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.