Why are Finnish schools so successful?


Søren Sigfusson

Finnish Flag

For several years now, Oklahoma is consistently ranked among the worst states in the country for education. Time and time again, calls for reform have been promptly ignored by those in charge, despite lackluster performance by students. Every Oklahoman school—private and public—runs on the same venerable systems invented in the Industrial Revolution, which regrettably allowed child labor and lashings. With this in mind, it’s easy to look abroad at some more successful systems to see what’s missing from our own. If looked up, one will find that the number one ranking for education systems in the western world is Finland—a Nordic, subarctic nation stuck between Sweden and Russia. Finland isn’t a common household name, and one would be forgiven for not knowing a lot about it—but it begs the question of how it has managed to place itself among the best countries in the world for students.

Finland is a cold, Nordic nation sat along the Baltic sea. Its language has roots in the Uralic language family, and it is one of only three countries that can trace its linguistic roots back similarly. Once upon a time, Finland was also a Russian oblast—declaring independence during the early months of the Russian revolution in 1917. In contemporary times, education isn’t the only thing that it’s top in the world in. Finland has been ranked first in the world happiness index and is consistently close to the top in terms of its HDI (Human Development Index). In contrast to the United States, Finland has experienced numerous, drastic changes to its education system since the 1960s, and the results are staggering. Finland is among the only countries to have a near 100% literacy rate, compared to Oklahoma’s lesser 87%. Finland’s reading comprehension is also among the highest in the world, catching up to East Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It begs the question on how Finland does it—are there 3-hour tests every day, frequent exams in dimly-lit rooms with daily stacks of homework? In fact, it is quite the opposite.

One of the significant differences between the Finns’ education and our own is that Finnish people spend less time overall in the classroom. Instead of waking up at dawn, an average Finn will wake up and go to school from around 9:00-10:00 A.M., and go home at a much earlier time of 2:00-2:45 PM. Again, as opposed to our system, Finnish students will also start class at a much later age, with most starting school at the age of seven. Additionally, schooling after the age of 16 is optional in most places. Homework is absent, and individual classes take up more time with long breaks in between. Overall, the entire school day is more relaxed and doesn’t attempt to cram as much information as possible into the developing minds of kids. It is extremely important to maintain a school-life balance in children, and Finland knows this. The nation has veered away from the toxic school-centric beliefs that most of the western world doesn’t even question, leading to many children missing a life beyond the grade book.

As a result of the relaxed system, many Finnish students are content and happy with their school system, but here at home in Oklahoma, there are many people with gripes. Shelby Taylor, a senior at Edmond North, does not believe that the school system in Oklahoma lives up to its possibilities.

“Our education system as a whole rewards memorization and regurgitation above actually knowing the material. I could not tell you more than two things I learned from my previous classes, and that’s because the system did as it was supposed to,” Taylor says. 

“Grades are prioritized above understanding. Humans inherently want to learn, but the system snuffs that out for many—not to mention that trying to teach one way when everyone learns differently is going to cause problems,” she continues, rightfully pointing out that the Oklahoman education budget is arguably underfunded. In Oklahoma, an average of $9,446 is spent on every individual student. In comparison, the OECD average is $11,400, and Finland’s is 11,894.

“The only way to get change done is to increase the budget for education and the salaries of teachers,” Taylor continued. “Education can seriously alter lives, so why do we give it so little? A new system might not be able to numerically rank or analyze a kid’s performance, but that may be what we need.” She concludes.

Whether or not adopting a system similar to that of Finland’s would fix all of the problems is doubtful, as every culture is different from one another, and people are accustomed to different situations—but the state, and the country at large, can take notes. Many aspects go into whether a certain education system is truly good or not, and it can be extremely difficult to get things completely right; however, things won’t improve if those in charge don’t take any initiative to change the status quo. Hopefully, Oklahoma will change its ways and stop kicking the can down the road.

For questions about this article, please email Teagan Yates at [email protected].