Friday, September 27, 2013

What is the purpose of education?

When I meet Finns, the conversation generally goes "So why did you come to Finland?" by which they are really wondering "Why on Earth would you come to this country when you could go to any other place on the globe?" (they have a big inferiority complex that makes them think their country is terrible even when it is considered one of the best education systems, is one of the happiest countries, and was even deemed the best country in the world by Newsweek).  When I tell them I came to learn about their excellent traditions of education and environmental concern, they concede that "yeah, I guess we are good at that."

Most of them.  I have had many interesting conversations with people in the education department here (kasvatustiede, from kasvatus "education" and tiede which translates as "science" but is used like the suffix "-ology"), and a few people actually wish their system was more like the USA.  Not the entire system, but parts of it.  The driving idea behind Finnish education is that it is a way to equalize the playing field for all, regardless of family socioeconomic background.  Their system therefore strives to literally provide an equal and identical education for all.  The problem some Finns see with this is that it does not allow superb students to excel because they receive the same education as everyone else.  I have heard that there are no "gifted" programs, few magnet schools, only small amounts of add-on learning for bright students, and skipping grades is discouraged as it is thought to hinder proper social development.

Excerpt from 2009 PISA test scores, showing Finland as #3 in the world.
If it is too small to read, go check out the source
All this got me thinking about what "educational success" actually means because Finland seems to define it as giving everyone equal opportunities to be useful members of society (by spreading resources where they are needed), while the USA seems to be most concerned with creating a society that outputs new innovations (by focusing resources in areas that are likely to succeed).  It is impossible to compare the "success" of these two countries using a single metric if their goals are different.

Perhaps there is an underlying goal in providing education, and the difference in the USA and Finland is just different philosophies on how to get there.  Is the goal to increase economic wellbeing?  Is it supposed to help the state or individuals (or both)?  Is it some absolute amount of wealth, or is it compared to other nations?  Is the goal to increase lifespans (by educating doctors and creating new technologies)?  Is it to become technologically advanced?  Is it to help people understand their culture and role in it?  Their place in the universe?  Is it to give people the tools to secure their own happiness?  Is it some combination of these things?  Something else?


I am curious what other people think about the goal of education, so please respond to the poll on the right.  If you have any further thoughts, go ahead and leave a comment.  Thanks!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Food Waste in Finland

This post started off with the simple observation that in the University of Turku cafeterias, it is extremely uncommon to see anyone with food left on their plate at the end of lunch.  Every time I do see someone scraping leftover food away, it is one of my non-Finnish friends.

Then I noticed this sign up in the cafeteria:
Text reads: In a single week 1634 kilos (3600 lbs) is produced in the Unica restaurants (the cafeterias), and the refuse is then transported to Forssa to be composted.  Unica pays 15 euros for every bin of waste shipped.
This is really interesting!
  • Not only is the cafeteria trying to discourage food waste, they are doing it from an economic rather than environmental standpoint, and all using an appeal to humor.
  • The sign references the fact that much of Finland's food, especially in the winter, must be imported from elsewhere because it cannot be grown here ("Did this orange travel all the way to Turku just to be discarded and composted in Forssa?").
  • Did you notice the part about "shipped to Forssa to be composted" (emphasis mine)?  Food waste in Turku University's cafeterias is (apparently) composted instead of piled up in a landfill as it is in the US.
  • All other signs in the cafeteria have Finnish and/or Swedish with English at the bottom, so this is likely directed at the foreign students, most of whom speak zero Finnish or Swedish.  Does this count as xenophobia or intelligent targeted advertising?
  • According to the poster, all the Unica cafeterias in Turku (which as far as I know are the cafeterias at all the universities) together make 3600 lbs of waste per week.  Assuming that only half of the students in Turku (total from the two major universities is 20,000 + 8,000) eat at the cafeteria 5 lunches per week gives 70,000 meals served per week.  (This is a really conservative estimate; the meals are so cheap that pretty much everyone eats there, and some cafeterias are even open on Saturday).  Using these estimates means each meal served generates 0.05 lbs (about 1 oz) of food waste.  This seems extremely low, so I wonder if some of these numbers are misleading/wrong, or if Finland is just really, really good at reducing waste.  I will get some more information and write a follow-up post.
Where do Finns learn "ÄLÄ JÄTÄ" ("Don't waste")?
In first grade (7 years old)!  Apparently, it is one of the things taught early in school here in Finland, ensuring that it is a common cultural value.  As an American, I learned this mentality from my grandfather who encouraged me to "join the clean plate club" at every meal, so I think this is a family rather than societal value in the US.  Does anyone else have a different experience?

