Kirjoittanut effefinland | 16.9.2010

Things we do with values

Antti Paakkarin esitelmä Tallinnan yliopistolla Puhutut ja eletyt arvot erilaisissa pedaogisissa ympäristöissä -konferenssissa 4.6.2010.


Things we do with values

I would like to start by making some theoretical remarks on values. I would like to study the question of what we can do with values and on the other hand what we cannot. First I will look at the concept of value and then examine how values are used in different organizations. What can we deduce from a value and what is its concrete meaning? Then I will focus a little bit on education and look at values that are common there. What is their relationship to the concrete reality in school and students experiences? Finally I will try to see if there is an alternative way of approaching the questions we try to answer with values. I hope this small discussion will also offer insight to the current questions in Finnish schools.

1. What are values?

Let’s start with examinining the concept and notion of value. The need to talk about values or ”re-evaluate” them is often brought up in social debates, whether they concern education, work enviroment or migration. There has also been talk of ”changing values” or values becoming ”harder”. It seems that in this kind of reasoning the values are perceived as the cause and starting point of action which then lead to an outcome. If the outcome is unwanted it is because the values were wrong and the solution is therefore to change the values.

However, when we look at values that guide large businesses or schools we can find things like closeness, fairness, individuality, flexibility and so on – which are things most people approve. So if the values are not bad as such, what can we achieve by changing them?

This brings us to the definition of value. Values are someting that are intrinsically good. There was a survey in one Finnish community (Kittilä in 2007) where the parents were asked what are the values they considered most important for a good childhood. I mentioned some of them a moment ago but the whole list includes – in this order – love, security, closeness, fairness, tranquility, individualilty, playfulness, cosiness, caring, humanity, planning, flexibility, learning, creativity and eco-frindliness. We can see that all these values are good things. There are no bad values. Values are a list of good things from which one can choose the ones they like the most. Or to look at this another way: is it possible to actively oppose a value? It is very difficult. Who could oppose love? Or closeness, fairness, humanity?

This can be seen explicitly when we look at values of different companies.

  • University of Helsinki: criticality, creativity, striving towards knowledge and truth.
  • University if Tallinn: academic quality, solidarity and collegiality, procedural transparency and simplicity, openness and an outward focus on society.
  • Nokia: engaging you, achieving together (trust, sharing), passion for innovation (living out our dreams, finding courage to leap into the future through technological innovation), very human (respecting, caring).
  • A private security company Otso (responsible for many of the security guards in downtown Helsinki): customer-oriented and dynamic service, upright and diligent operations, always looking after our own. This company actually has a story of five little bears that one day decide to join together and bring joy and strength to others.
  • Catering company Sodexo that has eg. been critizised for its military activities and detention centres that it owns: transparency, loyalty and respect for people.
  • Finnish Prison Department: respect for human values and fairness. The possibility for an individual to grow and change.
  • BP: progressive, responsible, innovative, performance driven. BP’s responsibility and innovativeness have been on display in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill during most of 2010.
  • Vaajakoski high school: respect for each other and school’s partners, trust, fairness, openness, responsibility.

We can see that it is possible for companies that operate in completely different fields and aim at totally different results to have values that are quite close to each other. What can we say of the significance of values on this basis?

Another way of looking at the concept of value is to examine its history. As Tuomas Nevanlinna and Jukka Relander point out their book Työn sanat, a common way of referring to values is to bemoan that society is slipping into a ”value vacuum” and ”economic values” are surpassing ”human values”. They point out that value, first and foremost, is always an economical concept. Its primary meaning has been the variable value of money. The concept was borrowed to ethics from economics in the end of 19th century. This is why talking about values is always to model ethics on the basis of economical logic. Nevanlinna and Relander point out that we cannot critizise economic thought with economic concepts; we cannot critizise economics with values because as a concept value already presupposes a number of objects and a subject (consumer) who makes a choice between them. Value presupposes someone who makes a rational choice between values. We can say that it produces an economical subjectivity.

When we look at the values I have mentioned so far we can also see that they are fairly general and unspecific, if almost vague. It is easy to mention creativity as a value but much harder to find a specific meaning for the word or – what’s more important – say if a given situation is creative or not. Therefore it is almost impossible to point to a value and say that we are not operating according to it. It is impossible to find water-tight values. Somebody can always claim that they have a slightly different view of the concept and according to their view everyhting is all right. This is why it’s possible to have prisons that have humanity as a value and so on. Value is vague and unspecific by definition because it needs to be.

2. What are values in the reality of the school?

So far we have seen that values are not specific and it is hard to deduce any conrete meaning from them. Different actors can have similar values even if their actions are diametrically opposed. What can we then do with values? I will now try to look at values in concrete school reality.

