Updated: Jun 5, 2022
Spoiler alert ahead…
In one of Disney’s recent films, “Raya and the Last Dragon”, Sisu is the name of the last surviving dragon of the kingdom of Kumandra. GEA Finland program alumni know about the word “sisu”, a Finnish concept explained by sisu researcher Emilia Lahti as “extraordinary determination, courage, and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. An action mindset which enables individuals to see beyond their present limitations and into what might be. Taking action against the odds and reaching beyond observed capacities. An integral element of Finnish culture, and also a universal capacity for which the potential exists within all individuals.” Sisu is often brought up when Finns talk about the miraculous and brave circumstances during WWII that helped them to maintain their freedom.
Disney has acknowledged the Finnish heritage of the name explaining that it “directly mirrors Sisu’s brave and optimistic personality in the movie”. It goes on to say that ”Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage” (see Disney Wiki).
Unlike the stoic, brave Finnish soldiers, Sisu is boisterous and funny and on a surface level does not appear to be terribly brave or self-confident. But as the five kingdoms of Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail -split from Kumandra long before the story starts- fight each other, Sisu’s real superpower is revealed; in the end it is her ability to keep believing the best in other people and trusting in them that ends up uniting the five kingdoms and saving them from a dark force.
This approach is not without difficulty or complexity. In fact, at points during the movie it is easy to see Sisu’s actions as naive and the possibility of her approach failing. Some of the characters she innately trusts do not seem to “have earned” the trust extended to them but Sisu believes it is still the way to go. In the end the trust that she extends to the people around her creates the communal resolve to dispel the dark forces that threaten them all and bring the kingdoms together.
It is not surprising that “sisu” and the ability to trust is woven into the same narrative, as extending trust to others can sometimes require “extraordinary determination, courage, and resoluteness” that is sustained over time, but the success stories of systems, communities as well as classrooms that are built on trust speak for themselves. Finland’s education system is built on trust, for example, and many consider this to be one of the building blocks of the success of Finnish schools (see separate essay and blog post on trust in a diverse, urban school in Finland).
Many schools in the US and elsewhere are also adopting a more trust-centered approach. These schools tend to perform better academically and enjoy more prosocial behavior. Teachers in these systems trust their students are doing the best they can at the moment, despite their sometimes less than stellar attitudes or behavior. The first discussions about student behavior usually revolve around “how are things going at home?”, “did you eat breakfast this morning?”, “what can we do to help you be able to reach your potential?” and even “what are your passions?”, instead of harsher discipline strategies.
Emilia Lahti, a prominent sisu researcher in Finland, speaks of different types of sisu. One of the ones we often forget about, she says, is a kind of “communal sisu”, like the one that helped Finnish soldiers fight during WWII and helped Finland retain its independence. This communal sisu requires that we make and keep bonds of trust that help us move towards a common goal. Sisu, the last dragon of the fictional Disney kingdom of Kumandra, carries this determination through to the end and in an exemplary way that even Finns would be proud of.
Aino Larsen, a Finnish native, is the co-director of GEA. She has taken educators on numerous programs and is passionate about vibrant school cultures. Trust is one of her favorite research topics.
Photo credit Disney.