Finnish Kids Finish First

Pardon me for the alliteration and the weak attempt at punning in the title of this post. I could not resist the temptation. But anyhow, the Finnish educational system’s successes underlines my convictions about what features define a good system. Here’s a report in today’s Wall Street Journal, “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?“. (Hat tip: Abhishek Sarda. Sorry that article will go behind the subscription firewall in a few days.)

It begins with

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7.

Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.

I have noticed that these days in India, kids spend way too much time sitting in classes at school, then they go to “tuitions,” then they come home and do endless hours of homework, and the parents are in a constant state of panic about how well the kids are doing in their exams.

I have also spent a lot of time talking to teenagers who toil under this regimen and find that they are fairly uninformed, rather narrow in their outlook of the world, and worst of all, don’t have the slightest interest in the subjects that they are forced to study. Learning, for them, has become one of the most unpleasant aspects of their life. They do all this studying not because they enjoy it but because it would allow them to crawl their way up the ladder — and they are not particularly clear where that ladder is supposed to take them.

I don’t think the kids are to blame. It is the system. The system is such that the love of learning is beaten out of the kid. It fails at the most basic of its tasks: to motivate the study of the subject. If properly motivated, any subject can be made interesting to the average kid. Instead of awakening the desire to find out the answers for themselves, the kids are force-fed canned “answers” without the least attempt at justifying how or why knowing something matters.

I think that the biggest failure of the Indian education system is that it does not respect children. It treats them as captive slaves that have to be flogged into submission. It withholds that one essential ingredient in the learning process: freedom. If a child is not free to explore his or her interests, is not free to express his or her feelings and desires, is not free to develop those unique innate talents, learning is not possible. The unfortunate result is that the system is raising an army of automatons that have lost their ability to seek, to find, to question, and to think.

It is my belief that those who have designed this hellish scheme have not understood the distinction between quality and quantity, and that there is a necessary trade off between the two. There is an optimal quantity of information that can be processed by the human brain which maximizes the quality of acquired knowledge. Try to push too much information and you end up with very little understanding. The problem isn’t that Indian students are not spending enough time studying but rather that they are spending too much time.

What amazes me is that back in the days when I was in school, things were much better. We really did not spend too much time studying. We did sit in classes but that was about all. A minority of the kids who went for “tuition” were generally considered dumb and if you had to go for it, you did not advertise it. Things have changed. The other day I was talking to a friend and she said that she spends over Rs 10,000 a month in “tuitions” for her two kids — much more than the school fees. Does anyone really care that the schools are clearly unable to teach if you have to do it all over again outside school? Would you like to pay for a meal at a restaurant and then afterwards go home and do the cooking and have your meal?

When sufficient numbers of people accept a certain way of doing things, it becomes the norm regardless of how irrational the thing is. In this respect, people can be seen to be very closely related to sheep.

It is really a crying shame that we are not taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity that our present technological wonders present us in making our educational system absolutely marvelous. We don’t have to make prisoners of the children. We don’t have to flog them into memorizing useless garbage. We can help them become thinking fully self-actualized beings.

In a sense it is understandable why the system is broken. It is broken because it is controlled by a monopolistic hand. That controlling body has a vested interest in perpetuating the system. Without the discipline of competition, the system can continue to rob hundreds of millions of children of their future. If there is one reason to despair for the future, it is that we are saddled with an educational system that we are powerless to alter.

Author: Atanu Dey


8 thoughts on “Finnish Kids Finish First”

  1. Atanu,

    You are Bang on Target! ( I think I will stop saying this anymore). The worst failur of Indian education system in my opinion is that it never lets kids explore possibilities outside of a very narrow field.

    What is frightning is this trend of narrow mindedness is creeping up into colleges as well. I know from my interactions with recent grads that most engineering institutes have become extensions of High Schools. Most students are learning what they need to score the highest marks in that semester. There is no sense of interests to be pursued. No one consults books outside of where the questions come from. I think it is high time there is a overhaul of this wretched system.


  2. Education and Bureaucracy are two things created by the British to help them steal (or transfer resources) efficiently. Education helped them created dumb slaves with some useless paperwork skills to work on the bureaucratic ladder. The sooner we get rid of these two systems, the better. First education.


  3. Spot on. I believe that as long as we sacrifice primary education and keep on pandering to higher education, we will always fall far behind the standard of excellence. But what can we do? It is in politicians’ interest to award degrees, not to actually educate. Their motto is, “We will give you degrees, but not knowledge, because giving you knowledge will inform you about how inefficient and venal we are”


  4. If there is one reason to despair for the future, it is that we are saddled with an educational system that we are powerless to alter.

    So very well put. We know the goal, and are frustrated that the paths to it are blocked by vested interests very efficiently :(. But then, a sick prey hides from the hunter to be invisible long enough while the treatment changes from being palliative to health restorative.

    Any “treatment” attempted presently invariably implies extra time, and is more palliative than restorative! The rigid “only 24 hours a day, no more no less” rule of Nature is a tough constraint :(. However ironic it may seem, it appears that investing the extra time today to reduce the time tomorrow is the only visible way out! Treating the sick education system today will need an immediate palliative approach. That itself does not seem to be available to the scale needed, and the hunter is secure that the numbers don’t add up, and it’s prey “feels” free. “Animal Farm” is the work of a genius ;).


  5. no doubt our education is the worst,but can we indians have the luxury of having 10 students per class,do we have the inquisitive nature.and finally are we a society that respects being different.


  6. ” Most students are learning what they need to score the highest marks in that semester.” By asish

    I am post graduate of one of the so called premier managemet institue and my personal experience says the same psychology is being carried there also. more on the subject, 10-15% are too good for the system next 30-40% device ways to beat the system, ranging from past test papers to dumping regualr work on group mates while they mug fpor tests. the rest just can’t digest the injustice nor can keep their moral conscious away and just drop out of aprticipating in the system.

    I always wonders what happens when the same become leaders in organisation. can they overconme their anxiety levels to beat the system and think beyond???

    but my little experiment with start a school also shows the problem is not really the kids but the environment around, where 90% marks are just not enough….I also can say there is a realisation, atleast arents of my school…that marginal value of education from 70% to 90% is very little and there are other aspects of life……not necessarily quizzing, general awareness…not necessarily creaivity and analytical ability…..but beyond that.




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