Education lessons from abroad: a tale of two countries

opposite approaches yield positive results in singapore, finland

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13 2013 11:25 p.m. MST

Her PSLE score landed Goh in Singapore's "express" stream — an accelerated track just below the stream for extremely gifted students and above the "normal" and "technical" student streams. Thereafter, she was educated with students who had scored in the same range she did, at school deemed appropriate to her natural ability, though more testing followed to determine placement within the express stream.

Like others in her stream, Goh was shunted toward math and science study. She earned an electrical engineering degree before choosing to switch to the field of exercise and sports science in adulthood. She is proud of her country's education system and has no regrets.

"Singapore is a very small country, highly urbanized and with no natural resources," Goh said. "We rely on human resources — our brain power. The government puts a lot of emphasis on math and science — a lot more than on music, art and sports."

In Salt Lake City, Goh is pursuing a doctoral degree in exercise and sports science, a degree not available in Singapore. She plans to return there after she completes her studies to teach what she has learned in the U.S.

Finland's anomaly

Finland, Yorgason's homeland, is the only Western nation with consistent high rankings on the PISA test and is intriguing because its education model shuns the intense competition and high-stakes testing inherent in Asian systems, focusing instead on creativity and equal education opportunities for all students.

Finland re-booted a failing education system about 30 years ago, said Amanda Ripley, an education reform researcher. In the 1950s, only 10 percent of Finnish students graduated from high school, Ripley said. The country had a long history of domination by Russia and Sweden at the time, and a troubled economy based on mining and timber.

"Finland's government decided that to survive as a nation, they had to move away from resource extraction and invest in people," said Leslie Winner, who visited Finland and Singapore as part of a U.S. education delegation. Winner is executive director of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a North Carolina philanthropic group.

Finland turned its education system around, creating one that focuses on giving high-quality education opportunities to all students, without regard to socioeconomics or natural ability. That effort includes effective early intervention for students who need extra help and emphasis on teacher quality, an element that also distinguishes Singapore's system.

Yorgason, 36, is a registered dietitian with a master's degree. She said that in Finland, students aren't required to start school until age 7, and there is no push toward early reading. But education starts early — at home for those who choose, and in state-sponsored preschools for the majority.

By tradition, young children are taught to be independent and given a stimulating environment. And almost everyone learns to play a musical instrument and sing, Yorgason said. For her, that meant singing in choirs and becoming an accomplished violinist, a pursuit she treasures.

"That's been the backbone of my work ethic — that I started so early to do music," said Yorgason, who perpetuates Finland's customs by helping her daughter practice her violin lessons.

Teachers elevated

Traveling with the U.S. delegation that studied Singapore and Finland convinced Winner that the outstanding commonality between the two systems is a focus on teachers.

"There is a conscious effort to raise up the teaching profession," she said. "We need this attitude, too."

Teacher candidates in Singapore are recruited from the academic upper one-third of high school graduation classes and given full tuition and a salary while studying to become teachers. And the beginning pay for teachers is higher than that for medical doctors starting out in their field.

Finland selects its teacher candidate from the top 20 percent of college students based on entrance exam scores and pays for teacher education. Master's degrees are required for teaching, and teachers' starting salaries are consistent with starting salaries for doctors and lawyers. Yorgason said the respect accorded to teachers mirrors that for doctors and lawyers, too.

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