Why Finland’s Education System is the Best in the World

No Child Left Behind, with its accelerated education practices and emphasis on standardized testing, seems to be leaving many American children behind much of the industrialized world, according to a new global table of education, produced for the Intelligence Unit of The Economist. The U.S. is ranked 17th in education, far below first-place Finland and many other countries. Read why Finland has the best education system in the world.

What are their secrets?

For one, Finnish children don’t start school until age 7. (Waldorf education advocates that children not read until 7.) Phenomenally, Finnish students only take one standardized test, and that is at the age of 16. By that age, a typical American child will have taken dozens of standardized tests, and will have spent much educational time preparing for them, at the expense of other learning and discovery. Finnish elementary school students receive 75 minutes of recess per day, as opposed to an average of 27 minutes in the U.S. There is very little homework.

Education in Finland is 100% state subsidized, as is teacher training. The results of all this attention to teacher support and developmentally appropriate learning, free time and play? 93 percent of Finns graduate from high school, a figure that is 17.5 percent higher than that in the U.S.

Some might point to Finland’s smaller size or relative homogeneity as possible reasons for their success, but their success is notably higher than other Scandinavian countries, which have similar demographics and diversity. 30 U.S. states have populations equal to or less than Finland’s, at 5.5 million.

This article from The Atlantic notes that Finland’s acclaimed education system owes much to the idea of economic equity.

Read more about why Finland’s education system is Number One.

So how does the U.S. educational system stack up against that of other countries? According to a 2011 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year-olds scored at the international average of industrialized nations in science and reading, and below the international average in math.

The above article goes on to note that high-performing countries recruit and retain talented teachers. It noted some interesting cultural differences, as well. For instance, Japanese students are encouraged to struggle through problems more than American students are. According to UCLA psychology professor James Stigler, who studied the Japanese educational system:

American students “aren’t socialized to struggle hard. They’re socialized to put their hands up and say, ‘I don’t know.’ ” While Japanese parents would be inclined to tell a child’s teacher, “Thank you for helping my kid struggle,” American parents are more inclined to say, “Why are you torturing my kid?”

That’s a very interesting point that speaks to many parents’ well-meaning, but sometimes misguided, attempts to rush in and fix perceived problems, a habit that ultimately robs their children of essential problem-solving skills and the mastery and confidence that come with them.

The original Economist report quoted above makes some of the same key recommendations about economic success in its Five lessons for education policymakers:

  • There are no magic bullets
  • Respect teachers
  • Culture can be changed
  • Parents are neither impediments to nor saviors of education
  • Educate for the future, not just the present

And this comes from NYU Research Professor of Education and Former U.S. Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, in her review of Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? in the New York Review of Books:

U.S. policymakers have turned to market-based solutions such as “tougher competition, more data, abolishing teacher unions, opening more charter schools, or employing corporate-world management models.” By contrast, Finland has spent the past forty years developing a different education system, one that is focused on improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals.

The last word about our (relatively unsuccessful) competition-driven, test-obsessed educational model will have to go to Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience:

If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.

These are Top 20 Countries in the World, in Education, as ranked by the global table of education:

  • Finland
  • South Korea
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • UK
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Switzerland
  • Canada
  • Ireland
  • Denmark
  • Australia
  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • USA
  • Hungary
  • Slovakia
  • Russia

More reading (some of these are referenced above):

Why Finland’s Unorthodox Education System is the Best in the World, Business Insider

The Pearson Report for the Economist

What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success, The Atlantic

Schools We Can Envy, New York Review of Books

From Finland, An Intriguing School Model, New York Times

Why are Finland’s Schools Successful, Smithsonian

UK Education Sixth in Global Ranking, BBC News

Great Ideas from Finnish Schools, Two in the Middle

American Academy of Pediatrics Advocates Recess for Kids, Slow Family Online and Christian Science Monitor

How to Prepare Kids for Kindergarten? Let the Play, Slow Family Online

Pre-school and Kindergarten Graduations: Too Much Too Fast, Slow Family Online and Christian Science Monitor


Photos: wstryder, edushyster

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7 responses to “Why Finland’s Education System is the Best in the World

  1. This is a great article. The standardized testing in the U.S. drives me to insanity and that is exactly what it is- insane. Takes up so much quality learning time from the kids and I think it puts them in academic box. So wish things would turn around in education. We are doing a not so good job and I think wasting lots of money along the way which could be used for better educating our sweet children…

  2. What an interesting article! 75 minutes of recess! My son would be in heaven haha! I LOVE that they do practical science experiments. Our students loose out on so much of science because we do little to no experimentation with them. I hate standardsized tests! As of right now and for like the next month that is all my son does in class is practice for the standardized tests. It’s crazy! I hope our policy makers will take some of these things into consideration.

  3. Now that my oldest is in 3rd grade, I feel like I could speak for hours on the shortcomings of our educational system. And I often feel like the odd parent out for wanting less homework, less test prep, etc. I’ll have to check out all these terrific resources to remind myself that I’m not alone. :-)

  4. This is an extremely interesting article. I’m a former English teacher, and I know how nervous I got when my students were being tested. I also know that kids pay attention when they’re actively involved and not regurgitating information. JMHO.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Lynn, Managing Editor of Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com
    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  5. Thank you so much, Weekend Cowgirl, Sere, Debi and Lynn! I so appreciate you all weighing in. Of course I agree with all of you.

    And, to Debi, who is in the thick of it: You are not alone! It can feel (and had probably felt to many of us) as if we are odd for not wanting to push our kids up a pressure-cooker-style academic path. But there are many along on the journey. Though we can be harder to find and less overt than some of the others, I always tell fellow parents to “Find your people”. They are there and ready to go with you to ask the teacher for less homework, or advocate for a school garden and time during the school day to be in it, or have your child over during an unscheduled afternoon. We just have to keep at it!

    Thanks again for the encouragement, everyone.

  6. Finland’s education isn’t the best in the world for two reasons: 1. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and places like Hong Kong kick Finland’s ass! 2. South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and places like Hong Kong spend half the amount of money on education and still kick Finland’s ass. The title claiming that Finland’s education is the best is both delusional and inaccurate. Finnish schools need 2 teachers with masters degrees in the class to get the ranking so high, but it still get outcompeted by Asian countries.

  7. We are a non profit organization that seeks to transform the education system of South Africa.We would like to learn from you and also have exchange progrmmes that will benefit our children both from disadvantaged and rural areasWe trust you will be interested and hope to visit your country soon.

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