6 Innovative Ways Different Countries and Schools Have Dealt With Common Student Problems

Image shows a row of flags from different countries.When you spend your childhood growing up in a particular education system, it can be difficult to imagine how teaching could be any different from how you’ve experienced it.

You’d be surprised, then, at some of the educational innovations made possible by going back to the drawing board. In this article, we look at some of the alternative education systems and revolutionary ways of doing things with which various countries and schools have addressed common student problems, and show you the potential for improved academic performance to be had by breaking the mould.

1. Finland: a learning environment free from academic pressure

Image shows dawn over snowfall in Finland.
Finland is known for having one of the world’s best education systems.

Finland’s education system has been crowned the best in the world, its children consistently ranking among the highest-achievers for mathematics, reading and science alike. It achieved these impressive results through major educational reforms forty years ago, despite spending 30% less per student than the US – which is powerful testimony to the effectiveness of the very different model of education the country has come up with. While most education systems are centred on evaluation, with frequent testing, Finland’s 100% state-funded system goes very much against the grain.

So what makes Finland’s education system so different yet so successful? For a start, Finnish children don’t start formal education until they’re seven (compared with four or five in most countries). They do virtually no homework or exams until they’re well into their teens, and they’re not tested at all for their first six years. This lack of competition and academic pressure allows children to flourish, teaching them how to learn, rather than how to pass exams. The only mandatory test Finnish children take is at age 16, at the end of their time at secondary school.
In Finland, children of all abilities are taught in the same class, which allows less academically gifted children to learn from the brighter ones – with the result that the gap between the highest and lowest achievers is the smallest in the world. Yet more proof that Finland is immensely switched on when it comes to education lies in their small science class sizes, which are limited to sixteen students at a time, so that all pupils can participate in scientific experiments. And this superb learning environment clearly works: 66% of students go on to college, which is the highest rate in Europe. They’re evidently doing something very right.

2. The UK and Canada: Raising alertness levels and reducing absenteeism by allowing teenagers to sleep in

Image shows a young woman asleep on a train.
Teenagers have different circadian rhythms from adults, and schools are beginning to take this into account.

An unusual solution to the problem of teenagers needing more sleep hit the headlines in the UK earlier this year, when a school in London became the first to allow teenagers to have a later start. Research found that allowing teenagers to start school just 25 minutes later raised alertness levels, meaning that the pupils were better able to concentrate on learning without having to resort to raising their caffeine intake. The UCL Academy in London moved the start time from 9am to 10am, which made them more alert: proof, if any teenager needed it, that a lie-in isn’t just a luxury – it’s a necessity. It’s not the first time that a later school start time has been advocated, however; back in 2009 a school in Kent moved the start time for sleepy teenagers to 11.30am, with the result, according to the headteacher, that “Their punctuality and attendance has improved, their questioning and answering is better because they are more alert and the pace of lessons is often much quicker”. A school on Tyneside saw absenteeism drop by a third while academic performance increased after it implemented later start times, while in Canada, Toronto’s Eastern Commerce Collegiate was one of a number of Canadian schools to implement a similar shift in start time for the same reason. While such changes have yet to be written into the education systems of these countries as a whole, the success with which these trend-setting schools have been met suggests that it’s worthy of much wider consideration.

3. China: An education system that cultivates amazing maths skills

Image shows Chinese pupils writing on a blackboard.
There have been moves to make the UK education system more like the Chinese one.

In the UK, mathematics is traditionally one of the most hated subjects among school pupils of all ages. On the other hand, Chinese students are famous for their impressive mathematics skills, and it’s clearly a country in which maths is in no way the maligned subject it’s thought of in the UK. So why the difference? It’s important to address this question with Chinese cultural expectations in mind, as this has a clear impact on attitudes towards education as a whole, not just maths. The One Child Policy, for instance, has meant that parents place high demands on their children and expect them to achieve strong academic results across the board. However, maths is a particularly highly regarded subject, and the expectation is there that children will be comfortable in it and that they will work hard to be so.
The country has achieved its impressive maths record through its different teaching methods and approach to maths to those of the UK. China places an emphasis on practising maths and on learning the concepts and logic behind problems, meaning that children are equipped with the necessary knowledge to approach unfamiliar problems more successfully. Teachers illustrate problems using examples that range in difficulty, exposing children to a variety of mathematical scenarios. The whole class is expected to engage in learning as a group, unlike the UK’s focus on attention to the individual, and children are expected to work out solutions to mathematical problems in front of the class, without the concern for public humiliation we have in the UK these days. Interestingly, pupils are also taught to use the right mathematical language, with marks deducted in exams if they do not.
Chinese children typically spend around 15 hours a week working on their maths, a combination of teaching time and homework, and studying mathematics is compulsory until they reach 17 or 18. Towards the end of secondary school there are different maths options for those who wish to take science subjects at undergraduate level and those who wish to take humanities subjects, but they all have to take maths regardless of what degree they wish to pursue; a rare exception may be made for drama students, but that’s it. The teachers are superb, too; they’re specialists in their subjects even at primary school level, and devote lots of time to their own professional development. All this adds up to the ability to produce a nation of people famous for their mathematical aptitude, and there’s surely plenty to be learned from this here in the UK.

