Why Scandinavian schools are superior (and what we can learn)

What are some of the keys to success in Nordic countries, like Finland?

Renman: There is some research around this. Pasi Sahlberg — he’s at an American university right now, Stanford — is the expert on the Finnish education system. He keeps saying that the success story in Finland is due to one thing and that’s the equality aspect: In every single class you can find students from any social background. How people live in Finland is not as extreme as in other countries, like England or the United States. You can see research on the effectiveness of school systems that says that if the education system is equal and democratic, it’s a good thing for every student, not just the top five percent, like say in Singapore or China.

In general, educating students at the bottom and the top is something that we have done really well. That’s why you get people flying in from China and other countries to take a look at these systems, trying to figure out how we took the steps from poor agricultural societies in the late 1840s to industrial societies in just 100 years, without being torn apart from the inside by forces of social instability. We have done a great job the past 150 years, but the problem is what’s coming up further on down the road.

I’ve heard that Finland places a big emphasis on teachers.

Renman: It’s a perfectly correct answer to say that Finland has much more of an emphasis on teachers and that the teachers are much more praised and valued than in the other Scandinavian countries. Also, perhaps they lean a bit more on traditional learning. It’s interesting that Finland has almost no national tests whatsoever. Compare it to the situation in the States and [testing] policies that have been the trademark of your system for many years now. If you look at the Finnish system, which has almost none of that, they’re still much better. One special ingredient is their very early special resources for kids that show signs of underperforming. Students between the ages of 6-8, these kids get more attention and hours with teachers.

This lack of formal testing, does it perhaps put less stress on the system?

Renman: I think it’s fair to say that. Especially in Finland, which doesn’t have that culture at all. But also in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. For sure there are more national tests, but not at all to the extent as in the U.S. Also, we don’t have the need for national testing to the degree of the U.S. The schools aren’t ranked or compared in the same way out of the results. It’s not at all as important as in the States or in the U.K. or France or Germany. In Scandinavia, the results of the national tests are more the business of the school officials. For a single student, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect your grade.

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