Chairman’s Corner is an educational blog series by Litoro founder and current board chairman Luke. In his free time, Luke loves to learn about all things education – ranging from different educational models to the latest in edtech solutions. Through the blog series, he hopes to share his learnings and help others see the importance of striving for equity in education.

Educational Models Around the World

On the surface, educational systems in developed nations appear relatively similar to one another – scholars are taught by qualified teachers, following standardized curriculums, in classrooms that are not overcrowded, and for a similar amount of hours per day. At least for many years this was the belief I held, leading to me lumping educational success into the dichotomous ‘developed versus developing’ buckets. However, once I started exploring the topic more thoroughly, I quickly learnt that, in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth – leading educational paradigms are not made equal, and the results are evident for all to see. My favorite work on the topic is Amanda Ripley’s exceptional book ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.’ In her book Ripley explores where exactly elite educational models diverge and how these differences manifest in their respective societies. For this month’s educational entry, I will look to expound on some of the critical takeaways from her book, hopefully helping others see that educational success is not just determined by the size of a country’s budget, but rather by the methods and culture that it fosters.


Throughout her research, Ripley centres her attention on 3 distinct educational systems outside of the United States, namely those found in South Korea, Finland, and Poland. These choices are not at all random, she chooses South Korea and Finland due to their preeminent academic results, while Poland is selected for its rapid rise in educational standards in recent decades. Moreover, in order to compare these educational models, Riley explores the countries’ results through a standardized test known as the PISA, which stands for ‘Programme for International Student Assessment.’ The test, similar in content to other standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, measures 15 year old students in 3 key areas, namely reading, mathematics, and science – with a particular emphasis on critical thinking as opposed to rote-learning. As Ripley asserts, “the promise of PISA was that it would reveal which countries were teaching kids to think for themselves.”


While Ripley’s book, which was published in 2013, is largely focused on the results of the 2009 PISA test, I thought I’d include the latest results when comparing the countries in her study – in this case the 2018 edition, given that the test is only administered every 3 years. Out of the 4 nations in her research (if you include the U.S. as her baseline), South Korea leads the quartet’s PISA ranks coming in at 7th, with Finland and Poland narrowly behind in 10th and 11th respectively. On the other hand, the United States comes in at 25th, despite spending the most globally on public education per student – a major concern for Ripley and one which prompted much of her book’s research. Now for the question I’m sure you may be wondering – how are countries like South Korea, Finland, and Poland cultivating such great academic results?


To find this out, Ripley decided to enlist the help of ‘field agents,’ who could infiltrate these countries’ education systems and find out what makes them tick. Specifically, she selects 3 young American scholars, each studying abroad for a year, to help her investigate how these nation’s schools operate, and where exactly they differed from the American paradigm. Here’s what she found:


South Korea’s prolific academic success ultimately came down to one main component – namely an intense drive and indefatigable work-ethic. Ripley’s research scholar in Korea, Eric, was at first bemused to see his fellow classmates sleeping through classes; however, he soon realized why. You see, students in South Korea spend all day at school before proceeding to private tutoring schools for further studies late into the night. These after-hours institutions, known as hagwons, are where the real learning occurs, with students and parents willing to sacrifice both physically and financially to achieve success on the country’s notorious university entrance exams. The levels of exhaustion scholars are willing to endure has even become so concerning for the nation’s government that the police actually raid hagwons to ensure they don’t stay open past their 10 pm curfew. Evidently, such a rigorous high school culture has facilitated outstanding academic results, but at what cost?


In fact, the case of Finland may provide answers to this very question. You see, the academic results in the country are comparable to those found in South Korea, yet scholars are able to achieve them without the same lengthy hours and uncompromising commitment. Instead, their success is largely attributed to the country’s exceptional teachers. This manifests right from the beginning of the teacher training cycle, with high level requirements ensuring only the brightest young minds can enrol at the country’s designated teacher training colleges. From there, these programs are – in and of themselves – formidable and lengthy, meaning the teachers that emerge successfully from them are both highly trained and well respected in society. Given these factors, teachers in Finland are able to better implement their curriculums and overall report higher job satisfaction – leading to far less teacher turnover than other nations.


Finally, turning our attention to Poland, Ripley finds that the nation’s swift rise up the PISA ranks has less to do with any singular intervention, but rather the result of a deluge of targeted reforms. These included heightening the country’s curriculum, requiring all students to sit rigorous graduation exams, and improving teacher training standards. Moreover, the nation also began providing additional funds to underperforming schools, while they also began delaying the streaming of students, rather advancing a less specialized, more holistic outlook on high school education. Lastly, Polish students also seemingly had greater commitment to their studies – at least according to Tom, Ripley’s exchange student in the region. He argued that while scholars back home in America were often fixated on high school extracurriculars like sports, Polish teens saw academic success as the principal objective of their formative years.


All in all, Riply’s book provides a thought provoking look at how the world’s foremost educational systems operate and what truly sets them apart from their competitors. More specifically, for me personally, the book expanded my mind to the complexities of education – even in developed nations – and showed me that educational success does not simply come down to fiscal numbers or historical results but rather far more complex cultural and societal structures.