Anyone who has looked at international education outcomes has inevitably asked, what are the South Koreans and the Finns doing to keep getting the top marks in the global class? According to this article by Amy S. Choi, it is a different approach from each that yields the chart-topping performance. In Korea, it seems to be grit and hard work while in Finland it is an extracurricular choice and intrinsic motivation.
I worked for over 5 years in South Korea’s high-stakes education system and saw first hand how far students and their parents were willing to go to achieve the best grades possible. But it is more than just hard work and stamina that allow South Korean students to succeed. The government invests heavily in early childhood education and care as well as programs for students at risk. The results seem to point to a reduction in the achievement gap of disparate socioeconomic groups, one of the most salient factors of academic achievement that we can track.
Finland, too, puts great emphasis on early education, though the focus of the early years is on play and socialization. Another similarity between the two nations is the general high regard for teachers. In South Korea respect for the teacher is an outgrowth of a culture steeped in Confucianism. In Finland it is because teachers are highly trained, requiring masters degrees and research specialties.
One big difference between the two is the amount of time spent in the class. In South Korea, students often go to school on Saturdays and in the evenings at private academies. Finnish children, on the other hand, have less homework, spend less time in school, and have more breaks throughout the school day compared to other OECD countries.
Of course, the actual picture is incredibly more complicated than this. Culture, economy, history, and global forces play a role in the educational outcomes of a country. One may look at the working hours, suicide rates, levels of happiness, or other indicators of quality of life before deeming any one system a success over any another, but judging from academic performance alone, it is worth taking a closer look at what Korea and Finland are doing in the classroom. Is there something other systems can adapt or adopt?