4. The Netherlands: “Education for a New Era”

Image shows a street lined with Dutch flags.
The Netherlands has embraced technology in education.

If you’re among those who think that it’s about time that the potential of 21st century technology was properly exploited for educational purposes, you’ll enjoy this next innovation in education. Trust the cool Dutch to come up with a revolutionary new teaching model fit for the digitised world. An educational model called “Education for a New Era” (known as “O4NT” in Dutch) has seen the opening of eleven “iPad Schools” or “Steve Jobs Schools” in Holland, in which iPads and apps replace traditional resources such as books and chalkboards. Proponents of this new concept argue that this not only acknowledges the very different world in which today’s students grow up, but it also better prepares students for the world beyond school by equipping them with the skills they need to take advantage of today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology.
For these schools, technology such as the iPad is not a distraction; it plays a central role in the learning process, and the strong educational value of the iPad is exploited to the full. The present generation is already well-versed in the use of such devices, and these schools recognise that such skills can be put to good use to aid the learning process. The iPad is transformed into a virtual classroom, and, since each child has access to their own iPad, they effectively receive one-to-one tuition, meaning that it caters well to the needs of the individual child. These schools also do away with traditional age group classes; instead, children are grouped into two age brackets, for those aged four to seven and those aged eight to twelve.

Image shows a girl using an iPad.
iPads are being used in innovative ways in Dutch schools.

Because teaching takes place via the iPad, parents can follow what their child is doing from home via an app, and each child has access to a portfolio of their own achievements. Pupils of these schools still go to a physical school building, in which they are taught in rooms for different subjects, take part in educational activities and can socialise and learn with other children, but there’s also a virtual school yard or playground accessed via the iPad. Rather than standing at the front of the classroom disseminating knowledge, teachers in these schools become “coaches”, guiding children as they direct their own learning.
This intriguing educational model ultimately also hopes to provide a solution to a problem we’re used to hearing about in the UK, which is that of parents taking their children out of school during term time to go on holiday (for which parents are now being handed fines). Education in the Steve Jobs Schools can take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, which means that school hours and holidays are very flexible, leaving parents free to decide for themselves what hours their children should study, or when to take them on holiday. Holland isn’t quite there with this yet, but this is certainly amongst plans being discussed, and it surely can’t be long before technology is similarly embraced much more widely than it is currently.

5. The UK’s Studio Schools: Education rooted in the real world

Here in the UK, a new breed of state school has been developed called the Studio School. They’re Government-funded, but their approach to education could hardly be more different from the approach of traditional state schools, with a focus on creativity, the teaching of life skills, and working in small teams on practical projects, as opposed to pupils simply sitting listening to a teacher do the talking. Designed to feel more like the workplace, with work placements alongside traditional academic subjects and 9-5 opening hours, this new mode of teaching is meant to ensure that pupils’ education is rooted in the real world, better equipping them for life outside school.

6. Barefoot College: Education for the developing world

Image shows a somewhat dilapidated classroom in Zambia.
Schools in the developing world can be rudimentary.

Barefoot College is an organisation dedicated to providing an education for the rural poor in the world’s ‘Least Developed Countries’. As well as running projects such as the delivery of clean water and solar energy, Barefoot College is committed to educating those living in poverty and to empowering women. Its classes are held in the evening to allow children to work during the day, with teaching coming from the villagers themselves, for whom the organisation provides the necessary training.
This may not seem particularly relevant to the advanced education systems of developed countries, but the approach taken by Barefoot College is unusual and potentially has a valuable point to make. The College believes in tapping into the innate wisdom found within the people of impoverished rural communities; “literacy”, they say, “is what one acquires in school, but ‘education’ is what one gains from family, traditions, culture, environment and personal experiences.” Thus, in a radical departure from traditional schools, “everyone is considered an education resource, the teacher as well as the student and the literate as well as illiterate.” It may not offer certificates and qualifications in the way we know them, and its lessons may not look like those we’d recognise in the UK, but this extraordinary organisation strips education to the fundamentals and gives every individual the chance to develop themselves and improve their lives through practical education, of which literacy is only one aspect. Since 1975, the College has educated 75,000 people in a system that deserves to be much more widely applied.
From Finland’s approach to academic pressure to China’s lack of maths hatred, and from the UK’s solution to sleepy students and absenteeism to Holland’s approach to 21st century education, we’ve now seen that there’s much to be admired in the innovative ways in which a selection of countries have tackled common educational problems. There are many lessons to be learned from these unusual modes of education, not least that the traditional methods aren’t always the most effective, nor necessarily the best way of preparing students for life.


Image credits: banner; Finland; asleep; China; Netherlands; iPad; Zambia.