By teaching children to connect everyday experiences to systemic issues and fostering intergenerational dialogue, the Finnish education system is preparing them for the unstable world to come.
Today, millions of schoolchildren in over 1,500 cities globally are striking against inaction on the climate and ecological crises. Their movement, which began after 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s solo strike outside the Swedish Parliament in August 2018, has become one of the world’s most powerful agents for political change on questions of climate and ecology. Children have become leaders where adults have refused to act.
Their message is simple: why should we go to school when you, the adults, have stolen our future? The science validates their anger.
Even if every nation exceeds its woefully inadequate commitments under the 2016 Paris Agreement, we could face temperatures that are three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in this century. At these temperatures, all of Southern Europe would be locked in permanent drought, affecting the food supplies of millions. Cities like Miami and Jakarta would disappear. The damage caused by flooding could increase by more than 60 times in the United Kingdom. But at current rates of warming, with current levels of inaction, the prospects are much worse: hundreds of millions of refugees, a 50 percent decline in global grain yields, and more conflicts and wars around the world.
And that’s just the climate. A recent United Nations report on the ecological crisis says that we are on the brink of mass extinction, with up to a million species at risk of dying out because of human activity.
Given the fine climate and ecological balance needed to sustain life on earth, the scientific consensus is now that unless we act decisively over the next few years, the Earth could become incapable of supporting human civilization within a few centuries.
How do we solve these challenges? How do we prepare future generations to live in a more violent, less predictable world? And what kind of world do we ultimately want to leave behind? These are the questions that Jenna Lähdemäki-Pekkinen, a specialist working at the Finnish social fund Sitra, has been thinking about.
A book co-published by Sitra in 2018, Sustainability, Human Well-being and the Future of Education, specifically looks at the educational models needed to equip future generations with the tools needed to solve the great crises of our time.
Strelka Mag spoke with Lähdemäki-Pekkinen about her work on shaping values for the future, and on educating future generations to better prepare them for the challenges ahead.
Pawel Wargan: Let’s start by talking about Next Era, a project that asks broad questions about where we want to go as a society, what kind of jobs we want, and how we want our democracies to work. What are the key aims of Sitra in this project?
Jenna Lähdemäki-Pekkinen: Let me start by briefly talking about Sitra. We are a unique organization—an independent fund set up under the Finnish Parliament to explore areas of importance for Finland. Our work covers five thematic folios, one of which is foresight, which I work on.
For a long time, our work has been future-oriented—our goal is to try to push Finland forward, towards sustainable living and long-term thinking. These broad questions about our future vision are therefore important for us as an organization, but they also help spark discussions within Finnish society and more globally.
Sitra has been trying to formulate a vision for our society since 2012, when it first released its vision on the Sustainable Wellbeing Society.
Just before starting the Education for a Changing World project, we released the second version of our vision, which proposed that, as a society, we must transition to a more sustainable model. The first element of that society is wellbeing, and so a further version of our vision became the Next Era, a project that looked at society in terms of values and ideals, mega-trends, social policy, and everyday life.
We believe that a good vision can inform all of these categories.
How are these ideas shaped?
The values and ideals of the Nordic societal model were our starting point, and our thinking was also informed by the understanding that we are living in a world that is unsustainable ecologically. The Nordic model is based on things like gender equality, democracy, and the rule of law.
With regard to our vision for the future, we are not suggesting that there should be one vision, designed by us, around which there should be a consensus. We live in a pluralistic democracy, so our position has always been that we should have many different visions that compete with each other.
The Next Era of Wellbeing is one of these visions and we insisted that its development cannot be top-down. That’s why, throughout the process, we had many people participating in different kinds of workshops around the world to help inform our thinking.
This participatory aspect of the Next Era interested me, because it seemed to be heavily skewed towards expert input. One of the critiques of modern democracies is that they are run by technocrats—experts who make decisions on behalf of people with different lives from their own. Does the Next Era have a broader participatory agenda as well?
When we started the Next Era project, we were running another project to support constructive societal discussions. At that time, there were many immigrants coming to the country, and there were concerns about increasing political polarization.
Finland did not have many concrete projects to deal with polarization. So, we started an initiative called Time Out to bring in people with different viewpoints about societal issues into the same discussion. Our goal was to promote the understanding that confronting other views doesn’t mean you have to change your opinion, but that you can still value different opinions.
This has been successful—7,000 people have participated in Time Out dialogues. In January 2019, we had a national Time Out dialogue—100 different discussions around Finland not organized by us, but by the grassroots. The topic was climate change—how can we mitigate it and why don’t we do more?
We also tested this participatory concept with the themes of the Next Era. But I take the critique as well that the Next Era had an emphasis on expert knowledge, so we could have done more.
