I told you the last time we had book club that I had to know more about the 7 Brothers story mentioned in The Smartest Kids in the World. Anytime a single story can unite a nation around education reform, I have to look into it! It turns out that 7 Brothers is a pretty famous story in Finland…but difficult to find here in the States. While I found some videos, a few rough translations, and library books I still think there is more to this story and its implications.
Essentially the story goes that there are seven brothers who are uneducated, rough, and rowdy. Their parents die and leave them the farm. Rather than conform to societal expectations and become literate law abiding members of their community, they choose to rent their land out and live in the wilderness. During their time in the wilderness, they manage to cause all kinds of trouble for themselves and their neighbors. Nothing that they attempt to do works out well. Ultimately they decide to return to the farm, learn to read, and contribute to society. The implication here is that literacy is the path to a good life..at least in my Americanized translation of the overall theme.
The other theme that sticks out here is this awakening of Finnish people as represented by the brothers. They are at first content to live dat to day with no thought for the future or education. When they learn to read however, they realize how important it is and how it allows them to see the lives they have been living in a new way. They have a level of societal access that they did not have before. The story points out that in order to make progress, one must understand the value of one’s contribution. That can only be done through being literate and engaged.
What I appreciate about the story is that it holds out the idea that we have only to want to improve our circumstances and we absolutely can. There is also a bit of pushback against the American idea that everyone can go their own way. In 7 Brothers, the community is at its best when everyone is literate and learning. When I think about what that means for American education two thoughts come to mind:
- We have to decide on a baseline- What I mean here is that in American education we have to agree that no matter what, all children should learn to do x in x fashion before y point in time. While I am a fan of allowing students to work at their own pace and respecting individual differences, we can all agree that literacy is a non-negotiable. What we need also to agree on is how children are taught to be literate, when we expect full literacy, and why it is important.
- We have to let go- We can’t all move in the same direction and all remain in our individual bubbles. I think of the uproar Arne Duncan caused with his introduction of Common Core standards. States wanted to continue teaching and learning in their own way no matter how disparate the outcomes. The same is true with approaches to teacher preparation. Some programs continue where they are comfortable despite teacher support needs.
The truth is that we have to be aligned and we have to be willing to let go of some of our demands in order for American to have the Finnish education comeback story. In an age with so many resources, there is little reason for so much academic disparity.
Here is one of my favorite TED Talks on literacy: