The hands-on society, or why Finns are such good engineers

In Finnish schools, all students study craft and design for two hours a week. This might be the reason why engineering know-how in Finland is on such a high level – not only do people learn things in theory, they also learn them in practice.

Jukka Karhula has built his summer cottage himself, despite a busy working life.

A COUPLE of years ago, when Jukka Karhula wanted a summer cottage for him and his family, there was no question of how it was going to come about: Karhula would build it himself. This, even though he is the CEO of a medium-sized company, and consequently does not have much spare time in his day-to-day life.

“Ten years ago, I built the house I and my family live in, so building a summer cottage felt like a minor project in comparison”, Karhula chuckles.

In many ways, Jukka Karhula is a typical Finn: he likes doing things with his own two hands – building, in particular. He believes one explanation for this lies in the compulsory craft and design education all Finns attend in school, from first to seventh grade.

“Trying my hands at building different things in school made me unafraid to start bigger build- ing projects later in life, even though I don’t have any formal training in building. Doing things with your own hands is a wonderful balance to work, where you mostly sit by a computer and use your brain. Building also develops logical thinking, so surely, my hobby has also indirectly benefited my work.”

In craft and design, pupils learn to measure and count, and they get a concrete understanding of what maths and physics are all about.

MOST PEOPLE who live in developed countries are in the same situation as Jukka Karhula: they use their brains, rather than their hands, at work. We also spend more and more of our time off in front of different screens.

It is not necessarily a healthy development, notes Mia Porko-Hudd, professor in craft and design at Åbo Akademi University: “If our only contact with reality consists of moving our index finger on a glass surface, well, then perhaps we miss out on quite a lot. After all, we live in a physical world.”

According to Porko-Hudd, you gain a deeper understanding of how things are connected by using your hands in addition to your brain. Therefore, she is glad the Finnish school system has kept craft and design, or “sloyd” as the subject is also called, as a compulsory subject. All students in Finland study craft and design for two hours a week from first to seventh grade. The subject entails teaching students how to design and create artefacts from different materials, such as yarn, fabrics, wood and metal.

“Generally, I believe you learn better if you implement things in practice and not only plan them in theory. In sloyd you have the opportunity to make other school subjects concrete, such as mathematics and physics. You measure and count and get a concrete understanding of how long a metre is. In addition, you learn how to put your ideas into practice and gain a lot of training in problem solving – there’s no right or wrong in sloyd”, explains Porko-Hudd about the benefits of the subject.

THUS, working with your hands not only offers a break from a hectic workday, it also adds value on a deeper level. Research points to the positive benefits of activating your hands – writing by hand, for example, stimulates more areas of the brain than writing on a keyboard. Finland is known as a country that highly values engineering skills – it is, for instance, common that many CEOs and leaders are engineers, while the same positions in other countries are held by economists and lawyers. The Finnish engineer is perhaps special in the sense that he, from a very young age, has learned to build things with his own hands, and not only masters his trade on a theoretical level.

In Ostrobothnia, craftmanship lives on professionally perhaps even to a wider extent than in many other parts of Finland. The region hosts a large cluster of boating companies, who manufacture both motorboats and sailboats. The bigger, the more expensive and the more luxurious the boats are, the more handiwork their manufacturing requires. The skilled craftsmen who today polish a teak deck on a superyacht have all made their first trials and errors in the craft back when they were in school.

“If you study these subjects in school every week for several years, the skills stay in your hands and in muscle memory. The body remembers what to do”, explains Porko-Hudd, and adds that children naturally do not only learn in school how to work with their hands.

“Of course, many do similar things at home. The school system always mirrors society and craft and design has a good position in our schools because these skills are also valued in society. In many countries craftmanship has a lower status, and schools traditionally concentrate on theoretical knowledge.

In the past years, the Finnish school system has become world-famous, as its students perform so well in the PISA assessment, which compares school systems in different countries. Can the reason behind Finland’s successes partly be that students obtain a deeper understanding of theoretical subjects by combining them with the practical craft and design subject?

“It’s difficult to say, as craft and design as a sub- ject has never been studied in the PISA survey. But I believe Finland generally does well in PISA because we have a school system that teaches a wide range of subjects, which give a holistic view of the world and of us as human beings. Through this, we develop all parts of our being; after all, we’re not only our heads”, says Porko-Hudd.

FOR JUKKA Karhula there is another dimension to working with his hands that he appreciates – the social aspect. The Finnish word “talkoot” is difficult to translate, but refers to a gathering of people, who jointly create something without any personal economic gain.

According to Mia Porko-Hudd, you gain a deeper understanding of how things are connected by using your hands in addition to your brain.

“Before I built my own house and my own summer cottage, I had taken part in loads of building projects at my family and friends. It’s a nice way to spend time together. At the same time, it’s learning by doing – having seen others build, the threshold wasn’t so high to start my own house project.”

Despite a tradition of “talkoot” and the compulsory craft and design classes in school, the fact is that many Finns also follow the general global trend of spending more and more of their time “moving their index finger on a glass surface”. Building your own house and sewing your own clothes has become less common.

At the same time, there is a countertrend both in Finland and the rest of the world, which probably is based on a yearning to use one’s own hands and see concrete results of one’s efforts. The web is exploding with DIY videos, and knitting and crafts is experiencing an upswing.

“In terms of sustainability, sloyd has much to offer. What could be more sustainable than being able to repair your own clothes and things when they rip or break? Craft and design as a subject provides a balance to our throwaway culture, and has the important task of raising our students to become conscious consumers”, says Porko-Hudd.

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