Nordic cold and tropical heat

Apropos the new school year.

When Finland ranked among the first countries in science, reading and mathematics because of its excellent results, according to the 2002 report by the International Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), even the major world powers viewed the small and cold European country with surprise and interest. Three years later a new report revealed similar results to confirm that this was not by chance. Since then the specialists and the means of communication continue seeking an explanation that justifies such exceptional achievements. And even when they have not come to an agreement in their opinions, they all coincide in one way or the other in one point: it seems that Finland has been able to establish and consolidate one of the best educational systems in the world.

Some specialists consider that such results are due to a group of factors that, at first sight, seem to contradict the teaching experience in use. Dailies worldwide that have referred to the subject highlight the fact that Finnish children do not receive the most hours of lessons in the European context, nor homework, nor are they the ones who start school earlier (they do so when they are seven years old), nor are they the ones are who most assessed throughout their studies. The school day starts at 8:30 in the morning and barely lasts up to three in the afternoon, with a half hour recess for lunch. Generally the same teacher is in charge of imparting all the subjects during the first six years of primary education and they have been able to maintain an average of 23 and 25 students per classroom.

Neither is Finland among the countries that most invests in education (less than 7% of the GDP), which is practically public (there are almost no private schools) and totally free from kindergarten to university. The students also receive at no cost some food and the school materials, though in case of loss the family pays for them.

Up to here some of the principal characteristics of the Finnish educational system, though many consider that none of them separately has been decisive to achieve the quality leap revealed by the reports presented by PISA. The key – specialists are inclined to think – lies in the level of preparation demanded from the professors and the social recognition they have for their work, which is why being a teacher is among the best valued professions.

According to testimonies published by the press, being a teacher is a very special honour in the Nordic country and that circumstance is as or more attractive than their salaries (between US$29,000 and US$39,000 a year), though, it seems, it is sufficient to maintain an average standard of living, without great luxuries but without financial difficulties.

As to professional training, the universities carry out a rigorous selection of the candidates before starting their studies to guarantee the maximum quality. In addition to presenting excellent grades, the candidates undergo several tests, including artistic sensibility and dominion of some musical instrument. Only 10% of them are able to pass and are accepted to study the career, and once concluded they get a master’s degree before starting to work as teachers.

If I have allowed myself to make such a long introduction listing the benefits of the Finnish educational system it is because when reading this news item I couldn’t avoid the comparison with our own educational system, which barely a few years ago also was able to achieve a notable level that made it stand out in the international sphere, especially in the Caribbean and Latin American context. There’s no point in recalling that after the revolutionary triumph and thanks to an enormous effort, Cuba was able in a very short time to eradicate illiteracy. The private schools disappeared and all education was declared free, including the scholarship system that, with its largest positive result, made it possible for many young people who came from poor families with low incomes to have access to higher education. Ambitious goals were set parallel to this, like those “battles” for sixth grade and obligatory education up to intermediate education, the training of professionals in multiple sectors of knowledge, and all this in the midst of numerous difficulties and economic restrictions.

However, that enormous effort, which required of course a great investment in infrastructure, the training of professionals, the purchase of school materials, etc., has not been exempt from wrong decisions and policies that it is necessary to correct today if we don’t want to waste the advances achieved.

A good step in that sense was undoubtedly the deactivation of the schools in the countryside, a measure announced by President Raúl Castro in 2009 according to the saving policy proposed by the government and with which an end was put to a system of scholarships that combined study and work in the countryside during the school year, and whose final result represented scarce benefits for agriculture and for the students themselves, and the use of several hours of daily transport for the teachers, a time they wasted for their upgrading or rest. Moreover, the system supposed a sensitive and not very recommendable decrease in the family’s role in the formation of their children, taking into account that it was precisely in that nucleus where the fundamental values are taught and learned (or not) that will later define us as individuals. Strengthening the ties between the school and the family as a binomial that complements itself in the integral formation of the students is a need that many times is only complied with formally, without understanding that one should not replace the other, but neither can one carry out its work efficiently when it is not supported by the other.

