What the Top Education Countries do

Finland and South Korea are among the world’s leaders in education.  So it is worth asking what these countries do that is different.  This TED article tries to answer that question by asking what they are doing that is right?  What they found was two very different systems.

Before looking at the two systems it is worth remembering that educational comparisons are based on the measurement of tangible knowledge of skills during and at the end of school.  The correlation between end of school results and university performance is fairly weak.  for example, the graphs I have seen in the past did show the expected trend of better school results giving better university results.  However, the scatter around the trend line was enormous.  (Interesting thing is that students from private schools tended to do worse at university than students from the public school system who got the same mark.  The problem here is that what you need to do to get good marks interferes with what you should be learning to help at university and later life.

It is also worth noting that performance at university is not all that good at predicting what happens in later life.  A lot of us grow up after we finish our education.  In addition, the things that may really count for adult and professional life we learn outside of the formal education system and/or after graduating.

If we really want to evaluate an education system we need to wait the 20 to 30 years it takes before a particular group have students are beginning to dominate their country.  We will be on to a new fad by then.

So how have Finland and South Korea progressed?  TED had this to say:

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 (and economies) around — and now both countries are hailed internationally for their extremely high educational outcomes.


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.

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.

“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….

In Korea, as in other Asian countries, class sizes are very large… 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.

Jumpy had this to say about his son’s experience with South Korean Students:

My son reckons they suppress their ” dog eat dog ” mentality and are happy to engage in ” You scratch my back, I scratch yours ”
And they did with brilliant results for all concerned.
It’s students teaching students and complaining the teachers are xxxx.

So we have a system that teaches how to learn and work very hard.  Also a system that encourages the sort of teamwork that gets results.

There is a problem though.  One of my wifes friends has talked about Korean parents sending their children to Australia to get away from the enormous pressures of the Korean system.  Pressures that do lead to student suicide.

By contrast:

The Finnish model: Extracurricular choice, intrinsic motivation.

In Finland, on the other hand, students are learning the benefits of both rigor and flexibility.

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. (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.

“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.”

The things that the education systems of Finland and South Korea have in common are a strong commitment to education, respect for teachers and a system that is compatible with the culture.  The countries also have in common small size, a language that is not shared with other countries and a need for ongoing innovation if the country is to survive.

And Australia.  Australia used to be a world leader in education.  However, somewhere along the line it has become OK to skimp on education and blame underpaid and overworked teachers for everything that is wrong with the country.


9 thoughts on “What the Top Education Countries do”

  1. John, I believe a few years ago we were slipping because we did not so well for the less academic kids. i suspect that is still the case.

    About a decade ago I read a report by HM Inspectorate in England on the preschool provisions in Finland, Denmark and England. Finland stood out for the generosity of provision in human and other resources including space. As a society they care about education.

    Also the degree of autonomy given teachers. I believe they have an excellent public library system, which would help.

    I think many of the things we’ve done recently either don’t help or make educational achievement worse, like national testing, for example.

  2. Interesting reading on Finlands teacher standards.

    Finnish teacher education programs are extremely selective, admitting only one out of every ten students who apply. The result is that Finland recruits from the top quartile of the cohort. Applicants are assessed based on their upper secondary school record, their extra-curricular activities, and their score on the Matriculation Exam (taken at the end of upper secondary school). Once an applicant makes it beyond this first screening round, they are then observed in a teaching-like activity and interviewed; only candidates with a clear aptitude for teaching in addition to strong academic performance are admitted.


    South Korea there too.
    And their view on ours

    There are no specific career pathways for Australian teachers, and a large number of Australian teachers actually view teaching as one step in a non-teaching career path.

  3. Brian: One of the good things that Naplan did was highlight how bad our low performing literacy and numeracy tails are. This should have hardly been a surprise given that the tendency for a long time has been give up on kids who don’t learn to read during the years allocated to these topics, These kids are left to rot in classes where they haven’t a clue what is going on. Policies don’t help either.
    At one school where Hazel was hired to help the illiterates the headmaster insisted that she sit at the back of a science class “helping” one of these kids instead of taking the kid outside of the class and concentrating on teaching the poor kid to read. (The kid didn’t have a clue about science either, the class may as well be taught in Mongolian.)
    Having said that I think Naplan and world rankings has been bad for average students. Time has been wasted and it adds to the unfortunate emphasis on tangibles. The other thing I really hate is class marks being an important part of final results. It has lead to chronic cheating, particularly in educated families and diverts kids from pursuing things that they are really interested in.
    Jumpy: Unfortunately teachers learn very quickly that politicians and many parents encourage students not to respect teachers, the pay is lousy and getting worse and job security is in decline. They also learn that the paperwork is growing rapidly with no paid time to do it in. (Many of my teaching friends say they love teaching but hate the….

  4. Further to jumpy @ 2, clearly in Finland the top academic students aspire to become teachers. Here in general they don’t.

    I’ve always said that usually the smartest 10% in any classroom are kids.

  5. Brian: I think that students should have a right to be stretched at school. It is important as part of building mental muscle to help them after school and an important part of creating a life time interest in learning and new ideas.
    Unfortunately we don’t do a good job with both the students who are towards the bottom of the pile or the students towards the top.
    Those at the bottom aren’t stretched because they receive little attention once teachers have decided they aren’t worth putting the work into. The real tragedy here is that the decision is often based on reading problems, problems that don’t mean that the student is not quite smart in other areas. (For example, I have met a graduate nurse who is dyslexic. It is obvious when you read his emails. He got through nursing using a number of strategies to minimize the effect of dyslexia on his studies.)
    Those at the top aren’t stretched either. They are forced to spend too much time travelling at the classes pace. As you say too many teachers aren’t bright enough to have experience with what it means to be very bright. Teachers that don’t really understand what the very bright need to learn for them and the community to benefit from their brightness.

  6. John @5
    Those kids that are at “the bottom of the pile”, academically, come to me for a job.
    In ” hands on construction ” we never get the gifted or even the upper middle.
    Almost always the cheeky bugger in class, the ” wtf do I want geometry for? “, the ” too many ants in his pants to concentrate ” type.
    The ones that respect their mates and disrespect authority, never did homework, most times from a broken marriage family, very few that are unknown to Police.

    I’m talking about 15-17 year olds that ” qualified educator ” had at least 10 years to light that spark, awake that selfish human urge to feel pride in accomplishment and aspiring to be ” the best in the room “.

    To be fair to primary school teacher, they achieve that admirably.
    It all falls apart at high school.
    Then it’s my turn to educate what’s left.

  7. Jumpy: It sounds like you are talking about people who had the ability to be better educated than they were but didn’t do well at school for the sort of reasons you are talking about.
    Would these employees have been more useful to you if they had done better at school?
    In my patch I have watched the transition from operators with a few years of high school education to tradesman operators. My take was that the good operators were good operators who were just as good as the tradesman operators. The big attraction of tradesmen operators was that removed the need for shift tradesmen.

  8. John @ 5, in my view teachers (and managers) need to be able to challenge and get the best out of people who are smarter than they are.

    Elsewhere Steve Austin spoke to Maxine McKew about her new book. The bits I heard sounded good.

  9. Brian: In my experience, some teachers are good at challenging students that are much brighter than them. However, I think there are limits, particularly when you get you are talking about immature students who haven’t come to grips with dealing with the not so bright in positions of authority. Ditto not so bright teachers who want to put young smarties in their place. In final year the teacher looking after physics honours did not have a degree. It wasn’t a roaring success.
    Smart managers leading mature work groups recognise “expert power” and use others expertise to make/delegate decisions.

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