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.