And what happens when it is the family itself, somehow incentivised by the school, which contributes to aggravating the teaching problems? On more than one occasion I have arrived at a certain office to carry out some paperwork and I have seen a mother making an effort to copy from the Internet or from Encarta and writing herself the homework her child has to hand in at school. She undoubtedly guarantees with this a better grade for the child, but at the expense of committing fraud and not fulfilling the objective of the homework assigned to a student who doesn’t have a computer at home and much less access to the Internet. In this case it is not a question of parents who are not interested in the education or professional training of their children, but rather the contrary. The problem is that the worst road has been taken to channel that concern, without becoming aware that far from encouraging the interest of the student for learning and obtaining results with his/her own effort, one is contributing to his/her deformation as a student and individual.

Of course, there is another side to the coin. The one where the deficient preparation of the teaching staff is manifested, which sometimes is combined with a strong teaching load, but badly oriented, or when the students are overloaded with excessive homework and goals that are almost impossible to meet, like consulting contents on the Internet. The most generalised experience of my generation was that we had to study and do our homework on our own, because our parents had barely had access to primary education. Many of us had the possibility of graduating from university and then our children did require our help, not just for supporting the teaching process but rather because the homework was too difficult or because they did not understand the teacher, or because they had changed teachers five times throughout the school year. Today we have passed on to a “higher” stage and the families who have more resources hire private teachers to fill in the gaps they see in their children’s preparation. Isn’t this sequence, in barely three generations, revealing (and worrying)?

But other problems in the system that have emerged or aggravated in recent years will have to be corrected and about which there has not been the necessary public debate, taking into account the matter’s extreme importance, because perhaps education has been one of the fundamental rights achieved by the Cubans in the last decades, and every time it is mentioned it is necessary to resort to kid gloves.

But if I brought up the issue of Finland it is precisely because we are weaker there where the Finnish have been able to become strong and that element perhaps marks a fundamental difference: the stability of the teaching staff and the solidity of their training. While the Finnish carry out rigorous tests to choose the best students as future professors and can afford to select the most skilled, we have to make do many times with students who get to study pedagogy because they have not been able to get the career they preferred due to their low academic performance. We are always short of staff and in the face of the deficit of professors the education system has even resorted to the so-called “emerging” teachers, young people who are barely older than their future students, without the necessary training to assume that complex task.

Our teachers are not only badly paid and have difficulties with transport and housing, like other professionals in the country, but they are also affected by other problems like the lack of social acknowledgement, not of words but of deeds. They are also overloaded with long work days, with little time for their professional upgrading and suffer the deficiencies of some pedagogic methods, among other questions that affect the quality of their work and discourage the young people who decide to opt for the teaching career.

On the other hand, the image today projected by many professors is not always the most appropriate, because of the behaviour inside and outside the classroom, riddled with coarseness and bad forms, because of their inability to make themselves respected by their students and encourage their interest in the knowledge they have to impart, qualities that many of those professors formed in the old school had, when our education system still did not have the reach and capacity it has today.

Let’s not fool ourselves, we are not and never will be like the Finns. We do not have their Lutheran tradition, nor do our families spend Sunday afternoons in the well-stocked public libraries. Neither do we have those long winters that almost force them to stay at home, wearing warm clothes and enjoying the reading of a good book. But the way we are, gregarious and extroverted children of the tropics, it is necessary and almost urgent to find the path to recover the best of our teaching tradition, which not by chance dates back to the 19th century with the famous chairs of Félix Varela at the San Carlos y San Ambrosio Seminary School, the teaching of José de la Luz y Caballero, founder of the prestigious San Salvador College, or even the generosity of Rafael María de Mendive, who got to sponsor the enrolment of his most brilliant student in the Secondary Education Institute of Havana, the young José Martí. (2013)

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