Article 2 on the issue of streaming, looking not at Singapore’s system but rather that of Finland, a country that has performed strongly in PISA rankings in recent years despite employing a drastically different model. For the purposes of our discussion, the lack of streaming is particularly noteworthy, but take note also of the given reasons for this emphasis on equality.
This direct contrast with the Singapore (and East Asian) model of education provides a useful counterpoint to the idea that a meritocratic, competitive system (and presumably one based heavily on rote learning too) is necessary for an educational system to be successful, an impression that one might otherwise be left with if Finland were not ranked up there with the likes of Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Shanghai.
Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. Finnish children don’t begin school until age 7. They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests.
Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. Finland’s school children didn’t always excel. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity. The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.
I recently accompanied Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, when she visited the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, and asked her what Finland is doing that we could learn from.
I visited four Finnish schools while researching my book Parenting Without Borders. While there, I frequently heard a saying: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” It was clear that children were regarded as one of Finland’s most precious resources. You invest significantly in providing the basic resources so that all children may prosper. How do these notions undergird your educational system?
We used to have a system which was really unequal. My parents never had a real possibility to study and have a higher education. We decided in the 1960s that we would provide a free quality education to all. Even universities are free of charge. Equal means that we support everyone and we’re not going to waste anyone’s skills. We don’t know what our kids will turn out like—we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist. Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills. It’s important because we are raising the potential of the entire human capital in Finland. Even if we don’t have oil or minerals or any other natural resources, well, we think human capital is also a valuable resource.
How well do you think Finland’s educational system, one based more squarely on equity rather than high achievement, is working?
I remember being struck by how many vocational or hands-on classes (home economics, art, technology, and so forth) were available to students at every Finnish school I visited. At one secondary school I visited, kids were cooking breakfast; at another, I saw that all the kids had learned how to sew their own bathing suits. More than one teacher remarked, “It’s important for students to have different activities to do during the day.” And there seems to be no stigma about vocational education. Is this attitude true of all schools in Finland?
Yes, we definitely believe that for young people handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits, and sports, are all important. We believe these help young people benefit more from the skills they’re learning in school.