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At the IDB, we believe that together we can go farther. Our partnership network is making positive differences in Latin America and the Caribbean every day, and this blog is our channel for telling that story. Stay tuned for literature on partnership perspectives, stories from the field, changing trends, outlooks for development and the region, information on ways and opportunities to partner, and more. Thanks for stopping by.

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Is Recess the Key to Development? A Perspective from Finland

By and - Jan 28 2016


If you were asked to build a toolbox for development success, what would you include? Likely you would throw in quality health care, reliable energy sources, a strong entrepreneurial culture, and access to broadband and communications technologies. You may also think to add regional integration, a robust middle class, and dependable infrastructure. Assuredly, education would top your priority list, but would recess and playtime make the cut?

If it wouldn’t, think again. While education remains a major challenge for Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries, partner nations who have chosen a more creative approach to schooling are reaping positive results. Finland, a country widely recognized for its top marks on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is one such example. Famous for their prolonged recess breaks and light homework loads, Finland’s innovative education methodologies have made it a global leader in this space. With their “we can’t afford to waste a brain” motto circling the globe as an energizing call to action in the area of education, let’s hear from Thomas Vikberg of Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture to hear about schooling in Finland and what LAC stands to learn from it.

IDB: Finland is a leader in education innovations, with observers noting the infrequency with which Finnish educators rely on traditional lecturing. How do you build an environment conducive to such innovation? How can LAC develop similar out-of-the-box solutions to education challenges and development challenges more generally? 

Finland: Innovation in the Finnish educational system is very much generated bottom-up, as much autonomy is given to teachers. Legislation and the National Core Curriculum give demanding guidelines for providers of education as to how schools should be organized (for example, teachers must have a master’s degree and education must be free of charge, including materials, health care, dental care, commuting and daily warm lunch), but do not interfere with how teachers teach or what materials they use. The educational system is built upon trust in educated teachers with research-based degrees to make the right decisions in class, which in turn leaves a lot of space for innovation in the system.


IDB: The OECD reports that 82% of Finnish 25-34 year-olds have the equivalent of a high-school degree. Meanwhile, only half of LAC’s students are graduating from secondary school. Analyses indicate this dropout rate is not triggered by a lack of schools, but rather a lack of relevance. How can LAC make education more quality, valuable, and relevant to the futures of its students?

Finland: Finland’s retention success in secondary education could partly be explained by our dual model, where students can choose between academic or vocational studies. This gives students the possibility to choose between two equally recognized public forms of education according to their preference and skills. Finland’s secondary education system consists of two tracks: general and vocational (VET) education. Both tracks are voluntary, three year programs and free of tuition fees. Over 90 % of age groups participating in either track.

The general track consists of mostly academic subjects and ends with a matriculation examination, the only national test in the Finnish education system.

VET education is oriented towards work-life and is implemented both at educational institutions and on work places. What is noteworthy is that VET education also provides eligibility into higher education, so for example a student who chose vocational studies can be selected into university.

IDB: Finland is a top performer in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews, whereas LAC countries’ poor education quality is well reflected in their low PISA scores. With school attendance improving, how can LAC ensure students’ time is well spent?

Finland: Current legislation defines the purpose of basic education as supporting pupils’ growth into humanity andethically responsible membership of society, and as responsible for providing them with knowledge and skills needed in life. This has an effect on how teaching is conducted, as students’ understanding through their own realisation is valued over drilling. This also makes it possible for the school day, especially for young children, to be short. Some of the key elements of our educational system are equity, competent and motivated teachers, flexibility in governance, and trust through professionalism. The most important task for education is to prepare children to meet the challenges of the modern society.

A key to Finland’s success in PISA is the low number of low achievers in the educational system. This is due to the thinking that all children should be given the same opportunity to succeed in school. The Finnish educational system is comprised of a majority of public schools (1-2% private), where emphasis is put on making them all equally good. As a rule, schools do not choose their pupils, but each pupil is ensured access to a school in his/her own school district. The Finnish education system ensures equal opportunities for basic education for all children and young people regardless of social status, gender, residential area, economic situation, language, or cultural or ethnic background. Basic education is entirely free, including tuition, teaching materials, school meals, health care, dental care and transportation to school.

Parents can trust that all schools follow the same national curriculum and have educated teachers. Those providing education must work together with the pupils’ homes. The decrees also state that pupils and their guardians should be informed of the pupils’ progress,  work, and behaviour at adequately frequent intervals. Education shall be open and public, and parents shall have the possibility of getting to know the every-day life and operating methods of the school.

Support for pupils and students are based on early intervention. A pupil has the right to get instruction and guidance counseling in accordance with the curriculum, as well as sufficient support in learning and school going as soon as the need arises.


IDB: Globally the education world has acknowledged the importance of both structured and unstructured play for a child’s learning. Finland has taken this well into account, giving elementary school students 75 minutes of recess a day versus a US average of 27 minutes. How can LAC tap into play as a means of improving education?

Finland: Basic education starts relatively late in Finland, typically in the year the child turns seven. Before that all children must participate in pre-primary education or in comparable activity , where play is central. During basic education, students have regular opportunities for recess and unstructured play. This serves to let children have fun, ease stress and helps children be more focused during teaching. Class-time is also spent on subjects aside from academic subjects. All students study physical education, music, visual arts, crafts, and home economics during their basic education.

Information about education by the Ministry of Education and Culture: http://www.minedu.fi/OPM/Koulutus/?lang=en

Finnish Education system by the National Board of Education: http://www.oph.fi/english/education_system

Thomas Vikberg (@twiitberg on Twitter) works at the Ministry of Education and Culture, where his tasks currently focus on topics including topics in the digitalization of education, cooperation between Nordic countries and STEM education. He holds a Master of Science in Mathematics, and has a background in research on redesigning mathematics and computer science education at the University of Helsinki.

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