A coherent new government report from Finland shows how media literacy policy should be done.
What is it with Finland? The country seems to be prosperous, safe and stable. It regularly comes near the top of international league tables for things like gender equality, educational achievement, income equality, wellbeing and happiness… It’s enough to make you sick. And as if that wasn’t enough, it now has a coherent national policy on media literacy education. An English translation of the key document was published online earlier this year: I intended to write about it then, but events intervened…
Media literacy education is far from new in Finland. If you look on the website of its National Audiovisual Institute, there are several useful publications (again, many of them in English) detailing a longer history of activity and research. Scholars like Tapio Varis, and more recently Reijo Kupiainen, Sara Sintonen and Sirkku Kotilainen, have been doing serious work on the topic for many years. There is an active teachers’ association, which also publishes a good deal of work in English. There’s a great deal going for a country with a relatively small population (about 5.5 million).
The latest policy document is worth a close look. Like many such documents, it is a little bland and cautious in places: there is a degree of strategic vagueness, for example when it comes to specifying how (and by whom) some of its recommendations will be implemented. However, it has a great many positive aspects that those of us in less fortunate circumstances could certainly learn from.
The first thing to note is that it’s published by the Ministry of Education and Culture – as compared with the situation in the UK, where media literacy is a responsibility for the media regulator, and the Department for Education has consistently tried to ignore it. Notably, the document is entitled Media Literacy in Finland: National Media Education Policy. Media literacy is seen as a serious issue for educators, not just a feel-good term for media companies.
The document lays out a comprehensive view of media education, in terms of its coverage (old media as well as new) and its target groups (adults as well as children). Media education here is not primarily about technology, but about ‘civic competence’: it relates to broader themes like humanity, ethics, sustainability and social inclusion. The document argues for a systematically planned and managed process, that will need to be monitored and updated in light of ongoing changes, not just in technology but in media, culture and society. It emphasizes the need for training teachers and others who are to be involved, most notably library professionals.
The document tells a good story about the current state of media education in Finland, but it also goes beyond the kind of morale-boosting rhetoric that tends to dominate the field. It insists on the need for quality of provision, and stresses the need for rigorous evaluation and research, which goes beyond narrow forms of accountability. It is frank about the challenges that face media educators: the problems of fragmentation and lack of consistency, and the need for greater collaboration, resourcing and ongoing training. It also acknowledges that media education is only a partial answer to some of the broader problems that are arising in the international mediascape.
Although the document was drawn up through a process of sustained consultation (which included regional planning workshops), some of it still feels rather ‘top-down’. Different actors are identified and called to collaborate, but governmental and quasi-governmental agencies (as well as international bodies like the European Commission and UNESCO) are centre stage. Actual practitioners seem relatively marginal. I’m afraid this rather reminds me of some of the policy meetings I’ve attended in the UK and internationally. Where, I want to ask, are the teachers?
Nevertheless, the document reflects what we have known for a long time about the various factors that are required if media education is to become a reality. National policy statements are necessary, but not sufficient: we need high-quality resources, professional development for teachers, and in-depth research and evaluation. We also need constructive collaboration between educators, media companies, community-based organisations, NGOs and public sector bodies.
These developments are only likely to occur in a context where education policy more generally is forward-looking and constructive. In this respect, the document reflects the many positive characteristics of the Finnish education system more broadly. Several of these are well-known, and have been extensively outlined by Pasi Sahlberg, perhaps most comprehensively in his book Finnish Lessons. The Finnish system is not dominated by high-stakes testing; children start school relatively late, and the early years are dominated by play; and teachers have high status, and considerable professional autonomy. (For a sample of his work, Sahlberg offers some useful post-pandemic insights on his blog here.)
For the past forty years, the English education system has been steadily moving in the opposite direction to this, so perhaps envy is difficult to avoid. Yet as Sahlberg acknowledges, no single country can offer a magic recipe for education that can simply be exported elsewhere. The characteristics of Finnish education have emerged over several decades, as part of the wider development of the country’s social democratic system.
Likewise, the dire state of British education policy-making right now reflects wider, longer-term problems in our national culture; and in the wake of Brexit, this can only get worse. It may be a fantasy, but it would be good if we could learn some Finnish lessons – not only in media education, but much more broadly.
(Thanks to Reijo Kupiainen and Sara Sintonen for discussing this with me.)