Education in Finland

Much has been said of late about the amazing success of Finnish schools. In many ways they are the antithesis of U.S. schools. Everything that we have done in an effort to improve our educational system, Finland has done the opposite. To many Americans the system would seem to be counter-intuitive, but the results are a proof of concept.

Recess – In Finland students spend around one third of the day at recess. This may sound like a lot, but when you consider that this is broken up into many small breaks, it can sound more manageable. These frequent breaks make the day less monotonous for students. After each 45 minute lesson, students go outside for a 15 minute recess. This success of this routine is backed up by the science. When the human body sits for too long, the brain begins to shut down. Obviously students need their brains working at their best in order to make the time in class as effective as possible. Allowing students time to move and play gives them a chance for their brain to stay engaged in the class work.

This has also allowed the school day to be shorter. Students spend only around 4 1/2 hours in school a day. They also start school later; while publicly funded day cares are available at younger ages, mandatory school does not begin until age 7. Despite what many people might think, less class time has not had an adverse effect on education, but may be contributing to its success.

One surprise however, is that even with so much outside time, Finnish students are not getting that much more physical activity. While free play is of more value to getting students less distracted in the classroom than teacher directed play, it may be necessary to integrate some structure to prevent kids from spending this time in sedentary activities.

Testing – In Finland, student assessment is left up to individual teachers until graduation, when a single, comprehensive test is administered. This saves class time for instruction. Testing would also conflict with the intention of getting students more active. Formal testing is a stressful activity. Students free of this stress are able to get more enjoyment out of school. When you enjoy something, you are more likely to prize it, remember it, and value it.

Teaching – In Finland, being a teacher is such a lucrative career that only 1 in 10 graduate applicants are accepted for the required master’s degree program. Incomes for teachers are on par with other professionals. Teachers are a highly valued resource, and given far more respect. Teachers also have more freedom to make their own decisions for their classroom. While they are given a generalized curriculum, they are free to tailor the lessons to their students. Teachers are trusted to keep their students on track and find ways to give them the assistance and attention that they need. Students are not held back for poor performance, but are instead given special attention. This way they are not stigmatized by their peers. They are able to avoid repeating the same information, which would make anyone bored.

Administrators – Those who are in charge of making decisions about school policy are recruited from within the educational system, instead of from the outside. This means that they are largely former teachers. They understand the struggles, and they understand the students. This means that they are better equipped to make decisions that will be beneficial.

Public Funding – Rather than having funds drained into private schools, and allowing vast disparities between the education of the haves and the have-nots, Finland had only publicly funded schools. This means that anyone who has an idea has only one place to enact it, so that everyone receives the benefits. Schools do not have to compete with one another, but are encouraged to work together, as are teachers. This team mentality allows everyone to succeed, rather than only those on the winning side.

Finland has a lot that they can teach the world. The experiments that they have undertaken prove that more is not necessarily better. Having a balance is the best way to achieve success.

 

Fear

I think that this will probably end up as a series instead of a single post. This will serve mainly as an introduction and outline.

What is fear? Fear is natural response to dangers. From an evolutionary perspective this means flight or fight. We evolved with a known danger with a predictable likelihood and outcome. These factors get calculated and we decide whether it would be in our best interest to flee the danger or to fight it. This decision also depends on other factors. Are you alone? Are there others that need your protection? Do you have backup if things go badly? How fast is your pursuer likely to be in comparison to you?

All of these situations need a lot of adrenaline to assist in either path, so the body produces more. This is why we sweat,  get tense, and other thought processes fade into the background. In the natural world, these threats arrive, and are dealt with, and we move on.

Today there are a lot more things that cause us fear. As humans we are living in a world completely foreign to our ancestors. Our fears vary according to where we live, but many of them we cannot solve as quickly as a situation in the wild would be. We are afraid to lose our jobs, our homes, our families. We fear disease, economic hardship, terrorism, rape, kidnapping. We fear police, politics, the poor, the rich, other races, our families, each other, and even ourselves.

What does that mean for us? As individuals it creates a state of constant stress and anxiety that is so common in our society. It leads to increased use of anti-anxiety medications. It also can lead to a feeling of despair, which explains our epidemic of depression. Our bodies were not built to deal with constant stress, and that may lead to the type of chemical imbalances that we are finding.

