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| 11 December, 2017

In a nutshell: Lessons to learn from world's best education system

Widely regarded as having the finest school system in the world, what is it that makes Finnish education so successful?

Image used for illustrative purpose. Students play with their iPads at the Steve Jobs school in Sneek August 21, 2013. The Steve Jobs schools in the Netherlands are founded by the O4NT (Education For A New Time) organisation, which provides the children with iPads to help them learn with a more interactive experience.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Students play with their iPads at the Steve Jobs school in Sneek August 21, 2013. The Steve Jobs schools in the Netherlands are founded by the O4NT (Education For A New Time) organisation, which provides the children with iPads to help them learn with a more interactive experience.

REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Developed in the 1970s under the philosophy that Finland’s population are its most important asset, the country’s modern education system is free for all citizens. Youngsters are sent to their local school, regardless of their social and financial standing and all children are given an equal opportunity to succeed.

This approach to prioritising education has seen Finland rise from a relatively impoverished country to one of the wealthiest and advanced nations on earth in just 100 years since gaining independence from the Russians.
It is an education system that’s funded by the taxpayers and while taxes are indeed high, it has allowed for a situation where every citizen is entitled to lifelong study and personal development.

The power of play

In Finland, children don’t start attending school until the age of seven, which is relatively late compared to other nations such as the UK. This is based on the philosophy that children need time and space to play and develop into healthy members of society. Parents are commonly afforded large periods off work to spend time with their children and kids are only introduced to the formal education system at the age of six, when they participate in pre-primary education.

To illustrate just how much of a priority education is, in 2016 it was calculated that the government spends $8,519 (Dh31,288) each year on each pupil. All of the kids’ school materials such as books and stationery are provided free of charge. Moreover, Finland was the first nation on earth to provide its students with free school meals when it introduced the policy in 1948.

This means that each child is fed healthy, environmentally friendly meals, with many schools offering organic and vegetarian options to their kids. This means that each child receives sufficient nutrition to ensure that they maintain their energy levels throughout the day and stay fit and healthy.

Decentralised curriculum

Although the basic objectives and the division of time between different subjects is decided by the Finnish government, each municipality has the freedom to provide individualised curriculums, which are tailored specifically to each child’s needs. Rather than treating children as faceless numbers, schoolteachers are able to target key areas in a child’s development, where they may be struggling with issues such as literacy or arithmetic.

This trust and respect in the teaching staff is reflected by their high standing within society and the fact that all teachers must hold a master’s degree in the subjects they teach.

A communal approach

In Finland children between the ages of 7 and 16 attend the same school. A large portion of pupils either cycle or walk to school and they all leave their jackets and shoes in the hallway when they arrive for the day. The idea behind this is to create a community atmosphere, which is free from hierarchical constraints and intends to make each child feel they belong.

The aim of this approach is to encourage children to mix with each other and learn skills such as independent thinking and debate, which will allow them to become adults who are more effective when they enter the workplace.

This alternative approach is reflected in the length of the school day, which is shorter than equivalent European countries. This philosophy is also carried across to homework, where Finns are assigned very little in comparison to those in other countries.

The idea is simple. Although the school day is shorter, it is also more efficient, allowing pupils to pick up the skills they need in less time.

Environments for learning

Lessons are as long as 60 minutes but they can be shorter. Between each class is a 15-minute recess, where children are encouraged to enjoy themselves outside to ensure that they can maintain their concentration levels when they return to the classroom and don’t become restless.

Schools are also designed to be more flexible than just the classroom format. There are different communal areas, where children can sit and collaborate with their classmates on projects, and even sound-proofed quiet areas for when they need to study more independently. This multifunctional use of space also means that teachers or assistants have the freedom to take pupils aside for private conversations if they feel they need particular attention.

Taking responsibility for your own education

The Finns don’t adhere to the idea that teachers should be disciplinarians, coercing children into obeying their commands. Step inside a Finnish school and you will see teachers interacting with children almost as if they were adults. They are encouraged not to talk down to kids and if there are any issues such as anxiety, the teacher will discuss this with the pupil on a social level.

This sense of empowering children by treating them as young adults is applied to how children are encouraged to take responsibility for their personal education goals. Kids are asked to assess their progress and discuss all elements of their education from personal emotions up to the areas they feel most passionate about or areas where they think they are struggling.

The idea is that this will familiarise the children with strategic learning and encourage them to pursue education not just during their school years but also for their entire lives.

Offering additional support

Finland’s democratic approach to education extends to those pupils who are struggling with particular subjects. The philosophy that all pupils deserve the right to the best possible education, regardless of their initial aptitude is extended to those with special needs such as reading difficulties.
These students are identified and then taken aside in small groups or with specialist assistants to try to pull them back up to speed.

This even applies to children with more severe problems such as a disability. In fact, in some cases, children with mental or physical health issues are given a compulsory education that must last for 11 years.

The results speak for themselves

While a philosophy is easy to criticise with assertions of being overly liberal or not pushing the children hard enough so that they won’t be shocked when they meet the challenges of the real world, what you can’t argue with are the results.
In studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 15-year-olds from Finland have consistently scored top positions for science, reading and mathematics literacy around the world.

And, when you look at the fact that 40 per cent of 30-34 year olds have earned a higher education degree, it would appear that maybe there are more than a few lessons that we can take from the Finnish system of education.

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