What can the US do to encourage this mentality?
Apart from including such actions in the curriculum, there are few differences in cafeterias between Turku and my experience in the US (University of Michigan, several years back):

How it affects waste
All-you-can-eat buffet with many (mediocre) options
Select only one of three (delicious) entrées, take as much as you want unless it is something that comes in discrete pieces (e.g. pizza).  Bread/butter and salad are basically unlimited
Many options means you can discard what you do not like.  It also makes it easy to accidentally take more than you can eat.
Ask servers for food
If you take the exact amount you want, you are less likely to have too much (but I can just hear the US outrage over "health issues" of self-services...)
Pay to enter cafeteria
Pay once you have your food
You get charged extra if you take too much of something that has a portion size.  Also maybe scrutiny prevents people from taking too much
Costs >$10
Costs 2.60e (1.80e for soup)
At crazy US prices, you feel a sense of entitlement to take as much as you want

Stay tuned for a follow-up post with some numbers on food waste in Finland!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Finnish "jokamiehenoikeus"

If there is one word that nicely summarizes life in Finland, it might be jokamiehenoikeus.  Not only is it a hilariously long word (at least for English speakers), but it describes a mentality and way of life that is very Finnish.  The word itself is a compound word (as so many of the long Finnish words are): joka + miehen + oikeus = every + man's + right.  Surprisingly, the literal translation describes the concept well.  Jokamiehenoikeus means that anyone can pretty much go anywhere (in nature) they want and do whatever they want, so long as it isn't disruptive/destructive to other people or to nature.

Basically this means that if you find a nice camping spot away from any houses, go for it and don't worry about getting permission from the landowner.  If you find a nice patch of berries or mushrooms in the woods, you do not have to figure out who owns the land before you pick them - just go ahead and take as many as you want!  Oh, and if you want to sell them afterward, that income is tax free (probably the only thing in Finland that is)...  This may not seem that cool to my American friends because we do not have too many wild berries anywhere that I know in the US, but here in Finland there is something like 1 billion pounds of berries [source and more info here] that grow every year.  That's 1.5 Empire State Buildings weight in berries!  I have been hiking a few times already here, and every time I get stuck eating berries the whole way along the trail because there are so many that even if other people have been through and picked a bunch, there are still plenty left.  Seriously, it's awesome.  The only things you can't do without permission/permits are cut down trees, hunt/fish, or drive off-road and the only thing you can't do at all is destroy property/nature or invade people's privacy.

Typical Finnish trail in the woods.  Most are not heavily traveled (there are only ~5 million people in this country), but this is the trail up to the highest peak in the Turku area (a whopping 71 m above sea level...) which has a nice view.
Mushrooms are everywhere right now! There are more kinds than I have ever seen before.  Many (but not all) Finns know which ones are good to eat and which will make you sick.  Not sure which these are...
It is interesting the way that nature is treated under this concept - it belongs to everyone, and you have to consider how your actions affect it as well as other people.  This is in contrast to the American concept that your property is 100% yours, only for you to enjoy, and you can do whatever you want to it even if that affects other people.  The concept even shows Finland's economic principles in natural resource utilization - anyone can collect the berries and mushrooms that regrow year after year even if harvested, but hunting and fishing are regulated, and forestry is left up to professionals who know how to properly harvest to maximize yields and minimize disturbances.  I am curious how jokamiehenoikeus and the attitudes behind it shape actual laws and regulations, so hopefully I will have more on that later!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Omenakaurapaistos recipe

I learned this awesome desert recipe from some of my friends here.  It is a super simple version of apple pie that is naturally wheat-free and can easily be made vegan as well.  And it even tastes excellent!