As a group, humans are drawing more lines between themselves and others. We do this in our daily lives. We refuse to make eye contact with strangers as we hurry through crowded streets wary that anyone we pass could be a pickpocket, or worse. On a larger scale we do it with entire cultures. America has broken all ties with Islamic nations because we are terrified that they are out to get us. Extremists of all types rationalize their actions using fear. Homegrown terrorists are afraid of the government, religious zealots are afraid for the continuation of their way of life, politicians are afraid of the people. In order to make themselves feel safer, people will resort to making others afraid. This is the source of the threat, including the demonstration of power.

Why are we so afraid today? Many people will tell you that it is because of our human ability to anticipate, but that leaves out the distinction between our ancestors’ fears and our own. I do not believe that we would ever have begun building permanent settlements if people obsessed over fears of wild animals in the same way we obsess over our fears today. Others will say that it is because of our global society. This is also part of the story. We are able to see the horrors going on in far flung parts of the globe. The images of 9/11 that are scarred into the minds, certainly of anyone who remembers the event, are mostly those images that were shown on television. People can describe this scene even though they may never have been to New York.

I believe that while these points contribute to our societal fears, the main cause is fear mongering. People who gain by the public’s fear do everything they can to manipulate our fears. This includes not only those who use violence to make others fear them, but also those who use the violence of another to create a solidarity between victims. What does that mean? It means that scared people are easier to control. It means that through manipulation of our fears people become predictable. It means that by convincing people to be afraid of one thing, they can be forced to overlook other things. It means that when people are afraid they make alliances with others who are also afraid. Politics took this to a whole new level when the color coded terror threat level system was created. This is used as a way to tell the people exactly how frightened they should be on a given day. I was reading about yesterday’s attacks in Paris, when I came across an interesting juxtaposition. In two back to back sentences we were told that there is currently no indication of an attack on the U.S., and then told that none of our prediction methods saw the Paris attacks coming. They know that at this moment our fear is already heightened so much that if they told us to be afraid they could lose that carefully crafted control.

Fear is a great way to get people to give things up. If you are afraid of attacks on your home, keeping your protection is important. This is why the same people who garner fear of people outside of the country attacking are the same people who create the fear of having guns taken away. If you are afraid that you will not be able to protect your family, your personal privacy is less important. If you are afraid that a certain type of person is out to get you it makes you less likely to protect their rights. If you are afraid that your child will be hurt by a stranger it makes you less likely to let them be alone.

What can you do? Recognize when someone is using fear to control. Look behind the words to figure out what the speaker gains by having you believe them. The less self-interest, the more likely the story is true. The more they have to gain, the more they will stretch the truth. The more followers they have, the more credence the story gains, and the more it can be bent without breaking.

People in America today have given up a lot of freedoms in the name of safety, many of which we still take for granted. We need to learn to take a step back and figure out why people tell us certain things so that we can truly protect ourselves.

 

A Costume Designer’s Perspective on Halloween

In case you could not guess, I am a big fan of Halloween. Not because I can dress up, since I do that anyway (and at work it doesn’t matter, I still can’t.) It is because other people dress up, it’s like the one day that the population at large joins me in my world. It is special. This means that unfortunately I expect a lot of people. Looking online I see pictures of inspired, intricate costumes that took planning and dedication.

Last night and tonight I have been watching costumed guests pass through the lobby at the hotel. People put in time to get ready to go to their parties, they get all dressed up, they do their makeup, they do their hair. Some of them look pretty good. Sometimes they do themes for groups of friends. You know it’s a good day when a total stranger asks the only woman in the building who is not wearing any makeup how to apply pencil eyeliner.

That is what I want to see everywhere, and for some reason I am surprised every year when that is not what I see.  I know that for most people it’s just one night. They will throw something together at the last minute or buy something cheap off the shelves just to ‘get in the spirit’. This bothers me a little bit. It’s like they think that these cheap costumes that can only be worn once before they fall apart puts them in the same category, ‘people who dress up’. I find these cheap costumes insulting. When I make something I make it to last. Yes, to most people it’s just a costume,  but I value the time and effort. I value the care and dedication. People who wear these cheap costumes cheapen what I do. By using disposable costumes people tell me that what I do is worth no more than that.

