It depends how you count ’em…” has been a constant refrain through the cultural education exchange visit in Finland I made in March as part of the Culture for Cities and Regions project, funded by Eurocities. Whether it’s golf courses in Espoo (7 or 8), municipalities in Helsinki (4 or 14) or lakes in Finland (187,888 plus or minus), it all depends on how you count them. For phenomena which you might think are pretty unequivocal (when is a golf course not a golf course?), it turns out that there is a lot more to a thing than meets the eye.
Walking along the coast line of the Tooivo Kuulas park one morning you could see why. One moment the lake looks like an impressively large pond; the next it stretches way off into the distance and conjures up memories of Balaton Lake in Hungary; yet soon enough you find out that it’s not a lake at all but just another link in the supply chain to the Baltic Sea.
It struck me that the same case could be said for student attainment. How can a country’s education system said to be performing well? Through its ratings on the PISA scale? Numbers of students who graduate into work on completion of their undergraduate study? Aggregated ratings on a mental health scale of well being? Like the lakes in Finland, it depends on how you count them. My top PISA rating may be nothing more than a drop in your Baltic Sea when it comes to evaluating the relevance those ratings have on learners’ lives.
Whilst it’s temporarily startling that Espoo has a disputed number of golf courses in its territory, it is comforting to think that if we can’t count golf courses with confidence, we can confidently be a little less confident about the value of numbers when it comes to understanding the effects of cultural education on our children.