Difficulty - super simple (you just have to cut some apples)

The name
Omenakaurapaistos is an excellent example of a Finnish compound word.
Omena + kaura + paistos = apple oat cobbler (paistos is just a name for this type of dish, so cobbler is a loose translation)

There is no real "right" amount of each ingredient for this recipe, just make it taste good.  However, I will give some suggestions based on what we did

Omenat (apples)   Maybe ~1 apple per serving, or less if they are big (we used 6 small ones for 6 people)
Kaneli (cinnamon)
Sokkeri (sugar)

Voi (butter) or margariini (margarine) if you want it vegan
Kaura (oats - we used what looked like rolled oats)
Sokkeri (sugar, again!)
It should be enough butter to coat the oats when melted.  We used something like 1 cup butter, 2 cups oats and 0.5 cup sugar (it was in deciliters, so I am confused!) for 6 people.


  1. Preheat oven to 200 C (~400F)
  2. Filling
    1. Cut apples into small chunks (no need to peel them, but probably you should wash them first)
    2. Grease baking dish and place apple chunks in
    3. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon evenly on top of apples
  3. Crust top
    1. Melt butter
    2. Put in sugar and stir
    3. Add in oats and stir until they are all coated with butter.
    4. Adjust the ingredient ratio to taste and to make sure the oats are coated in butter but not dripping wet
  4. Spread the butter/oats/sugar crust on top of the apples in the pan.  If you need more crust, make some more - it is super simple!
  5. Bake for 20-30 minutes until the top is browned
Apple/cinnamon/sugar filling

Butter/sugar/oats crust

Finished Omenakaurapaistos!

We ate it with some vanilla ice cream, which was awesome as you might imagine.

Here is a version in Finnish if you want to see what that looks like

Friday, September 13, 2013

Finnish Similarities to Other Languages

You probably have heard that Finnish is almost completely unrelated to any other language.  This is almost true.  It belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group, and it's closest relative is Estonian.  To give an example of how similar Finnish is to its "close" relatives, the other major language related to Finnish is Hungarian, but all my Hungarian friends here can't natively understand Finnish -- the similarity is only in the grammar.

To give you an idea of how different Finnish is from English, remember that English is an Indo-European language, along with things like Russian, Hindi, and Sanskrit.  Finno-Ugric is another grouping at the same level, so if Russian and English are as similar as a dog and a goldfish (both are animals with backbones), then Finnish is as similar as a potato.

Which brings me to something I am really interested in -- the similarities that do exist between Finnish and various other languages.  Because Finnish is so different, anything that is remotely similar to another language is really interesting!  Here is a list of some of the similarities that I can think of off the top of my head (I will try to add more later as I think of them):

There are not too many cognates between English and Finnish except in modern words (e.g. "bus", "taxi", and "museum" are very recognizable as "bussi", "taksi", and "museo", but these are all fairly new words).  Some food items (especially spices and seasonings) are also similar (e.g., "vanilja", "kardemumma", "minttu" for vanilla, cardamom, and mint).

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday = maanantai, tiistai, torstai, sunnuntai
same = sama
daughter/girl = tytär (also "tyttö")
boy = poikka (the letter p in Finnish often sounds like a b, at least to my American ears)
water in partitive (i.e. "I'm drinking some water") = vetta.  I don't know if this counts, but it is much more similar than "agua"...

