Best practices for social change and environmental action

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Enough stories, already!

In Best practice, Communication, Culture, Nonprofit management on January 11, 2012 at 10:30 pm


It seems that nearly everyone is big on storytelling.

Organizations cultivate stories for communication and outreach, marketers use them to build business and relationships, and the rest of us … we just like stories because they help us understand each other and the world around us.  Moreover, we all know that there’s nothing new here; we’ve been telling stories since the dawn of civilization.

Could there be a problem with all this storytelling here in the 21st Century?  Economist Tyler Cowen thinks so, and he makes a compelling case.  Professor Cowen is the Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University and is co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.

He gave an overview of the concept at a TedX Mid-Atlantic conference a few years ago. The talk is  getting some renewed attention these days, perhaps because “storytelling “ has morphed from its quiet folk roots into something close to a cliché.

Cowen’s main contentions – articulated in the above video – certainly provide fodder for discussion, debate, and even a few laughs at ourselves.

  • Storytelling in our culture tends to portray the world in simplistic ways that don’t match the complexities we face.  “Every time time you tell a story of good vs. evil, your IQ drops,” Cowen half-jokes.
  • Most of the stories we remember end up serving dual and conflicting functions. They need to be simple to stick, and as a result they reinforce our biases.
  • Marketers and politicians don’t always send us the right stories. They manipulate us…even when we are aware that they are doing so.

Cowen posits that our present fascination with stories makes us predictably irrational and leads to bad decisions.  His antidote? Don’t always trust the stories you hear, get comfortable with the messy nature of life, and be more agnostic … about everything.

Treat yourself to the video of his lecture. You might even confirm your own suspicions about all this story stuff.

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The Finland Phenomenon

In Culture, Education, Education reform, Government, Media on May 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm

In the seemingly endless quest for meaningful education reform, positive examples naturally get lots of attention. Educators, experts, and policymakers all want to know the schools that serve their students well.  When they find examples, they usually set about analyzing what makes them successful.

The assumption is that the approaches applied in successful schools would likely work elsewhere, but there’s seldom much consideration applied to culture, context, and economies.

This is what makes the renowned education system of Finland such an intriguing case.  As a society and a nation, Finland is not like the United States … or Germany … or China. Yet, there is an abiding sense that there is much to learn from the Finnish system, widely considered to be the best in the world.

That’s the premise of a new documentary film currently making its debut – The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.

Last night my wife and I attended the Boston premier of the film at MIT, hosted by Social Venture Partners Boston.  After the showing one of the producers, Harvard researcher Dr. Tony Wagner, led a panel discussion of experts from academia, public policy, and business.

The film goes to Finland and right into the classrooms to interview students, teachers, parents, administrators and Finnish government officials. It provides some excellent insights into the methods, philosophies, and policies that have helped Finland create a public education system that has consistently achieved top scores on the world’s most rigorous standardized tests for more than a decade now.


Between the film, the panel discussion, and comments from the audience, there was a lot to think about and more than a few unanswered questions.  One issue in particular looms large for me and my wife, who is an experienced, well credentialed educator.  Right at the outset of the film, an educational leader from Helsinki describes how Finland focused on a national mandate for a single high-performance public education system to serve everyone across all levels of society.  This policy has created a public system in which every citizen has a stake and from which everyone expects high standards.

There are some private schools in Finland, but they are few in number and they are not considered any more “elite” than the public schools. As a result, excellence is the public norm, starting with rigorous requirements for teachers, who are – not surprisingly – held in great esteem across Finnish society.

As we listened to the panel discussion  – which even included a business leader who made a point about sending her kids to a “prestigious” private school – we were struck by two major differences between Finland and the US.

The first is that Finland has relatively even levels of wealth across its society while the US is afflicted by a severe and rapidly growing economic gap between the wealthy and the middle class. The second difference seems related to the first. In Finland, education is seen as a pillar of democracy and the foundation of economic fairness…but in the US, an emphasis on so-called “elite” schools underscores an attitude that treats education with the zero-sum mentality that accepts (and even praises) the idea of economic winners and losers within society.

If the US is ever to achieve the level of excellence seen in Finland, it will probably have to cure its national obsession with “elite” schools – starting with the silly competition to get kids into certain preschools…and right up to the multitude of biased, destructive and often misleading “college rankings.”   It’s all part of the same ludicrous continuum.

See The Finland Phenomenon and draw your own conclusions.

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