More than that though, the problem that I have with these costumes is how sexist they have made this beautiful holiday. Women, and even girls, find that most of the costumes available are ‘sexy’ versions of something. Even the ‘original’ version is often unavailable. This makes it so that women have no other option than to try to be sexy. It is so pervasive today that even the homemade costumes usually lean this way. This year I have noticed several of these costumes with no more than underwear to cover the lower half!

Let me pause here to say that I have no problem with sexy costumes. I have no problem with women, or men, exposing their bodies. I do not believe that doing so inherently objectifies them. I do have a problem when a person’s sense of self-worth comes down to how others perceive them. I do have a problem with women being reduced to no more than their bodies. I do have a problem with having no choice but to dress provocatively. I do believe that this lack of choice objectifies people. They do not have a way to fully express themselves.

There is another problem that this revealing fad causes. Halloween falls during a time when it is getting colder outside. Girls are forced to choose between having the full effect of their costume or of staying warm. That is not healthy. Most girls grin and bear it. Most guys seem oblivious to it. Those that do take notice end up working for the girl, if they care. This means that women are put into a position of helplessness. They will wait inside while the boy goes to bring the car around, or she counts on his coat, or cape, or whatever.

Men, at least, have some choice in their costume type. But even that falls into certain categories, all of which are carefully chosen not to lose any semblance of masculinity. They can be funny, they can be scary, they can be sexy, or they can copy the original (as long as it is a manly thing). The other way that they can preserve their macho-ness is to not really dress up. I have seen many groups where the girls are done up all-out, while the guys just wear a t-shirt with a Velcro cape attached. Okay, I love those shirts, but I was honestly hoping that they would be an introduction to the everyday costume, not herald the end of dressing up.

On another, but related, note. I saw a costume of one of the monkeys, or whatever from The Bloodhound Gang video for The Bad Touch. I stopped myself from complimenting the reference because I realized what stereotype a woman who likes The Bloodhound Gang would fall into. I would instantly go from ‘responsible employee’ to ‘sex fiend’. I am a happily married woman, I like the music, and I find it funny.  If you listen to the music, it is all about sex, but it has never seemed to me to be necessarily about anything more than a guy who likes his girlfriend, which is fine. It is acceptable for a guy to make the reference, although the stereotype would probably lean towards ‘woman user’, since that is what most people think of the band. Unfortunately that stereotype is something that is acceptable, and even funny to most people.

Halloween symbolizes the best and worst of society. It brings out people’s creativity and individuality. But it also cements many popular trends. I am hopeful that I am wrong, and people do know the difference between a disposable costume and something that will last. I am hopeful that people will learn to escape the boxes that marketing and stereotypes have forced us into.

Happy Halloween everybody!

Self-Driving Cars

I first was introduced to this idea on an episode of Scientific American Frontiers in 1997 called ‘Robots Alive’. At the time a university had developed a vehicle that could drive itself down a highway. It could not navigate an intersection, parking lots, or too much confusion, but it was a car that drove itself! I was so excited that I proclaimed that soon you would be able to put a map into the car and that it would go where you wanted it to go.

I did not know that the map technology would come first, in the form of GPS. I had heard of the satellites that could pinpoint your position, and how amazingly accurate they were, but it did not occur to me that they could be overlaid on maps. Honestly I don’t think that I knew then that it was a global system. Today this is so ubiquitous that I get frustrated every time I have to give directions to the hotel where I work.

Many years later, after I had a drivers license, and my own car I began to wonder why do not have these self-driving cars yet. I have done a lot of cross-country driving, which is the technology that I knew specifically had already existed for at least ten years at this point. So I did a little digging. I found out that the research being put into this at the university was shut down. I could hardly believe it. It was shut down because of liability concerns. The thinking was that if one of these vehicles was deemed at fault for an accident the developers and programmers would be the ones held liable.

This opens up a whole other can of worms. In this country we are obsessed with making sure that someone else is to blame for every injury, no matter how small or who is actually responsible. I am no fan of McDonalds, but I do not believe that it is their fault that someone burned themselves on coffee that is obviously hot. This trend of suing others for your own incompetence is at best, stupid, and at worst, detrimental to scientific, technological, economical and societal progression. I am still in shock that the courts of this country have set something this damaging as a legal precedent in this country. It has gotten so crazy that homeowners can be sued by a burglar for injuries caused by hazards created by a burglar himself, and there are tales of this actually succeeding, although I have not found the records to back it up.

In order to get around this ridiculousness of American culture, when Google decided to create their self-driving car they pre-empted this argument. They have already established that the driver of the vehicle is legally responsible for any problems. This works because the car’s control can be overridden easily by the driver at any time by simply taking control as you would normally drive the car.

I also believe that because driving is really a routine of wrote behaviors and following specific signs. This is something that computers are inherently better at than humans are. ‘If this, then that’ is the way that computers think. Humans get distracted, intoxicated, bored, or try to multitask. These are the most common causes of accidents. Even the times that humans think of as a judgment call; for instance making the light before it changes, can be calculated with precision by a computer that we could never match. Driving is a computer-friendly activity. With a properly programmed design, I believe that accidents would largely become a thing of the past. On top of that other groups are working on technology that allows the vehicles to communicate directly with one another. This means that they do not need to anticipate each other’s actions or respond to last minute decisions. The main challenge at this point is accounting for human unpredictability.

When I learned about the Google self-driving car, I was very excited, and I still am. These cars, when I first looked several years ago had already logged over 100,000 miles on the open roads of California. They have all of the advantages of a computer on the road, and are still able to share the roads with human drivers and even avoid pedestrians and pets. In all that time, the only accident that the cars had was a fender-fender in a parking lot while driving under human control. With many more miles under their belts; nearly 1.7 million, they had only 6 accidents. None were caused by the autonomous vehicles (source).

There are other prototypes that would require all vehicles to be replaced with self-driving simultaneously. This is a completely unfeasible model to implement. Parts of the technology may be able to be adopted by others; like the inter-vehicle communications, but I cannot see all Americans giving up driving at the same time.

I am very excited to see these vehicles out there, making our roads safer. I have already seen cars that beep when the driver drifts out of their lane, a technology directly from the show that grabbed my attention so many years ago. There are cars that parallel park themselves, have blind spot monitoring, cruise control that adjusts as people ahead slow down. Tesla Motors actually has a car currently on the market that has an ‘autopilot’ feature that will “steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control“.

I am hopeful that these technologies will help us prevent accidents in the near future, and eventually be able to eliminate them. For now I am still behind the wheel. I do enjoy driving, but the more that I see of other drivers, the more concerned I am. I know that some drivers have much worse driving records than these cars do, and I believe that letting the cars replace these drivers would make us all safer. That said I totally understand being terrified of technology. I know how often computers malfunction. The automatic response to this type of eventuality must be considered in the design.

My Top 10 Halloween Movies

10. Shaun of the Dead

http://www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/movieposters/34914/p34914_p_v7_aa.jpg

I am not a big zombie movie fan. This one I loved. Mostly because of the opening scene. The rest is honestly quite forgettable. The way that the routine actions of people are shown comments on how we are already zombies. Maybe that is why the cultural fascination. Or maybe it is because we need a break from our zombified existence and actual zombies is a fun and ironic way to do it.

This movie shows why we need escapist holidays like Halloween. It is the same reason that it is only after the zombie apocalypse that people take shape in the movie.

9. Sweeney Todd

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408236/

This is definitely in the category of Tim Burton’s better works. I love musicals, and this one is not only haunting, but, like much of Stephen Sondheim’s work, very difficult. It is amazing that few, if any of the leads are trained singers. Johnny Depp did a phenomenal job, but Helena Bonham Carter really pulls the film together. I keep hoping to see the younger stars in something else, but I am still waiting.

This story is truly horror. The real monster is a human just like anyone else. And yet, it is not frightening. The portrayal is lighthearted enough to not have viewers on the edge of their seats. It is more of a view inside a disturbed mind. This is far more haunting. We realize that we can identify with other human beings, even ones as twisted as Todd.

8. Arsenic and Old Lace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_and_Old_Lace_(film)

Speaking of twisted people who seem just like anyone else, meet the two nicest little old ladies you will only meet once. In many older movies you never see the monster, the fear is left up to your imagination. This is in that spirit, in a way. The monsters live among us. But you can’t really call these ladies monsters. They do what they do for all the right reasons.

On Halloween we extend our trust to people we have never met, and will probably never meet again. Some people take advantage of that, but most do all they can to be a good neighbor. This story is about two ladies who fall into the second category, but are the ones to be feared. They are just so nonchalant about it, you wonder how they ever get away with it!

