of democracy, human rights and equality, then maybe, just maybe, populist political parties would not be able to take advantage of our worries.

This useful research will just be the start.