Finland's repeated success in national education rankings suggests there are at least a few lessons the US can learn.
For one, the tiny Nordic country places considerable weight on early education. Before Finnish kids learn their times tables, they learn simply how to be kids - how to play with one another, how to mend emotional wounds.
But even as kids grow up, the country makes a concerted effort to put them on a track for success.
Here are some of the biggest ways Finland is winning in global education.
1. Competition isn't as important as cooperation.
Finland has figured out that competition between schools doesn't get kids as far as cooperation between those schools.
One reason for that is Finland has no private schools. Every academic institution in the country is funded through public dollars. Teachers are trained to issue their own tests instead of standardised tests.
“There's no word for accountability in Finnish,” education expert Pasi Sahlberg once told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Teachers are trusted to do well without the motivation of competition.
And that's because...
2. Teaching is one of the most-respected professions.
Teachers aren't underpaid in Finland like they are in the US. In fact, they're valued a lot since Finland puts a lot of stock in childhood as the foundation for lifelong development.
To become a teacher in Finland, candidates must have first received at least their master's degree and complete the equivalent of a residency program in US medical schools. Student teachers often teach at affiliate elementary schools that adjoin a university.
The result: Teachers can be counted on to know the best pedagogical research on education that's out there.
3. Finland listens to the research.
In the US, research studies looking at what works in the classroom and what doesn't often get stuck in the mud of local school-board politics. Parents argue certain policies aren't “right” for their kids.
In Finland, research comes with no such political baggage. The government makes its education policy decisions based almost solely on effectiveness - if the data show improvements, the federal Ministry of Education and Culture will give it a shot.
“Overall, education in the United States is much more political than it is in Finland, where it's much more of a professional issue,” Sahlberg told Business Insider.
In short, Finland gets things done.
4. Finland isn't afraid to experiment.
One big benefit of listening to the research is you're not beholden to outside forces, like money and political clout. Finland's teachers are encouraged to create their own mini-laboratories for teaching styles, keeping what works and scrapping what doesn't.
It's a lesson for the US: An experimental mindset at the top can lead teachers to think outside the box.
5. Playtime is sacred.
Compared to the US, where free playtime has been dwindling in kindergarten for the last two decades, Finnish law requires teachers to give students 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of instruction.
The policy stems from Finland's deep, almost storybook belief that kids ought to stay kids for as long as possible. It's not their job to grow up quickly and become memorisers and test-takers.
The results speak for themselves: Study after study has found that students given at least one daily recess for 15 minutes or more behave better in school and do better on assignments.
6. Kids have very little homework.
For all the things Finnish schools offer kids, what they seem to lack is homework. Many kids receive only a small amount of it each night.
The philosophy stems from a mutual level of trust shared by the schools, teachers, and parents.
Parents assume teachers have covered most of what they need in the confines of the school day, and schools assume the same. Extra work is often deemed unnecessary by everyone involved.
Time spent at home is reserved for family, where the only lessons kids learn are about life.
7. Preschool is high-quality and universal.
Some of the only opportunities many American kids get to stretch their imagination, get dirty, and play games come in preschool. The trouble is, parents are often expected to pay for that early education, setting up disparities that could last through the child's later years.
In Finland, parents are guaranteed everything. Preschool and daycare are both universal until age 7, and more than 97% of three- to six-year-olds take advantage of at least one, NPR reports.
More than that, though, the preschools are good. They align their curricula with one another and prepare kids along similar tracks. By the time kids start getting actual work, parents can rest assured the same lessons are getting elsewhere taught across town.
8. College tuition is free.
Unlike American students, who rack up tens of thousands in college-loan debt, Finns pay nothing to go to college. For bachelor, master, and doctoral programmes alike, their education is subsidized by a combination of taxpayer dollars and the federal government.
“This takes a huge burden away from young people's minds when they don't need to wonder whether they can afford to pay for their studies,” Pasi Sahlberg, Director General at the Centre for International Mobility, told Business Insider.
Sahlberg said the system comes from a belief that “education, including higher education, is a human right and also a great equalizer in our society.”
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