7. Edward Scissorhands

http://www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/movieposters/12902/p12902_p_v7_aa.jpg

Another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp entry, this one is in some ways the exact opposite of Sweeney Todd. Edward looks like a monster, but he just has the sweetest heart. Vincent Price, part of so many of Hollywood’s golden age of monsters, is the kind, yet lonely inventor of Edward, whose heart is made from a sugar cookie.

This film comments on how much importance society puts on physical appearance. Initially the neighbors are curious about the strange newcomer, but they quickly change their tune at the first hint that he has any negative intentions. While there is no actual villain in the movie, there are several people whose intentions are less than admirable, and yet are permitted to remain part of the neighborhood.

5. & 6. Hotel TransylvaniaHotel Transylvania 2

http://www.gracehillmedia.com/portfolio-posts/hotel-transylvania/

These are just too cute not to have on this list. Monsters have deliberately recoiled from humans, because humans would not accept them. The monsters have hid so long that the stories take place in a time when the supernatural is not to be feared, but rather idolized. Now it is up to the monsters to accept the humans.

These movies deal with the idea of acceptance, but in a way that is not about ‘real’ topics. This is a kids movie, and makes a fun way to introduce these ideas to kids, under the guise of just a fun movie.

4. The Addams Family

http://variety.com/2013/film/news/addams-family-reborn-as-animated-movie-at-mgm-exclusive-1200781652/

This movie is so quintessentially Halloween it is almost hard to discuss. Every person in the film is twisted in their own way. The Addams are awesome because they don’t try to hide it.

This movie is all about being yourself. This is a common theme throughout the lore, but since this one is about Fester’s faked return, and eventual real return it is even more present. There is no reason not to be who you are.

3. Young Frankenstein

http://www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/movieposters/4687/p4687_p_v7_aa.jpg

Frau Blücher. If you have seen it, you know what comes next. In Mel Brooks’ overly campy style, this is tops. Jokes repeated so often that they aren’t even funny anymore still manage to be hilarious. This is about the descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, who prefers to be known as Dr. ‘Fronkonsteen’. (Original spelling from the script.) The young doctor inherits the old family mansion and follows in the family footsteps. (Walk THIS way) In the end he realizes that he is a proud Frankenstein.

This movie plays with so many concepts and turns them on their head. This is really a fun escape from everything, while we play in the world of monsters. Not really for kids, most ‘adult’ jokes will go right over their heads. That said, I was nervous to watch it as a kid because it seemed like it would be scary. Because Brooks is making fun of the old Hollywood style, there are some moments that have the tension, but it is broken with a joke almost immediately.

2. Nightmare Before Christmas

http://www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/movieposters/15096/p15096_p_v7_aa.jpg

Being a Halloween list, you get not one, not two, but three Tim Burton movies. This is the first one of his movies I ever saw, and is the benchmark that I hold him to. When the Pumpkin King learns about Christmas, he thinks that he has found what he has been missing. He gets all of Halloween town to make Christmas their own. I seriously wish that some of the toys they made for the kids were available. Okay not in the full magic attacking mode, but real plushies, jack-in-the-boxes, etc.

This movie is about the yearning that we all have to do something different, the craving for adventure. In the end though, it is about learning to love yourself. It is only after Jack does that, that he finds love for another.

1. Rocky Horror

http://www.wktv.com/news/Rocky_Horror_Picture_Show__Rocktail_Party_arrives_at_the_Stanley.html

By now you have probably noticed that I do not like scary movies. Most of these have been for kids. This one is decidedly not. If you are ready to have some important conversations with your kids, feel free to try it, I’m not one to say don’t. I love this movie and the “f— what you think, I am doing things my way” attitude.

My introduction to this movie was honestly the most scary part of the movie for me. I went into the room where my mother was watching it. The first thing I see is Susan Sarandon running around in her bra and a torn off slip showing her underwear to the world. Keep in mind the only movie that I knew the actress from was Little Women. I left my mother to watch whatever this was in private and went back upstairs. Once I watched the movie though, I was hooked. I have seen three different live productions, and watched the movie in theaters a few times too. After a long night of trick-or-treating, nothing quite ties up the night like Rocky Horror.