Both Japanese and Finnish use difference in sound length to distinguish words (e.g. "おばさん [obasan]" = "aunt" while "おばあさん [obaasan] = "grandma" and in Finnish "tapaan" = "I meet" while "tapan" = "I kill").  Also, the languages just sound kind of similar.  Take Nokia for example, which is Finland's pride and joy (well, I guess it WAS their pride and joy), but most Americans think is a Japanese company based on how it sounds.  Furthermore, both languages use endings to indicate a different form of the word.  For instance, the Japanese ending や ("-ya") as in 寿司屋 ("sushi-ya" I think), means a store (so, sushi store).  In Finnish, the "ja" ending (same pronunciation) means a person who does something (e.g. "opiskella" is "to study" while "opiskelija" is a "student").

One of the most similar grammatical structures between the two languages is the formation of a yes/no question.  In Japanese, you add か/ka to the end of a sentence to a phrase into a question.  In Finnish, you add "-ko" onto the end of the verb for exactly the same function!

joka (pronounced "yo-kah") = よく/yoku (pronounced "yo-koo") = often
= 夜/yoru or 夕/yuu = night or evening

I don't know much (any) German, but historically Finland has been pretty close to Germany.  It is interesting that many words with ruling are similar to German.  Clearly some of our English words are as well...

König = kuningas  = king
Königin = kuningatar = queen
Krone = kruunu = crown

(I have only had två classes so far in Swedish, so I am sure there are more)
pojke = poikka =  boy
sedan = sitten = then/next (as in a list of activities)
klockan = kello = clock (maybe this is kind of a stretch, but they are abbreviated kl and klo.  Abbrev cognates!)
lax = lohi = salmon
Also, gravadlax (Swedish) and graavilohi (Finnish) I think are pretty much the same delicious thing

Finnish for "Nature reserve area / stay on the path."  Look at all the cognates!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lohilaatikko recipe

This recipe is a classic I got from The Finnish Cookbook (go buy it - it is a great collection of recipes adapted for the American kitchen, and it even has a bunch of information about Finnish history, language, and culture!).  It reminds me of a recipe my uncle taught me, but is slightly more complex but also more versatile.

Difficulty - Super easy (you just have to know how to cut)

The name
Lohilaatikko = "lohi" + "laatikko" = salmon + box
"Laatikko" from a culinary standpoint means casserole, and there are many other types of casserole (e.g., makaronilaatikko = mac&cheese casserole).  These are super simple casserole dishes!

Kaksi kuppit (2 cups) maito (milk)
Peruna (potatoes)
Sipuli (onions)
Yksi (1) kana muna (chicken egg, apparently it is vulgar if you don't specify chicken egg)
Voi (butter)
Lohi/Kala (salmon/fish) You can use a filet, chunks, or even little fish
Suola & mustapaprika (salt & pepper)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F
  2. Slice the onions and potatoes thinly (you can peel them if you want)
  3. In a big baking pan (I forget the US dimensions is the big one 13x8?), place a layer of potato, then a layer of onion
  4. Now place a layer of fish
    1. If you have a large slab of fish just place it on, then cover with onion and potatoes
    2. If you have many small chunks or small fishes, make a layer of them.  Then repeat the potato, onion, and fish layers until you run out of ingredients.
  5. In a separate bowl, beat the egg into the 2 cups milk.  Beat in salt and pepper
  6. Pour egg/milk mixture over your layers, making sure to coat everything
  7. Cover with foil and bake until done

If you wait a little bit for it to cool, the egg/milk mixture will set.  But this isn't necessary.
I really enjoyed eating this with sweet chile sauce, but it is good by itself or with many other flavors. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Finnish take on the "Five Bad Assumptions the Media Keeps Recycling"

One of my friends recently sent me a link to Valerie Strauss' Washington Post article Five bad education assumptions the media keeps recycling.  It is an interesting read because it brings up some interesting (controversial is always interesting!) points.  I have now been in Finland for a month, and therefore feel slightly qualified to make some generalizations about the education system based on my conversations with locals.  There are differences in surprising places.

