Blog: I think, therefore I am? Considerations of the focus of PVE in the Finnish Education

A central aim of Finnish basic education is to support pupils' growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life. Indirectly, this ethos entails that all action, behaviours and ideologies that violate this objective are not accepted and need to be prevented. These include hate speech and all forms of racism that are on the rise and that fuel violent extremist movements and ideologies. Education has a central role in addressing and adjusting these developments.

However, the process of growing towards ethically responsible membership of society can take many forms. Education in a free, democratic country cannot start from the restriction of people’s opinions. Thus, even though the “prevention” of extremist thinking and actions is a popular goal set in many countries nowadays, there are at least four aspects that need to be considered when applying this objective in the educational contexts:

  1. First, an ideology means a normative collection of values and beliefs providing a window to see the world. Supporting an ideology needs to be separated from thinking, which implies the processes of considering about something, forming concepts, engaging in problem solving, reasoning and making decisions. These are valuable educational objectives as such. Ideologies include guidance towards behaviors and action, but mere thinking per se cannot be penalized.
  2. Second, the word extremist indicates a marginalized position in the periphery of normality. However, declaring an ideology extremist is dubious without a widely accepted common understanding of what constitutes a mainstream ideology. Extremist ideology is therefore always a political statement.
  3. Third, supporting an ideology that deviates from the mainstream does not automatically imply that the individual or group aspires to see revolutionary changes in the society. One can live according to one’s values and beliefs peacefully in parallel with the mainstream population. How far is the society allowed to reach in individual minds and lifestyles?
  4. Forth, the concept of extremist thinking carries a negative connotation. However, it is noteworthy that this construct is heavily related to time and space, and to the cultural and religious context where is it used. Thinking or ideology that are considered extreme may be totally mainstream in another society and vise versa. It is important to remember that without fervent supporters of “extremist” ideologies, many forward-looking societal changes – today considered as normative reality – would not have happened.  

All these points considered, what kind of thinking is Finnish basic education trying to promote and in consequence, prevent?

As we point out in our text co-authored with Katja Vallinkoski and published as part of the most recent National Action Plan for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremism in Finland (forthcoming, Ministry of the Interior 2019), the work carried out in early prevention should focus on strengthening the students’ psychological resilience and wellbeing and inclusion that support social cohesion and acceptance of diversity. Likewise, it is central to address the hateful and violent attitudes of students and prevent them from being silently accepted and gradually normalized.

In the framework of PVE (preventing violent extremism) in the Finnish educational context, we thus suggest that instead of aiming to prevent radical or extremist thinking, the focus should be on the prevention and countering of violent attitudes. Attitude refers to a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, thing, or event. Attitudes may be positive or negative, but they are always loaded with evaluations and they are often the result of experience, upbringing or exposure. As attitudes combine thinking with emotions, they can have a powerful influence over behaviour. When supported by/aligned with exclusive, hateful ideologies, violent attitudes may typically manifest in the form of hate, disrespect, discrimination and exclusion towards a specific group of people, or values. Violent attitudes include the acceptance and endorsement of the use of violence and emotional abuse against the object(s) of hate as a means to promote a cause related to it. We thus argue that violent attitudes is a suitable concept for general use in PVE in the Finnish educational contexts, including all age groups and institutions.

Violent attitudes may manifest in children and youth, for example, in the following ways:

  • Simplified understanding about ethical issues; black and white thinking
  • Acceptance or promotion of prejudices, racism and other types of discrimination
  • Acceptance of the use of violence
  • Expressing hate speech and/or violent behavior justified by an ideology

A central mission of basic education is therefore to increase the presence of positive attitudes towards diversity and co-existence and to prevent the proliferation of violent attitudes. This can be fostered by providing the students with knowledge and thinking skills that enable them to recognize the complexities related to ethical issues, increase their understanding about different values and traditions and support their identity formation both as individuals and members of various social groups.

This type of approach is aligned with the framework defined by the national law, international human rights, and the national core curriculum that advocate and guide educators in developing their students’ attitudes in a goal-oriented and ethically sustainable way as a means to help them grow towards humanity and responsible membership of society.