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The Makings of a Great Educational System

After word came out on Finland’s educational success, educators from more than 50 countries have flocked to Finland in an attempt to learn their secret.

In the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Finnish students have usually placed among the top three finishers in reading, math and science in the four times they participated in this assessment. In the latest PISA survey, in 2009, Finland placed second in science literacy, third in mathematics and second in reading. The U.S. came in 15th in reading, close to the OECD average, which is where most of the U.S.’s results fell.

The biggest surprise came from the fact that Finnish highschool students “rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7… Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading.”

So what makes Finnish kids so smart? This is what they found:

1. Well-trained teachers.

In Finland, the teachers must have a master’s degree. Teaching is a highly competitive career with more than 40 individuals applying for a single post. Individuals who want to become teachers go through trainee programs where they work with students while instructors evaluate them (not unlike medical students in a teaching hospital).

2. Educational freedom.

Finnish teachers are given a the freedom to create lessons of their own choosing rather than being forced to follow a set curriculum. They pick their own books and customise their own lessons. In one Finnish school, the students had their Math class outside.

3. Responsible children.

Children are given a lot of autonomy early on. They are encouraged to do things for themselves.

“At the Ymmersta School in a nearby Helsinki suburb, some first-grade students trudge to school through a stand of evergreens in near darkness. At lunch, they pick out their own meals, which all schools give free, and carry the trays to lunch tables. There is no Internet filter in the school library. They can walk in their socks during class, but at home even the very young are expected to lace up their own skates or put on their own skis.”

Unfortunately, this is going to be hard to replicate here. I’m sure Finnish parents can be so relaxed about letting their children walk home from school in such conditions because they don’t have to worry about their children getting kidnapped, robbed, or raped. These days you can’t even go to the market without some strange lady trying to lure your 4 year old away while you’re busy picking vegetables (yup – read this one in the papers recently). The only way we’re going to be able to do this is if we moved to Finland.

4. The Fins love reading.

The Finnish government encourages reading from young.

“Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck.”

We don’t have many libraries here, let alone ones attached to shopping malls. Forget about the book bus. The librarians in one of the few libraries here scolds parents if their children mess up the bookshelves. How’s that for encouragement?

5. Focus on weaker students.

Finnish schools focus on helping their weaker students rather than helping their gifted students get further ahead. When the brighter students finish their work, they get free time to do what they want or to help the other students who are lagging behind.

6. Less competition.

College is free and there is no competition to get into the “right” schools. Reducing the pressure on children allows them to enjoy school and learning. And we’re back to right brain education philosophy. Here’s an example of how relaxed they are:

“During a recent afternoon in one of his school’s advanced math courses, a high-school boy fell asleep at his desk. The teacher didn’t disturb him, instead calling on others. While napping in class isn’t condoned, Mr. Erma says, “We just have to accept the fact that they’re kids and they’re learning how to live.””

I certainly can’t imagine that happening here.

I had hoped that when I read this article it would be something we could implement here. Sure there are bits we can do – like encourage reading – but the only way to fully implement a program like this is to move to Finland. Or there’s homeschooling…

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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