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September 5th, 2008
Finland: What's the Secret to Its Success?

What\'s the Secret to Its Success?

Finland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe – the majority of it covered with forests and lakes. It boasts great natural beauty, world-renowned saunas, and is home to the phone giant Nokia.

But none of these attributes are what inspires delegations from more than 50 countries to travel there annually. Instead, these international visitors head to Finland for a first-hand look at one of the things the country does best: education.

The Finns call these delegates “educational pilgrims.” Their mission? To find out the secret to the Finn’s success. Finland has always boasted first-rate schools, but the country has made headlines over the past decade for consistently performing at the top of an international test known as PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment). Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), the test in reading, science and math is administered triennially to 15-year-olds in 57 developed countries, which together account for nearly 90 percent of the world’s GDP.

Of those countries, Finland placed first overall on the 2006 tests, which focused on science, compared with the U.S.’s position in the middle of the pack. Finland has maintained this lead since the test was first administered in 2000, ranking first in that year’s reading assessment. In addition, Finland has a high-school dropout rate of less than 1 percent – compared with roughly 25 percent in the U.S. And in tertiary education, the World Economic Forum ranks Finland first in the world in enrollment and quality.

When asked about their ranking, Finnish educators and experts consistently cite the country’s teachers. In Finland, they say, teaching is considered one of the most highly esteemed professions – hardly a surprise, considering the fact that all of the country’s teachers must hold master’s degrees, and the profession is highly competitive. Even though the salaries of Finnish teachers are comparable to those in the U.S., a job opening in a Finnish classroom typically attracts more than 40 applicants.

The job’s popularity can be partly attributed to the country’s liberal approach to its curriculum. In Finland, teachers are allowed to choose their own textbooks and customize their lesson plans. They aren’t required to administer standardized tests, and assign little homework.

“Teachers are very independent, and there is little cooperation between teachers,” says Maria Lisa Wahlfors, a teacher at the Tapiola School outside of Helsinki. “I think having this freedom is much better because I can choose the material I want to teach, and it can match my personality.”

In addition, the Finn’s success is due in large part to the country’s demographics. Unlike the United States, where great disparities in income and an extremely diverse population present obstacles to education, Finland enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world, is largely homogeneous, and has a strong national culture.


  • Mikkiko

    I lived in Finland for 3 months, staying with a family. I have to say the young children and young teens I met were very enthusiastic about exploring new ideas and learning independently. When asked how they liked school, they said they loved it. I can’t say I have met the same American children with the same enthusiasm. The level of respect the Finns give their teachers is also much higher than any level I have seen in the states. I only see that respect and awe when an American kid meets his/her favorite musician or athlete. Perhaps that is why our schools fail.

  • Tiina Mustakangas

    An American Fulbright teacher from a high school in Ohio spent a year in our small Finnish high school in Haukipudas in 2006-2007. It was a great opportunity to compare our school systems, and here are few of the main points we figured were very distinct between our two different school systems:
    - overall respect for teacher’s profession
    - teachers’ well being programs at school
    - daily schedules and breaks
    - students’ responsibility of their studying
    - testing systems
    - school lunches
    - communication in the classroom

    I feel there are several reasons for Finland’s PISA success, and it’s not only based on our educational system. A lot of it has to do, for instance, with the structure of our language, our daily reading habits, and our national character.

    I feel there’s a lot we can learn from each other. While US may learn a lot from, let’s say, our school lunch system, we can learn a lot from your teacher-student classroom communication.

  • Elisa Halonen

    I’m a 16-year-old student from Finland. I think Finnish children and young people learn better, because the teaching isn’t forced and it’s enjoyable. The teachers don’t put too much pressure on us and they help us to understand new things thoroughly. At school, all students feel equal and appreciated.

  • Anna Lahtinen

    I am finishing my 12th year of education in Finland. I have to agree that the Finnish education system is very effective. It also offers the same possibilities to everyone. Our teachers are, indeed, highly educated and they always push us to do even better with our school work.

  • Terry Smith

    Hi- I am a public school teacher. The education system in Finland is superior, and I think it works so well largely because of the high importance your society places on learning, and also because Finland does not the many widespread problems we have in the United States. It is interesting that Finland does not waste so much time testing testing testing its students – they concentrate on quality learning time.

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