"Myth" in bold.  My interpretations of the Finnish mindset are in regular font.

1. American education is failing; we need to copy other countries.  Many people here in Finland (in case you have missed the studies, Finnish education is considered among the best in the world while the US is not) are envious of the flexibility in the American system to allow excellent students to thrive.  Their system is founded completely on the notion that everyone gets the same education, no matter what.  Many Finns I talked to see this as a shortcoming because they wish that their bright students could be accelerated.  The way they put it is that America is the land of extremes, where there is some of the best education in the world but also some pretty terrible education.  Finland rides the middle and pushes it toward excellence.

2. Tests are good at measuring success, high scores are good, the goal is to outscore other countries (as opposed to just do well).  Again, the main goal of the Finnish education system is to give all Finns an equally excellent education.  Tests are recognized as a necessary evil to measuring this success, but they definitely do not tie teacher salaries or anything like that to their tests.  In fact, when I talk to Finns about their success in education, instead of being proud of having beaten most countries on the tests, they are proud that the world has taken notice of their system, which they believe to be working even without the PISA test scores.  Seriously, they are happy that they can provide a good education for everyone and just treat the PISA success as a cool thing that makes them known to big countries (they only have ~5 million inhabitants).

3. Schools exist to increase global economic competitiveness.  This is VERY un-Finnish. For them, the words 'civilize' and 'educate' are synonymous, so school is a place that people go pretty much just for their own self-improvement. They believe so strongly that everyone should be able to have a good education that free public education for all is guaranteed in their constitution!

4. Students go to school to increase their earning potential.  Again, Finnish education is about self-improvement.  The country fully supports everyone's chance to have this by providing subsidized student housing, student stipends, and free university education instead of providing the massive loans that most US students have to pay back.

5. Working hard is a key to high performance, even at the cost of happiness.  I doubt anyone here agrees with that.  School does not start until the kids are 7 and it goes for 9 years; before that they are in a variety of day care (päiväkoti) that emphasizes play-based learning.  Also, the kids in those centers are required to have at least 3 outside recesses per day (even in winter!), and it is the parents' responsibility to make sure that the student is appropriately attired.  Furthermore, the Finnish school day is much shorter than even the American day.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

There is such thing as free lunch!

Well, free at point of service at least.

Finnish education is based around providing equally excellent to everyone, which means that all students get a free nutritious lunch at school.  As far as I know, the staff also can also eat there.  One of my Finnish friends even remembers some local workers eating lunch at her school cafeteria.  The idea is, I guess, that being well-nourished is important for learning, so nourishment equality helps achieve educational equality.  Furthermore, when everyone receives free lunch (even teachers), then no one feels stigmatized for doing so.

This idea is so strong that even universities provide cheap lunches.  University of Turku, where I am currently studying, has something like 15 different cafeterias that all offer delicious lunch for 2.60€ (see example below!).  There are no university-run dorms, so these cafeterias are all housed in the teaching and research buildings, so it is literally a 1-minute walk from wherever you are studying/working to cheap, hot, tasty food!

I was inspired to write this post by the news that Boston, where I lived before coming here, is switching to a similar system of free student lunches for all.  After having seen that the free meals already provided at one Boston school consisted of sugary cereal and juice, I am skeptical of whether this plan will actually be nutritious like they want.  After all, the US is the country that has considered making ketchup a vegetable to decrease costs of lunch...

Low-quality picture of a delicious 2.60€ Finnish university lunch: Paella and salad (not Finnish), and Finnish ruisleipä and piimä.  There are usually around 4 main options and always rice and potatoes (this country loves potatoes!), salad bar, and a variety of delicious bread.  Also pictured: Tabasco sauce (Finns generally don't like spicy food, but at least they make it possible for others to spice their meal up!).  Most university students will save money by eating a lot of this cheap lunch, then having small amounts at the other meals.