SPIEGEL: Mr. Parvela, Finland was again one of the top countries in the Pisa survey when reading. Finnish students can read so well that some people get jealous in Germany. Bad tongues claim that reading skills stem from the fact that Finnish children, surrounded by nothing but lakes and forests, simply picked up the book out of boredom.
Timo Parvela: No, people are wrong. We Finns have other hobbies. For example, we knock over trees in the dark, swim in an ice hole that we previously knocked in the ceiling of a frozen lake, or sweat in the sauna. Unfortunately, the Internet also works in Finland. That is why we have the same time thieves at work as everywhere, and they also steal time and attention from our children for books.
SPIEGEL: Despite this, the Finnish schoolchildren regularly do very well on the subject of reading skills despite a slight deterioration. How do you explain that?
Parvela: One reason is certain that our primary schools want to give children the pleasure of reading. We don't have compulsory books that every child has to read. Instead, we assume that every child will find exactly the right book for them to look forward to. There are also no extensive exams on the content of books or homework related to reading.
SPIEGEL: Paradisiacal conditions if you ask German students.
Parvela: Yes, on the other hand you have to say: Finland has the largest gap between girls and boys of all OECD countries when it comes to reading. Fewer and fewer boys are interested in reading. So it comes as no surprise to me that significantly more boys than girls run the risk of being left behind and marginalized.
SPIEGEL: What can you do about it?
Parvela: Personally, I tried to write children's books that maybe boys particularly like and that also encourage interest in books among children who don't normally read.
Excerpt from: Parvela, Timo: Pekka's secret records - The crazy fishing trip. Hanser 2017
SPIEGEL: Bring the weaker children along and inspire them to read - Germany is not particularly good at that. What makes Finland better?
Parvela: Unlike in Germany, we have a primary school in which all students learn from the first to the ninth grade, nobody is sorted out on the way. This gives late bloomers the chance to improve. Finnish success is mainly based on conformity, the offer is the same for everyone, the quality of the schools is very similar everywhere. We have only a few private schools and try to pull even the weakest children to the end.
SPIEGEL: In the end, the Finnish 15-year-olds performed worse at Pisa than before.
Parvela: Yes, other countries were better, and we Finns were happy again because we had a reason to feel sorry for ourselves. The Finnish way of dealing with good results or praise is to have doubts as to whether both are deserved. For example, when we were at the top of the ranking, we suspected that these tests had been carried out incorrectly. What strikes me about the current Pisa results: Finland is the only country in which both the results and the satisfaction of the children with their own lives are at a high level compared to other top countries.
SPIEGEL: And that's probably because all children in Finland have as much fun at school as Ella, Pekka and Co. from their books.
Excerpt: Ella at school - in the swimming pool
"In the pool, the teacher placed us in a row." Put the soap on the edge of the pool, "he said to Pekka, who probably thought the pool was a huge bathtub." Swimming is fun. Asked our teacher. So of course we wanted to show him what we can do and jumped into the water. Immediately after us the teacher jumped into the water and saved Timo, Pekka, Tiina and Heidi who could not swim at all. We were surprised that the teacher came into the pool in his clothes. Of course we all had our swimsuits and swimming trunks. Only Mika didn’t. His swimming trunks lay on the bottom of the pool. He had forgotten to tie them up. We all had a lot of fun. Everyone screamed terribly and we sprayed our teacher wet. Our teacher screamed too, but nobody could hear what because there was such a terrible noise. "
Parvela: The stories are made up, of course, but it's true that teachers and students, like Ella, have a close relationship. It is also true that Finnish schools have a lot of freedom and do a lot to promote the joy of learning. In the past few years, however, there have also been some types of school that I did not find all of them right, for example regarding the use of technologies in the classroom.
SPIEGEL: In your books you learn that Finnish teachers are paid very badly. Or is that what makes the Finnish school system so successful?
Parvela: Haha, the fact that the teacher in the Ella books feels that they are underpaid in relation to the demands of the job is more his own view of things. Finnish teachers' salaries are fairly average compared to the OECD. But it is true: the salary is never the reason that a person becomes a teacher in Finland. It's much easier to make the same money differently. One of the secrets of success of the Finnish school system is most likely that the teachers are very motivated and very well trained.
SPIEGEL: You were a teacher yourself before you became a children's book author. What did you do to motivate your students to read?
Parvela: The last time I was a teacher was 25 years ago, I enjoyed my job, but I wasn't the hardest working teacher. In fact, I came up with a five-minute rule: if I was in the school building five minutes after the end of the last lesson, I had failed.
The reality is very different these days, I see that with my wife, who is also a teacher and who spends many hours at school after class. Back then I didn't have to do much to motivate children to read. They had an automatically built-in enthusiasm for books. Because reading was of particular importance for the development of Finnish society, also in terms of equal opportunities.
SPIEGEL: When you read your books, you wish your child a teacher just like Ella, Pekka and the other second graders have. Were you one of those?
Excerpt: Ella at school - "Are they your children?"
"You're just a good person," said the teacher's wife, leaning against him. Hanna and quickly brought her a chair [because she was pregnant], but she didn't need one. She said she was leaning against the teacher because she loved him so much. And because we all love our teacher, we wanted to lean on him now. It looked funny how everyone suddenly leaned against the teacher in the middle of the restaurant. The small, fat bus driver almost choked on his schnitzel with laughter. "Your children?" The waiter asked the teacher. "Yes," said the teacher. "Everyone?" Asked the waiter. "And the next one is already on its way," sighed the teacher, patting his wife's belly. "
Parvela: The teacher in the Ella books is probably the kind of teacher I would have been if I hadn't been smart enough to change jobs for the children's benefit. He loves children and likes his work, but he also complains about everything and wants his job to be valued more. I think the teacher is probably not perfect, but lovable because he is very human.
SPIEGEL: How did it come about that you became an author?
Parvela: Autumn and winter in Finland are long, cold and dark, and especially in my childhood, libraries were the only public places where children and teenagers could warm up and where it was possible to see something without a flashlight. I spent a lot of time in the library. This made me want to write my own stories.
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SPIEGEL: You came from reading to writing?
Parvela: Many people don't quite understand that there is a connection between reading and writing. I think the best evidence is a study that found the Finnish vocabulary of a 17-year-old who read a lot was a few tens of thousands of words, while the non-reader's vocabulary was just a few thousand words. It is much easier to write if you have a full set of tools.
SPIEGEL: What could German teachers learn from Finnish teachers?
Parvela: I don't want to take any advice because I have great respect for all teachers regardless of their country. But professionals can learn something from other professionals: when I appear as a writer in Germany on my reading trips, my first request is usually to remove the huge table between me and my audience.
I don't need it to gain authority. I prefer direct, warm contact between me and my readers. Maybe you can think about it?