In democracies, there are many different issues and challenges at the moment. One factor is that it is difficult for voters to see what kind of society they might want to live in over the long run. Sometimes, because of issues like climate change, it can seem to some people like there is no future at all. So, we are trying to influence that discourse: to show that there is a future that we can build together.
Tell me a bit about the Future of Education. What inspired the book? What are its key takeaways?
We started the Future of Education project together with our colleague Justin Cook—a collaboration between Finnish and American writers. We wanted to zoom out. Oftentimes debates on education are very national—every country has its own education system—but when we look at the big challenges, we see that these are the same for every country.
The book includes 11 different articles by 11 different authors. Each of them started with the same research question: how can schools, students, and communities become the building blocks of a sustainable wellbeing society?
My goal was to explore what we mean when we talk about sustainable education. I tried to show that it’s an education that prepares students for a 1.5-degree Celsius world, or worse.
Education is often reactive to social trends, but it should be proactive. It needs to give students the tools to cope and live in a complex world. We don’t know what will happen in 30 or 50 years but we know we need tools to survive in and navigate uncertainty.
Can you describe the Finnish approach to systems thinking? How does this help children make sense of the complexity in the world?
One thing that’s often criticized in education models generally is that they’re divided into different subjects, which prevents students from seeing the real-world connections between them. The world just doesn’t work like that—it doesn’t fit into silos. This is what systems thinking tries to address.
In Finland, the latest curriculum introduced the concept of phenomena-based, or project-based, modules. These draw their rules from systems thinking: the idea that children should be taught to connect everyday experiences to broader systemic issues.
The new curriculum states that every school must provide at least one week of phenomena-based or project-based learning in a year—some schools do more, and some just do the minimum. This means that children have an opportunity to work together to think through phenomena they see in the world—ones they consider interesting from their point of view. For example, if they want to study climate change, they can focus on that.
Let’s move to climate change—the most important topic for the world’s youth today. The book asks what teachers can do to create hope and prevent apathy. But it now looks like children are demonstrating more hope and leadership than adults. In March, millions of children in over 2,000 cities globally went on strike to protest inaction on climate and ecological breakdown. What role do adults and schools need to play in a world in which they are not the ones generating solutions?
It’s interesting how differently schools have reacted to the protests. Some teachers and principals go to the strikes with their pupils, others put them in detention for skipping school.
I think education should be a learning journey that adults and children take together. In Finland, we talk quite a bit about climate anxiety. One central problem or challenge with the climate strikes is that when kids are so empowered, they feel that the adults are not doing enough and not taking the issue seriously enough.
While that is certainly true, it also causes significant feelings of distrust towards parents and the adult generation as a whole. And that’s not a good thing, because it can be really psychologically stressful on the children.
So, there should be an intergenerational dialogue that somehow cultivates the idea that we’re in this together and we’re going to work through these challenges together.
Are you calling for a radical flattening of the school hierarchy—where it’s not just about teaching, but about mutual learning?
Yes, and I think the best schools already do that. One of the central themes of the curriculum that was introduced in 2016 was strengthening the agency of students, recognizing that the Finnish educational system was too focused on the teachers’ role in the classroom.
In the introduction to your book, Justin Cook talks about education in terms of the return on investment that it can generate. What is the right framing for the social value of education? It feels to me that talking about it in monetary terms cedes too much to the neoliberal view of education as something that exists to support the interests of capital.
Justin was talking about the American system here and trying to show that it’s pretty crazy that America spends as much on the actual educational system as it does on reforming it. He tries to unpack whether this suggests that the American educational system is just too complex, or if it’s not actually fit for purpose.
A successful school program should produce a lot of different things. Recently, an Australian girl sent me a few messages after finding the book online. One of her questions was: what do you consider the best measure of success for the Finnish educational system?
I think it has to be the wellbeing of students: the ability to make coherent choices in life that take them closer to their passions. Of course, it’s also important that, nationally, we have a good level of skills and knowledge. I’m not a super big fan of international rankings, but we still need to know that we are providing our kids and adults with a good overall level of skills and knowledge.
The questions we should be asking are: are we succeeding in educating students so they can solve the most pressing issues of our time? And do they feel that they can be part of the solution?
This naturally brings us back to climate. What’s the state of public understanding of climate and ecological issues in Finland?
It’s pretty good—looking at recent surveys.
For example, the Climate Barometer survey was carried out in 2015 and 2019, and you can see a significant increase in how big of a threat people think climate change and ecological issues are. The Finnish parliament has also started to emphasize the climate a lot more.
But, of course, when it comes to individual lifestyles, it gets more difficult. Because moving from understanding to action means recognizing that you have to change something in your everyday life, which is harder. But there are promising signs. We have this Sitra lifestyle test that measures individual emissions, and it’s been taken 700,000 times—in a country with a population of 5.5 million.