How does Finland’s top-ranking education system work?

The key to Finland's success is to view education not as a privilege, but a right.

  • Finland has been a top contender on every Program for International Student Assessment survey.
  • The country built a comprehensive education structure designed to offer citizens free education with no dead ends.
  • The inspiration for Finland's approach was American education research and philosophers such as John Dewey.

Finland's education system enjoys a lot of buzz lately. It is considered one of the best education systems in the world. It routinely outperforms the United States in reading, science, and mathematics. And it has been a top performer since the first Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) triennial international survey back in 2000.

But ask someone what's so great about Finland's schools, and you'll typically be supplied with a factoid or three. They have shorter school days. They don't do standardized tests. They all must be smart because the Finnish language is a nightmare.

While these facts are true — except for that last one — they miss Finland's well-raked forests for its trees. Finland's education system works because its entire structure has been around several core principles. First and foremost, equal access to education is a constitutional right. Another important principle is that one should be allowed to choose their educative path, which should never lead to a dead end.

Here's how Finland's education system works to meet those principles.

Early childhood education

Finland's early education is designed around concepts of learning through play.

(Photo: University of the Fraser Valley / Flickr)

Finland's early education is designed around concepts of learning through play.

Imagine you're a Finnish parent (or you are one, in which case, hyvää päivää). You've received state-sponsored maternity leave, a maternity grant, and even a wee-baby care box that doubles as a bed, so you can enjoy those first precious months in one of best countries to raise children. Now, you're starting to think about your child's education.

Don't worry, you have time. Finnish children aren't required to go to school until age 6, when pre-primary education begins. You are free to spend those early years playing, teaching, and bonding with your little one. If you want to start your child's education earlier, the Finnish system offers an expansive early childhood education and care (ECEC) program, too.

The program adopts a "learning through play" model to promote "balanced growth," according to the Finnish National Agency for Education's website. Although guided by the National Core Curriculum for ECEC, your local municipality handles ECEC services and has broad autonomy, allowing resident administrators to make the calls regarding budget, class size, and educational aims.

There will be a fee, but one that is heavily subsidized. Parents foot roughly 14 percent of the total bill, but the burden placed on individual households is based on income and number of children. The program is evidently popular, as Finland's enrollment rate for children ages 3 to 5 stands at nearly 80 percent.

Basic education (plus a free meal)

Finland education is designed to to support children's "growth towards humanity and ethically responsible membership of society." Photo credit : Lucelia Ribeiro on Flickr

When your child turns 7, it'll be time for basic education. Finland doesn't divide its basic education into elementary and junior highs. Instead, it offers single-structure education for nine years, 190 days per year. As with ECEC, policymakers leave plenty of room for local school administrators and teachers to revise and revamp the curriculum to meet the needs of their unique student body.

"The ideology is to steer through information, support and funding," writes Finnish National Agency for Education (which sets core curricula requirements). Their stated goal for basic education is "to support pupils' growth toward humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life." This latitude includes what tests to give, how to evaluate student progress and needs, and even the ability to set daily and weekly timetables.

Such autonomy may sound scary to some parents. What if your child spends all day learning phenomenological regressions of the Konami Code? (Though that would be fascinating). Finland's parents, however, don't have such concerns as teaching is a highly respected and professional field in Finland.

Most teachers hold a master's degree, and basic-ed teachers are required to hold them. Eighty percent of basic-ed teachers also participate in continuing professional development. This level of learning and continuous development ensures Finland's educators are steeped in the science of teaching — ironically, drawing inspiration from the American pedagogy of yesteryear.

"It is understandable that the pragmatic, child-centered educational thinking of John Dewey has been widely accepted among Finnish educators," Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and scholar, wrote for the Washington Post. "Many Finnish schools have adopted Dewey's view of education for democracy by enhancing student's access to decision-making regarding their own lives and studying in school."

Nor are schools left entirely to their own devices. The Finnish National Agency for Education promotes self-evaluation and improvement for both schools and their teachers. In terms of basic education, it's true that Finland does not use national standardized tests; however, they do implement national evaluations of learning outcomes.

However, Finland's evaluations are sample-based, not comprehensive. They are also not tied to school funding nor used to rank schools. Instead, the evaluation looks to assess the school's qualifications and are then provided to the administrators for developmental purposes.

Oh, did we mention that school meals are free to all children? And that guidance and counseling are built in as part of the curriculum? Because they are.

Upper-secondary education in Finland

\u200bFinnish students in Helsinki.

Finnish students in Helsinki. Photo credit: Ninaras / Wikimedia Commons

After basic education, your child can choose to continue to upper-secondary education. While not compulsory, 90 percent of students start upper-secondary studies immediately after basic. Because of Finland's devotion to no dead ends, the other 10 percent can choose to return to their education later at no cost.

Upper secondary is split into two main paths, general and vocational, and both take about three years. General education takes the form of course work, but students have a lot of freedom to decide their study schedules. At the end of general, students take the national matriculation exam, Finland's only standardized test. Their scores are used as part of their college applications.

Vocational education is more job focused and incorporates apprenticeships as well as school learning. About 40 percent of students start vocational education after basic. This path ends with competence-based qualifications after the student completes an individual study plan.

It's worth noting that students aren't locked into these paths. As part of Finland's devotion to education and decision-making, the two are permeable so students can discover new interests or create a path that threads between the two.

Higher education and beyond

\u200bUniversity of Oulu's Pegasus Library in Linnanmaa.

University of Oulu's Pegasus Library in Linnanmaa. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

With your child exceling in upper secondary, you're probably worrying that your child's nest egg may not be sufficient for higher education. Not to worry. Higher education, like basic and upper secondary, is free.

Remember, equal access to education is a constitutional right in Finland. Students are only required to pay for books, transportation, and other school supplies — and student financial aid is readily available.

Finnish colleges are divided into two types: universities and universities of applied sciences. Universities focus on scientific research, while universities of applied sciences emphasize practical applications. Students usually receive a bachelor's degree in four years of full-time study, comprising studies, electives, and a project. Master's degrees take five to six years, and as a rule, students are admitted to study for a master's right away.

If your child chose the vocational path, they can continue their education at a university, typically a university of applied science. But again, Finland's educational paths are highly adaptable.

It will come as no surprise that Finland supports robust adult education to promote social equity and a competent labor force. Companies can purchase in for staff development, and labor training is provided for the unemployed. While not free, adult education is (and sorry if we're getting a bit repetitive) highly subsidized with costs dependent on personal circumstances.

How is Finland able to provide such comprehensive, universal education for all citizens? Simple: Everybody is on board. Beyond enshrining the right to education in their constitution, the Finnish people value education and put in the time to build a system that adheres to the best education research (80 percent of which comes from the U.S.; hello irony, my old friend).

If other countries want to follow Finland's model, they needn't photocopy its education model; however, they will need the country's gusto for education's importance.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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