I Searched for Joy in Finland’s “Common Core”

In 2018, the United Nations recognized Finland as the happiest country in the world. (And then again in 2019, 2020, and 2021.) Naturally, I found myself wondering if I could find “joy” in the Finnish national core curriculum. Curious, I grabbed my iPad, pulled up Finland’s curriculum for basic education (grades 1-9), and ran a quick word search. Here’s what I found:

  • The word “joy” appears 49 times in Finland’s “Common Core.”

49 seemed like a large number, but what did I know? Without comparing the data to results from another country’s core curriculum, I couldn’t be sure. I started wondering again: What if I ran the same word search within the U.S. Common Core State Standards?

I decided to give it a whirl, and the results revealed a major difference:

The matches in the literacy standards offered some hope. However, my optimism dried up as I worked through the results. One was a match related to the author named Joy Hakim. Another was a part of an example for the proper use of a comma (“It was a fascinating, enjoyable movie.” (p. 52).

I found the other two examples buried in two lengthy sentences:

  1. “Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature.” (p.3)
  • “Many of the titles listed above are meant to supplement carefully structured independent reading with books to read along with a teacher or that are read aloud to students to build knowledge and cultivate a joy in reading.” (p.32)

To sum up, among the U.S. Core’s 159 pages there are only two legitimate matches when you search for “joy.” Finland’s Core, on the other hand, frequently speaks to the value of joyful learning. Check out this quote from the Finnish national core curriculum:

The joy of doing things together and making discoveries, which influences learning motivation, is … vital.” (p.34)

Here’s another:

“There must be room for reflection, insight, discovery, invention, imagination, and the joy of learning.” (p. 158)

And one more for now:

“Positive emotional experiences, the joy of learning and creative activities promote learning and inspire the pupils to develop their competence.” (p.24)

Finland makes it clear that joy and academic success are not mutually exclusive: they go hand in hand. And there is a growing body of research that supports this idea.

Researchers Lauren Schiller and Christina Hinton conducted a study involving more than 400 students at St. Andrews in Potomac, Maryland that explored the connection between happiness and student achievement. “[O]n average,” they reported, “students who reported being happier had higher grades.” The scholars concluded that there is a significant correlation between academic achievement and happiness. (Their findings aligned with another study, which focused on early adolescents; this different group of researchers found a correlation between life satisfaction and student achievement when they studied more than 800 middle school students.)

The Finns get it. Their core curriculum—with its 49 references to “joy”—demonstrates this belief that happiness and academic success work together. Notably, Finland was the only nation where both life satisfaction and reading proficiency were rated “high” for its teenagers in the 2018 PISA study.

Emphasizing joy in their core curriculum might be relatively new for the Finns, but they’ve known about its educational power for decades. This old Finnish proverb I learned says it all: “What you learn without joy, you will forget easily.”

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Now I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of Finland’s emphasis on joy? Should other countries follow suit? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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