This school year, more than 70 percent of Finland’s sixth-graders will undertake a similar experience through a program called Yrityskylä (“Me & MyCity” in English). This initiative has gained traction in this Nordic country, growing from a 2010 pilot group of 800 sixth-graders to 45,000 students annually, who visit one of eight different locations throughout the country. The Me & MyCity program is organized by Finland’s Economic Information Office (a 70-year-old nonprofit), and its costs are covered through the Ministry of Education and Culture, municipalities, private foundations, and a handful of Finnish corporations that are featured as actual businesses in the learning environment.
When Tomi Alakoski—executive director of Me & MyCity and a professional acquaintance of mine—envisioned this widespread initiative and pitched it to the Economic Information Office years ago, he was told by a (former) board member that it was a crazy idea and it would never work. Alakoski didn’t give up easily. He noticed that, during his earlier years as a classroom teacher, his fifth- and sixth-grade students were eager to learn beyond the walls of their school—through trips to a nearby forest and a Helsinki arts center, for example. He dreamed of seeing Finland’s elementary-school children learning about entrepreneurship and working life through an experiential approach.
Although Me & MyCity is already internationally recognized as innovative, this Finnish learning model was in part inspired by an American program called “BizTown,” started by an organization called Junior Achievement. According to Pasi Sahlberg (my colleague and the author of Finnish Lessons 2.0), Finland has a habit of borrowing pedagogical ideas from the United States, developing them, and implementing them on a national scale. But why hasn’t America done the same with its own innovative learning concepts?
Sahlberg told me it has to do with a difference in national educational policy: “Much of what goes on in American schools is about what school boards decide,” he said. But in Finland, Sahlberg explained, there is a clear, agreed-upon national educational policy, which “sets the priorities, values, and main directions for the entire system”—and this ultimately provides the nation’s educators with sufficient leeway to implement ideas like Me & MyCity.
The learning benefits of Me & MyCity are compelling, based on research presented at the Association of European Economics Education conference in August. In this recent study, about 900 Finnish sixth-graders completed two surveys (a pre- and post-test) with multiple-choice questions seeking to gauge their economic knowledge and (reported) savings behavior. Here’s a sample question: “A library is a public service. How are its costs covered?” Based on the results, Panu Kalmi—a professor of economics at Finland’s University of Vaasa and the author of the study—concluded that participation in Me & MyCity was “clearly” associated with greater economic knowledge. Furthermore, more than 75 percent of sixth-graders reported that the program increased their interest in economic issues and saving money. According to Kalmi, this shows that these students felt motivated by Me & MyCity. In fact, the researcher found that those sixth-graders whose interest in saving money had grown substantially (after completing the program) also reported a significant increase in their own savings behavior.