Correction Appended: May 16, 2011
Spring may be just around the corner in this poor part of Helsinki known as the Deep East, but the ground is still mostly snow-covered and the air has a dry, cold bite. In a clearing outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School, a handful of 9-year-olds are sitting back to back, arranging sticks, pinecones, stones and berries into shapes on the frozen ground. The arrangers will then have to describe these shapes using geometric terms so the kids who can't see them can say what they are.
"It's a different way of conceptualizing math when you do it this way instead of using pen and paper, and it goes straight to the brain," says Veli-Matti Harjula, who teaches the same group of children straight through from third to sixth grade. Educators in Sweden, not Finland, came up with the concept of "outside math," but Harjula didn't have to get anybody's approval to borrow it. He can pretty much do whatever he wants, provided that his students meet the very general objectives of the core curriculum set by Finland's National Board of Education. For math, the latest national core curriculum runs just under 10 pages (up from 3½ pages for the previous core curriculum).
The Finns are as surprised as much as anyone else that they have recently emerged as the new rock stars of global education. It surprises them because they do as little measuring and testing as they can get away with. They just don't believe it does much good. They did, however, decide to participate in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And to put it in a way that would make the noncompetitive Finns cringe, they kicked major butt. The Finns have participated in the global survey four times and have usually placed among the top three finishers in reading, math and science.
In the latest PISA survey, in 2009, Finland placed second in science literacy, third in mathematics and second in reading. The U.S. came in 15th in reading, close to the OECD average, which is where most of the U.S.'s results fell.
Finland's only real rivals are the Asian education powerhouses South Korea and Singapore, whose drill-heavy teaching methods often recall those of the old Soviet-bloc Olympic-medal programs. Indeed, a recent manifesto by Chinese-American mother Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, chides American parents for shrinking from the pitiless discipline she argues is necessary to turn out great students. Her book has led many to wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease.
Which is why delegations from the U.S. and the rest of the world are trooping to Helsinki, where world-class results are achieved to the strains of a reindeer lullaby. "In Asia, it's about long hours long hours in school, long hours after school. In Finland, the school day is shorter than it is in the U.S. It's a more appealing model," says Andreas Schleicher, who directs the PISA program at the OECD.
There's less homework too. "An hour a day is good enough to be a successful student," says Katja Tuori, who is in charge of student counseling at Kallahti Comprehensive, which educates kids up to age 16. "These kids have a life."
There are rules, of course. No iPods or portable phones in class. No hats indoors. (They also tried a no-coat rule, but it was just too cold.) But not much else. Tuori spots a kid texting in class and shoots him a reproachful glance. He quickly puts the phone away. "You have to do something really bad, like hit somebody, to actually get punished," says Tuori.