University of Helsinki states that its values are criticality, creativity, striving towards knowledge and truth. Jussi Vähämäki has pointed out that new university structure aims at separating education and research (ie. producing university degrees as quickly as possible). It also aims at creating a division between researchers and reserarch managers: research goals are set by managers and are no longer connected with the researchers themselves. The individual researchers only ”perform” the research that has been given to them. (Vähämäki 2006, 156). Co-operation becomes difficult since other people are seen as potential competitors. As a result, Vähämäki says, ”the university becomes a factory that produces standardized precarity that has no ability to independent life and on the other hand is also incapable of co-operation precisely because of the lack of said indepedence – since everyone fears that the next person will steal the job that has been given to them.” (Vähämäki 2006, 159.) So it can be quite easily argued that the values of Helsinki University do not actually correspond to what’s happening in reality.

Researchers’ and students’ own experiences about the life in university during the last few years bring out common themes: loss of independence, precarity, increase in control measures, difficulty in securing long-term funding, few possibilities to influence own work environment, more byrocracy. These are just some of the experiences my friends quickly related to me. To me it seems that these things tell us much more about the institution than its proclaimed values.

What about school then? The situation in Finland is ambivalent in many ways: on the other hand we have had some success in PISA tests and many visitors coming from other countries wondering why the test results are so good. On the other hand studies – for example WHO’s HSBC (Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children) – have shown that teasing is a common problem in Finnish schools and students don’t enjoy themselves there. So instead of all the beautiful proclaimed values we can find common experiences: lack of time, stress, teasing, bad working environment and so on. Again, to me, these seem to tell me a lot more of the school system and can be seen as its actual products or effects.

Another point that exemplifies the often empty nature of value debates is the discussion about group sizes in primary schools. For a few years already one of the main points in public discussion has been the fact that group sizes are generally too big, that there are too many pupils in the classroom. The point was first raised by teachers, then their trade unions, then the regional governments and also all the political parties. Before last elections all parties from left to right were united in their commitment to make group sizes smaller and everyone considered it to be the single biggest problem in Finnish schools. After the elections the new government woved to do something about it. So on the level of values everyone was and still is absolutely united: group sizes are too big, something needs to be done. No-one is against this. In reality practically nothing has happened. Recent studies show that group sizes are still relatively big and students, teachers and parents don’t really feel that the situation has gotten better. How is this possible? I think this situation is actually quite typical: on the level of values everybody agrees but when it comes to actually doing something, nothing happens.

3. If not values then what?

We have looked at some of the problems with values. Could there be an alternative approach? I think that one way of approaching this question could be to collect and share experiences with people in different institutions: students, school staff, parents. This way we could make a concrete analysis of for example the power relations in schools. Who uses power, in what kind of situations, how do the students experience their position inside the school, how do they experience the effects of power on themselves, what kinds of power do they feel they have?

There are many points that could be examined. One is the architecture of school. Another is looking at curriculums, official documents, legislations etc. which could help us trace the functioning of power mechanisms. A central question is: what kind of subjectivity the school produces? In other words how it teaches us to think? What kind of knowledge it makes possible? Which are the things that seem inevitable and which impossible? As Michel Foucault has shown, it is possible to study phenomena in school as techniques that produce certain effects. (Foucault 2007, 116–118.) I feel that these effects often tell us more about schools than values.

For example to some extent teasing (which has been a central problem in Finland for a long time) can be studied as something that is a product of the school system and its power relations, architecture and so on. Therefore it is not enough to say that teasing is just a problem that should and could be eliminated or to say that we have basic values like respect for others and everyone should simply learn to respect the values. We need to study teasing as a phenomenon, share our own experiences of teasing and analyze it as a product of the school system. Foucault points out that it is not productive to regard these phenomena as mistakes or unintended consequenses. If we analyze them as a part of the school system it is possible to determine their place in the symbolic economy of the school and to see the role they play in school. Phenomena like teasing are not mistakes or accidents but a reflected part of the techniques of power functioning in school system. Foucault emphasizes that we should not only analyze institutions on the basis of what they claim to do (educate) but situate them in an external point of view of strategies and tactics of power (Foucault 2007, 118).

4. Conclusion

In my opinion the most important thing is that we proceed through analysis of the concrete situations the students face in school. Perhaps we shoud look at values as something that are always evident in school and can be deduced from its everyday activity and not as something that are abstarctly floating around in government programs or public debates. One alternative to talking about values is to concretely analyze the practises and power relations inside the school and try to hand the power back to the students. This is a process that many alternative and critical pedagogies know very well.


  • Foucault, Michel (2007): Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kittilän kunta: tietoa varhaiskavatuksesta.
  • Nevanlinna, Tuomas & Relander, Jukka (2006): Työn sanat. Helsinki: Teos.
  • Vähämäki, Jussi (2006): ”Yliopisto”. Teoksessa Jakonen & Peltokoski & Virtanen (toim.) Uuden työn sanakirja. Helsinki: Tutkijaliitto.
  • World Health Organization: Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Study.


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