Why are Finnish Students so Smart?

As a follow-up to my entry from last night where I discussed the problems with the U.S. education system, I thought it worth sharing a related article I just discovered from the Wall Street Journal which discusses why Finnish kids are so smart.

Interestingly, high school students in Finland get about half an hour of homework nightly and don’t have sports teams or proms to distract them.

Finnish students placed at the top of 15-year olds taking tests in 57 countries whil U.S. students finished in the middle of the pack or around C level.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs," says Mr. Schleicher, of the Paris-based OECD, which began the international student test in 2000.

One explanation for the Finns’ success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck.

Finland shares its language with no other country, and even the most popular English-language books are translated here long after they are first published. Many children struggled to read the last Harry Potter book in English because they feared they would hear about the ending before it arrived in Finnish. Movies and TV shows have Finnish subtitles instead of dubbing. One college student says she became a fast reader as a child because she was hooked on the 1990s show "Beverly Hills, 90210."

In November, a U.S. delegation visited, hoping to learn how Scandinavian educators used technology. Officials from the Education Department, the National Education Association and the American Association of School Librarians saw Finnish teachers with chalkboards instead of whiteboards, and lessons shown on overhead projectors instead of PowerPoint. Keith Krueger was less impressed by the technology than by the good teaching he saw. "You kind of wonder how could our country get to that?" says Mr. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, an association of school technology officers that organized the trip.

The article is definitely worth a  read if you worry about U.S. competitiveness in the future.

  • Elsa
    March 5, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    I believe the cold dark Finnish winters create an atmosphere for inside activities (albeit Finns are great sport enthusiasts) such as reading (key) creating (their knitting as well as art & design & music) and thinking. Finns are clever problem solvers. Their inherent quiet nature makes them not tout their brilliance so consequently they surprise everyone when they consistently come out as best in the world. Yes, they have a homogeneous society. But, parts of the U.S. are that way, too and still not performing. Ultimately, it is as basic as a complete and thorough promotion of Reading Skills. Libraries everywhere. Clean bright and up to date. And, books are sold in Every Store. Not just a few paperbacks in the grocery store…a book section.
    Our American school libraries are in tough shape. Take a close look…walk the shelves.
    You will be shocked. Ask yourself if you were 10, would you check out that book? Pull ’em out and take a good look.
    Sorry for the long comment. Childrens literacy is my philanthropy and my passion. Plus, I am half Finn. : )
    Thanks for listening.

  • Hamalainen
    March 15, 2008 at 9:24 am

    I would say the reason why Finnish students do well is:
    – There are no private schools and each child and youngster is guaranteed same amount and quality of education. No difference between cities and countryside.
    – Teachers are highly educated
    – School can provide health services and for example a trusted person to discuss with. If more help is needed then psychologist can be contacted. If staff will suspect that there is physical or mental abusion at home, then other authorities are contacted. Many teachers and other staff are interested in their students and try to provide help if it looks like that something is wrong. If a student is has too much stress about studies, then it’s possible to re-schedule his studies and make individual arrangements.
    – Less concentration on sports etc. Instead chemistry, mathematics and biology. Sports can be done after school. There is activities
    – Weaker students whose can have free extra education and if they feel that they can’t manage in normal class, school can arrange an another teacher who forms a new learning group for weaker students.
    – homework must be done and teacher checks that everyone did it.
    – Slacking is not accepted.
    – Large amount of compulsory courses, which ALL students HAVE TO PASS. Therefore it’s not possible to go through high school only by being good at one or two subjects. Like by knowing sports or arts or languages.
    – Compulsory language studies e.g swedish and english on high school level. Some elective languages are available on comprehensive school level. For huge majority of Finns mother language is Finnish and we learn that as well. For students who want to take elective courses usually french, german, spanish, latin, italian, russian can be available. Each small town school may not have so much variety in languages, but each school has at least two elective languages that it can usually offer.
    – The matriculation examination at high school. Students have to prepare very much if they wish to pass it. It’s not an easy one and to get top grades one really must know the subjects very well. It’s graded on scale and each student has to take examination from several subjects like maths, finnish, foreign languages etc. and to graduate from high school these exams MUST BE passed. Even if student has got very good grades from courses, but fails at matriculation examination, he cannot graduate from high school. Graduation with bad grades = forget about upper education if you won’t be very best at entrance exam. Not easy for average students either.
    – Finnish teenagers and children learn very early that they have to work hard to be successful in life. People in Finland are on average highly educated and we have only state universities. Therefore entering university is very hard since half of Finland would love to study there and youngsters must concentrate on their studies if they want to get there.
    – Polytechnics that are schools of higher education, but don’t have the university status in Finland and are not very easy to enter either, but easier than universities. All institutes of upper education maintain high standards. Polytechnics are internationally considered as universities and they do fairly fine in international university comparaison.
    There is always a group of students even with average grades (finnish average high school student is quite smart), who can’t enter any university or polytechnic. In that case they can only enter vocational school that is same level with high school. No one wants to be one of those people who drop-out from the train of upper education, but it’s always possible to end up in that position by failing at entrance exams of polytechnic or university.
    Snow or winter don’t have anything to do with success of Finnish students. Winter activities are very popular and people spend time outside as much in winter and summer. Cold weather is not any problem for Finns. Only turists lock themselves inside of houses when weather turns bit cold.
    I have many friends who have been to states for exchange year during high school and they said that in US easier and less advanced subjects were taught and american high schools are not on the same level/line with our high schools. US high school would correspond more the classes 7-9 from our comprehensive school. They criticized that there were too much nonsense discussion and talking during the classes. No actual learning and new information. Not enough homework etc. During the year there, they all got bored.
    I am a Finn, but nowadays living abroad.

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