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Totally Different Things US Education Can Learn from South Korea and Finland

written by: Eighty Six • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 8/19/2015

The U.S. education system ranks in the middle of the international pack: number 14 in the 2014 Pearson index, and in the 2012 PISA exams, American 15-year-olds placed 36th in math, 28th in science and 24th in reading. To make the top tier, we need to see what the rest of the planet is doing better.

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    What US Education Can Learn from South Korea Finland and South Korea routinely rank among the world's best education systems. Other than that commonality, they could not be more different. Their methods of teaching students are opposite from one another, yet their results are both admirable. What can we learn from two disparate nations that can improve our own teaching?

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    South Korea: School Won't Be Easy

    Education in South Korea and the rest of Asia is rooted in Confucianism. Confucius was a Chinese educator born around 550 BC who built a great reputation for teaching righteousness, thoughtful conduct and the potential of every human. He believed in making education universally accessible and that every person can achieve greatness through learning and dedication.

    “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed,” he said. “If in terms of 10 years, plant trees. If in terms of 100 years, teach the people.”

    Taking this to heart, South Koreans believe every child can be brilliant. What separates the educated from the uneducated is hard work. They do not believe in talent, only effort.

    They also understand rivalry. Near the end of the 20th century when the Japanese were influencing the world with cars, computers and other technologies, the South Koreans knew they could do it too. They made it a national priority to raise a generation that knew two things: technology and English.

    With these two weapons, their students could change the world. The rise of Hyundai, Kia, LG and Samsung prove that they are achieving their goals.

    It’s not fun being a South Korean student. Twelve hours of study per day, year round school, tutors and extra classes after class are common. School is not meant to be enjoyable. It is a rite of passage. It's a mountain to be climbed. When students graduate from this meat-grinder, they understand the value of hard work, they know how to learn and they can recover from failure.

    South Korea employs over 20,000 foreign English teachers. English has become the universal language of business, but it's a curious mongrel of a tongue. Learning from a book does not compare to learning from a native. Idioms, figures of speech and local dialects vary broadly, so South Korea brings in Americans, British, Canadians and Australians to prepare their students for everything.

    When you have a great job, then you might earn a vacation. Don't expect one in high school. Put on your uniform and cram for exams. Trust your teachers and parents that it will be worth it.

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    Finland: Learn What You Want

    The average teacher in the US spends 1100 hours per year in the classroom. The average Finnish teacher spends only 600. Their students also have short days, little homework and take numerous field trips. One-third of the classes they take in high school are electives. When students fall behind, teachers take them on as individual cases and find a way to reach them.

    Finnish teachers use their extra hours to collaborate, learn and meet with families. Learning is an ongoing process for the educators, as well. Moreover, great minds work better when they exchange ideas. Teachers are enabled to spend time sharing successes and failures. They develop and try new things. Administrators trust their employees and empower them to change the curriculum when appropriate.

    Education is much less stressful than in South Korea. Students grow socially and personally as well as academically. Although Finnish students rank high in international tests, the numbers are not the goal. They are building people who are inquisitive, analytical and follow their curiosities. Finnish academics were initially quite surprised to realize their education system was becoming world-class. They were just doing things the right way.

    Yet like South Korea, Finland understands its place in the world. Over the centuries, Holland, Spain, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and Italy have all taken turns being the super-power in Europe. The Finns know that in order to survive in the world, they must communicate. They know that nobody else speaks Finnish, so every kid is at least bilingual. Swedish is a must and to do business outside of their little Scandinavian corner, they must learn other tongues such as German, Spanish, Russian or English.

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    What Can the United States Learn?

    South Korea and Finland represent equally successful extremes in education. Somewhere in the middle is a road for the United States.

    Is school in America too easy? Are we caught up entertaining, coddling and protecting our children? Life after school is tough and, like South Korea, we need to produce tough graduates. Success in business requires continuous learning, long hours and persistence in the face of adversity. We should be giving our students that type of honed edge.

    Is school too tough for teachers? Is overworked and underpaid a formula for building successful educators? Teachers need space to breathe and time to learn from each other. Collaboration must be enabled and encouraged. Like Finnish teachers, ours need time to reflect and freedom to improvise. More than 1,000 hours a year in the classroom is too many.

    Language must be a priority. Business has never been more international and expecting the rest of the world to speak our language is arrogant. Fluency in at least one other tongue should be common upon high school or college graduation. This should start early when preschool minds are most absorbent. After growing up bilingual, adding another language is much easier.

    Above all, we need to drop the idea that the United States is the supreme super-power in the world. If we want it to be true again, we need to adopt an underdog mentality. Raising a generation of brilliant minds takes ingenuity, grit and passion, which used to be core American values.

    We can have an elite education system once again. By looking around at our neighbors, respecting their success and adopting some of their habits, the United States can return to having world-class students and teachers.