Finland’s Educational System

Jun 2, 2013 by

Finland’s educational system has often been voted the best in the world. Its students often rank at the top of international rankings in reading, math, and science.

This small nation not only is constantly rated as having a high quality of life, but now one of the best school systems in the world. What’s different about it? recently had an article citing these various special things about the Finnish school system:

  • Finnish children don’t start school until they are 7.
  • There is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken when children are 16. (we don’t believe in many standardized tests either)
  • The children are not measured at all for the first six years of their education.
  • They rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens.
  • 30 percent of children receive extra help during their first nine years of school.  (as a boarding school, we provide this type of help all the time)
  • Science classes are capped at 16 students so that they may perform practical experiments in every class.
  • 43 percent of Finnish high-school students go to vocational schools.
  • Elementary school students get 75 minutes of recess a day in Finnish versus an average of 27 minutes in the US. (we structure our activities so that many seem like “recess”)
  • Teachers only spend 4 hours a day in the classroom, and take 2 hours a week for “professional development.”
  • The national curriculum is only broad guidelines. (we fulfill the national curriculum requirements, but also teach things, such as the classics, in our own unique way)
  • Teachers are given the same status as doctors and lawyers (this idea of respecting teachers is a standard feature of Chinese culture)
Compared with the typical Asian school model, which stresses an incredible amount of cramming and rote memorization,   Finland schools   assign much less homework then most school systems and like the Taihu School, engage children in more creative play. You can read more about the Finnish model in the book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, by Pasi Sahlberg, who is the director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility.

Finland is getting such fantastic results, but the funny thing is that it is doing almost everything opposite to what America is doing with its school reforms. This is another reason why we should have the courage to structure our schools according to Chinese principles that are not necessarily shared with Western culture.

An example is the absence in Finland of standardized tests, which now dominate the American educational system to its detriment. The increasingly heard complaint is that now American teachers must teach their students solely with the objective of having them pass these tests. This is not delivering quality education and certainly doesn’t prepare them for life. As at the Taihu School,   teachers  assess children  using independent tests they create themselves.   Furthermore, all students  in Finland receive a report card at the end of every semester, but these reports do not reference national standards but are based on individualized grading conducted by each teacher.

What do teachers want in the Finnish system? Most have Masters degrees, and like everyone else they want  prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.  They want to be in charge of what they teach and how they teach it.  It is the principal’s responsibility to notice if a teacher is bad (not doing their job) and to deal with the situation.

How did the system develop into where it now stands, which is a model of international excellence?

It started because of what I term a “unified mind” of policymakers, which is mentioned in our book, The Taihu School.

In an article from The Atlantic,  Anu Partanen said:  ”Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.”

The point of this is that policymakers can decide what a country needs, and then design an educational system to satisfy such goals. While the American and European public education systems were originally constructed along the lines of Prussian military training in order to produce standardized individuals who could serve the interests of the state, in today’s world we need to foster more creativity, inventiveness and entrepreneurship. The Western systems are not designed to do so, but the nation that seizes the lead in doing this will slowly develop a clear advantage over other countries in terms of national prosperity and the aggregate level of  happiness and public  welfare of its citizens.


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