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.

Photo credit: Emmi Korhonen / AFP/ Getty Images
  • 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.

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

(Photo: University of the Fraser Valley / Flickr)

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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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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