What the best education systems are doing right

In South Korea and Finland, it’s not about finding the “right” school.

Fifty years ago, both South Korea and Finland had terrible education systems. Finland was at risk of becoming the economic stepchild of Europe. South Korea was ravaged by civil war. Yet over the past half century, both South Korea and Finland have turned their schools around — and now both countries are hailed internationally for their extremely high educational outcomes. What can other countries learn from these two successful, but diametrically opposed, educational models? Here’s an overview of what South Korea and Finland are doing right.

The Korean model: Grit and hard, hard, hard work.

For millennia, in some parts of Asia, the only way to climb the socioeconomic ladder and find secure work was to take an examination — in which the proctor was a proxy for the emperor, says Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Those examinations required a thorough command of knowledge, and taking them was a grueling rite of passage. Today, many in the Confucian countries still respect the kind of educational achievement that is promoted by an exam culture.

The Koreans have achieved a remarkable feat: the country is 100 percent literate. But success comes with a price.

Among these countries, South Korea stands apart as the most extreme, and arguably, most successful. The Koreans have achieved a remarkable feat: the country is 100 percent literate, and at the forefront of international comparative tests of achievement, including tests of critical thinking and analysis. But this success comes with a price: Students are under enormous, unrelenting pressure to perform. Talent is not a consideration — because the culture believes in hard work and diligence above all, there is no excuse for failure. Children study year-round, both in-school and with tutors. If you study hard enough, you can be smart enough.

South Korea women pray for their children’s success in the annual college entrance examination. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Thinkstock.

“Koreans basically believe that I have to get through this really tough period to have a great future,” says Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at PISA and special advisor on education policy at the OECD. “It’s a question of short-term unhappiness and long-term happiness.” It’s not just the parents pressuring their kids. Because this culture traditionally celebrates conformity and order, pressure from other students can also heighten performance expectations. This community attitude expresses itself even in early-childhood education, says Joe Tobin, professor of early childhood education at the University of Georgia who specializes in comparative international research. In Korea, as in other Asian countries, class sizes are very large — which would be extremely undesirable for, say, an American parent. But in Korea, the goal is for the teacher to lead the class as a community, and for peer relationships to develop. In American preschools, the focus for teachers is on developing individual relationships with students, and intervening regularly in peer relationships.

“I think it is clear there are better and worse way to educate our children,” says Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. “At the same time, if I had to choose between an average US education and an average Korean education for my own kid, I would choose, very reluctantly, the Korean model. The reality is, in the modern world the kid is going to have to know how to learn, how to work hard and how to persist after failure. The Korean model teaches that.”

The Finnish model: Extracurricular choice, intrinsic motivation.

In Finland, on the other hand, students are learning the benefits of both rigor and flexibility. The Finnish model, say educators, is utopia.

Finland has a short school day rich with school-sponsored extracurriculars, because Finns believe important learning happens outside the classroom.

In Finland, school is the center of the community, notes Schleicher. School provides not just educational services, but social services. Education is about creating identity.

Finnish culture values intrinsic motivation and the pursuit of personal interest. It has a relatively short school day rich with school-sponsored extracurriculars, because culturally, Finns believe important learning happens outside of the classroom. (An exception? Sports, which are not sponsored by schools, but by towns.) A third of the classes that students take in high school are electives, and they can even choose which matriculation exams they are going to take. It’s a low-stress culture, and it values a wide variety of learning experiences.

But that does not except it from academic rigor, motivated by the country’s history trapped between European superpowers, says Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and author of Finnish Lessons: What the World Can Learn From Educational Change in Finland.

Teachers in Finland teach 600 hours a year, spending the rest of time in professional development. In the U.S., teachers are in the classroom 1,100 hours a year, with little time for feedback.

“A key to that is education. Finns do not really exist outside of Finland,” says Sahlberg. “This drives people to take education more seriously. For example, nobody speaks this funny language that we do. Finland is bilingual, and every student learns both Finnish and Swedish. And every Finn who wants to be successful has to master at least one other language, often English, but she also typically learns German, French, Russian and many others. Even the smallest children understand that nobody else speaks Finnish, and if they want to do anything else in life, they need to learn languages.”

Children in a Finnish school choir perform a song called “The Time Is Now” on their Climate Action Day. Photo by Aapo-Lassi Kankaala/Flickr.

Finns share one thing with South Koreans: a deep respect for teachers and their academic accomplishments. In Finland, only one in ten applicants to teaching programs is admitted. After a mass closure of 80 percent of teacher colleges in the 1970s, only the best university training programs remained, elevating the status of educators in the country. Teachers in Finland teach 600 hours a year, spending the rest of time in professional development, meeting with colleagues, students and families. In the U.S., teachers are in the classroom 1,100 hours a year, with little time for collaboration, feedback or professional development.

How Americans can change education culture

As TED speaker Sir Ken Robinson noted in his 2013 talk (How to escape education’s death valley), when it comes to current American education woes “the dropout crisis is just the tip of an iceberg. What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it.” But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Notes Amanda Ripley, “culture is a thing that changes. It’s more malleable than we think. Culture is like this ether that has all kinds of things swirling around in it, some of which are activated and some of which are latent. Given an economic imperative or change in leadership or accident of history, those things get activated.” The good news is, “We Americans have a lot of things in our culture which would support a very strong education system, such as a longstanding rhetoric about the equality of opportunity and a strong and legitimate meritocracy,” says Ripley.

One reason we haven’t made much progress academically over the past 50 years is because it hasn’t been economically crucial for American kids to master sophisticated problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in order to survive. But that’s not true anymore. “There’s a lag for cultures to catch up with economic realities, and right now we’re living in that lag,” says Ripley. “So our kids aren’t growing up with the kind of skills or grit to make it in the global economy.”

An American classroom ca. 1899: students studying the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Photo via The Library of Congress.

“We are prisoners of the pictures and experiences of education that we had,” says Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at Harvard’s educational innovation center and author of The Global Achievement Gap. “We want schools for our kids that mirror our own experience, or what we thought we wanted. That severely limits our ability to think creatively of a different kind of education. But there’s no way that tweaking that assembly line will meet the 21st-century world. We need a major overhaul.”

Indeed. Today, the American culture of choice puts the onus on parents to find the “right” schools for our kids, rather than trusting that all schools are capable of preparing our children for adulthood. Our obsession with talent puts the onus on students to be “smart,” rather than on adults’ ability to teach them. And our antiquated system for funding schools makes property values the arbiter of spending per student, not actual values.

But what will American education culture look like tomorrow? In the most successful education cultures in the world, it is the system that is responsible for the success of the student, says Schleicher — not solely the parent, not solely the student, not solely the teacher. The culture creates the system. The hope is that Americans can find the grit and will to change their own culture — one parent, student and teacher at a time.

Featured image via iStock.