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May Day celebration of education in Finland - a cultural phenomena?

Updated: May 5, 2021

Every year, throughout the whole country, there is from my perspective coming from the UK, a remarkable cultural event honouring education and learning.

May 1st, Vappu, is a huge day of celebration. Visit Helsinki and you see thousands of students wearing 'workers overalls', in an array of colours, all decorated in a multitude of badges. Each badge represents an event or achievement completed by the wearer - and these are clearly a mark of respect and esteem within society. Remarkably, different departments within the same university even have their own unique overall. Worn alongside the overalls, are the hats called Ylioppilaslakki, which are the graduation caps received and worn by everyone who graduates from high school. From my understanding, a cord tassle hanging down from such a hat is also indicative the wearer is a graduate of an engineering degree (I guess Nokia emerged here after all). The video I took a couple of years ago also shows the annual ritual at 6pm on Vappu eve, where randomly selected students are hoisted on a crane, who then lower a graduation cap onto a famous city centre statue, a ritual action in what seemingly unifies the whole country.

Alongside currents students at this event, all other adults in the crowds and picnics wear their graduation caps also (without exception it seems). With the high regard for Finnish education globally (in my view this is merited for many, many reasons) its easy to conclude a huge part of that very success is the socialisation that education in very important, worthwhile, and valued in its own right (not as a means to an end). To quote a UK resident of Finland I was speaking with recently, who has been here many years - "Finlands most valued resource is its people".


This makes me think of celebrations in schools in general - what is valued, and what is nurtured; achievement over attainment? - what has the stronger cultural value? Most international schools globally offer a 4 year diploma, awarded upon school graduation. Perhaps if we value achievement more, the conclusion of every year could be marked by a community reflection and celebration upon those very achievements of that year: what has been learnt, and how far students have developed, and perhaps also celebrating each year of high school being a collective further 25% achievement of a high school diploma (such recognition being different to a head teachers honour roll assembly, in that there is a communal recognition).

Graduation caps and university overalls in Finland can be seen as symbols of participation, community membership and inclusion; not about status hierarchy formation; the former points are in my view why education works so well in this nation; which perhaps is worth thoughtful consideration by other national systems and cultures of education.

More info here from Finnish media.

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