The Finnish miracle
No shoes but plenty of service: The surprising features of the world's top-performing schools.
How can you work some Finnish magic at home?
(1) DIY university: Teach self-reliance. You may see school as children’s primary job, but don’t downplay the learning they receive from taking care of themselves and contributing to the family. Give kids meaningful responsibilities, and avoid doing for them what they can do for themselves.
(2) Don’t dis the teach: Respect your child’s teacher. Not necessarily because he or she deserves it, but because it’s good for your child’s education. Honoring teachers sends a message about the value of education as a whole.
(3) Compare and you will despair: Set high expectations for your child but refrain from making discouraging comparisons to other students and schools. Focus on their learning, not how it measures up to others'.
(4) Study smart, not for eternity: If hours upon hours of homework is getting in the way of your child’s love of learning, talk to the teacher about the problem.
By Hank Pellissier
Can you name a famous person in Finland? Historical episode? Imposing landmark? Foodstuff? It’s not that Finland doesn’t have its share of Olympic athletes, brilliant architects, and technology moguls, but "Nokia" is all most people can mutter when asked about this small northern nation.
Unless you're a teacher. Then the word "Finland" fills you with awe. Because everyone in the schooling profession knows that Finland is the international all-star of education.
In 2006 the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted a survey of 15-year-olds' academic skills from 57 nations. Finland placed first in science by a whopping 5% margin, second in math (edged out by one point by Chinese Taipei), and third in reading (topped by South Korea).
Comparisons that involve so many variables are ... difficult. Some might say impossible. Still, just a glance at PISA's scores year after year prompts the question: How does Finland churn out so many avid learners?
"No sweat," except in the saunas
At first glance, the Finnish educational system looks like it would only produce hippie slackers. Check out the casual amenities: Schools often have lounges with fireplaces but no tardy bells. Finnish students don't wear uniforms, nor do they often wear shoes. (Since Finns go barefoot inside the home, and schools aspire to offer students a nurturing, homey environment, the no-shoe rule has some pedagogical logic.) And although academic standards are high, there’s not the grind one associates with high-performance schooling. Never burdened with more than half an hour of homework per night, Finnish kids attend school fewer days than 85% of other developed nations (though still more than Americans), and those school days are typically short by international standards.
Finnish teachers enjoy an equally laid-back arrangement. They work an average of 570 hours a year, nearly half the U.S. total of 1,100 hours. They also dress casually and are usually called by their first names (Aino, Helmi, Viivi, Eetu, etc.).
Is the secret massive financial investment? No. Finland spends only $7,500 per student, considerably less than the United States' average $8,700.
So how does Finland produce the world's best young scholars via minimal hours and cash? Since PISA began ranking nations and revealing Finland’s special sauce, plane-loads of inquisitive teachers from every corner of the globe have been making pilgrimages to this educational mecca. Here’s a taste of what they've observed: