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The most effective and non-traditional systems of high school education in the world

Updated on March 28, 2016

It is pretty well known that the Eastern Asian countries – with their emphasis on discipline, high homework loads and exams – have been topping the tables for the best high schools in the world for quite a while now. In 2015/2016, it was no different. South Korea was at the top, followed by Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Now this article could be about them.

The thing is, this article’s title promised not just the best, but also the most non-traditional. And the eastern Asian model doesn’t quite fit that mold. It all about hard work, private tuition and not having much of a social life. It is parents hammering at their kids to do their homework. It is teachers lecturing and kids listening, without much back and forth. Now obviously, the system works, but is it really worth the costs to our kid’s individuality and their joy for life? Because frequently that’s missing out there, South Korean kids, for example, recently scored lower than any other of the 15 countries in terms of life satisfaction.

One country where that certainly is not the case is number five on the list of best educational countries. Where is that you ask? It is Finland. And there the kids are happy as well. In a recent UNICEF survey, they ranked fourth out of 29. Now that sounds like a system worth imitating! (The US ranked a miserable 26th on child wellbeing and 14th in terms of best educational system, in case you were wondering.)

So what do the Finnish do differently?

They select the best teachers

In Finland being a teacher is considered a high-status job. This means that every teacher must, at least, have a master’s degree, what is more, teachers are selected from the top 10% of graduates, with 6600 applicants vying for 660 teacher training positions. In this way they reverse that old adage, “Those that can’t do, teach.” And thereby make certain that their children have the best, most talented teachers they can get.

And they put them in front of smaller classes

Finland has the same number of teachers as New York State, but it only has about half of the students. That means far more personal time for each student and far more opportunities for them to interact. Also, the school system promotes an atmosphere of mutual engagement. The teacher is not an authority who cannot be questioned. Instead, there is a back and forth which helps students develop their critical thinking abilities – a must in this modern world of changing rules and shifting goal posts.

They use the curriculum only as guideline

Once you’ve got some of the best people in the country doing your teaching for you, you can let them get on with it. They don’t need hand holding, you don’t have to watch them continuously and you don’t have to tell them how to do what they’ve got to do. Instead, the state gets out of the way and lets the teacher structure the class as they think it should be structured.

They use the best technology

Finland has learned its lessons from Nokia’s failure and now prides itself on being at the cutting edge of technology, with many technological firms coming to the country to make use of the pool of talented programmers and engineers. This starts in high school, with children getting access to the latest gadgets to help them study and get ahead. This lets them familiarize themselves with the tools of the 21st century.

They don’t use standardized testing

According to the Finnish, one size does not fit all. For this reason, they do not standardize their testing and do not close schools that are not performing. Instead, they leave each school district to figure out for themselves how to make certain their students are learning. And do you know what they do when a school isn’t doing well? They give it more resources. It’s a crazy idea but it might just work.

They let their teachers continue to develop and pay them accordingly

In the US, teachers teach about 1100 hours a year. In Finland, that number is only 600. The rest of the time the teachers spend on further education and self-development. This means that teachers continue to improve, learn and become better at what they do. Couple this with the fact that their salaries keep pace with similarly qualified peers in the private sector and you can see the attraction for teachers to stay within the educational sector. And obviously, I don’t have to spell out who benefits the most from that.

They’ve put the school back at the center of the community

The Finnish school day is shorter than that of most other countries and filled with extracurricular activities, as the Finnish believe that a great deal of learning happens outside of the classroom. What is more, as the schools aren’t constantly in use, they use these extra hours for the community, which allows a connection to form between the community and the school. The result? People, rather than believing a child’s education is the sole responsibility of the school, take an active part in their child’s education.

What we can learn from this

At its most negative you could interpret what has been listed above as signaling that you get what you pay for. The Finnish clearly care a great deal about their educational system and accordingly invest a great deal of money and time to make it work. But that isn’t the only takeaway lesson. What’s also clearly important is that they have moved away from standardization and back towards including the community. This is vital. For it truly takes a village to raise a child.

What is more, the Finnish make sure that the tools are available for their children to get ahead. Teachers are one such tool. Another is the equipment and devices available to the students inside and outside their classrooms. By giving their kids the space to work at their best, they make certain they get ahead.


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