Articles like this one make my heart sing but also make my head shake a wee bit. Because in my mind the number one reason Finnish kids do better than North American ones in education isn't because of teachers' unions or socio-economic status or any other systemic or institutional reason. Well, OK. Maybe a bit. I'm sure giving teachers enough autonomy to teach as they see fit contributes to better classrooms. But that's not where it's at.
I am not an expert in educational systems. But my experience homeschooling three kids for almost a decade now has taught me one giant lesson: children do not react well to a system that treats them like mini-bureaucrats. They don't do well in systems where they're in an unnatural setting (are there buildings less like the natural world than schools, I ask you? They look like insecticide factories), forced to comply with a regimented schedule, where they are constantly supervised and tested, and where they have very little time to play without constraints.
My kids are 10, 8 and "almost 7". I've done most of the homeschooling for the last few years. It's been a mix of classical curriculum (with a huge emphasis on stories, fables and fairy tales) and unschooling (where I basically give them freedom to decide what they want to look up and study - I have one kid who became an expert in animals that way, watching one nature documentary after another in her free time).
Recently we've overhauled our system a bit, because I was having trouble teaching the more advanced math my eldest requires (she'd normally be in grade 5 if she went to school, but she's a solid year ahead of that). The kids now spend three mornings a week (about 90 minutes) working on math/science, piano and French with their dad, and I take the other two mornings to do world history, literature, arts, grammar and whatever else strikes our fancy (including lots of crafts and drawing). My kids also get to sleep - usually 9 or 10 hours a night. This makes a huge difference in their life and health, which in turn helps them learn their lessons better.
We spend on average no more than 90 minutes a day teaching the kids. We don't take summer breaks, mind you, so it works out to a decent average compared to how many hours school kids spend actively learning anything in their institutionalized setting. We have never done any homework. We also don't give out tests. Just exercises to master. But you know what we do give the kids? Time to play. Not play dates, just free time. They're big enough to go to the park by themselves now, as long as they're together (it's a short walk, and the eldest has a phone of her own for emergencies and keeping in touch with me), and sure enough they enjoy that freedom to play unsupervised. They understand that freedom comes at a price - they must be responsible and well-behaved, and look out for each other. This does wonderful things for their character and developing maturity.
I will never insist enough on that - it is crucial for the development of children that they be given lots of time to play unsupervised. Not that you shouldn't watch young children for their safety. By "unsupervised" I mean: you the parent do not direct their play. You don't organize their games. You don't interfere in their minor squabbles unless it gets out of hand. You let them be. I don't even take part in their games anymore. I listen to hem tell me all about it, of course, but I don't get involved. I don't want to tell them how to imagine things. That's something they must do for themselves.
The results? So far, so excellent. I look at the provincial curriculum for reference, and based on that my three kids are all well ahead of where they would be in school, especially in reading and writing, where they all perform years ahead of their grades (maybe because both parents are writers, cough). My eldest trains with the karate team and has lots of time to develop her skills there (as well as travel to tournaments). My middle daughter devours every book and documentary on animals she can lay her hands on. As for the smaller one, she's had years now to develop her talent as an artist - she draws, paints, does things with paper and scissors, and all manner of creative things.
I don't like the idea of testing children, but I would be very curious to see how my homeschooled weirdos would fare compared to Finnish kids their age. My gut (based on everything I've read and heard about the Finnish system) tells me they'd be pretty much equivalent. I wish there were options for North American kids to get what my kids get without necessarily having the parents do all the schooling. Homeschooling isn't for everyone, and I'm here to tell you it's not easy. If I had the option to send them to a school that does more or less what I've been doing, I would, because then I'd have more time for my own pursuits.
It's not so much the school system we need to overhaul in North America. It's our expectations of what schools should do that needs fixing. We need to understand that kids don't need tight schedules and performance tests, that they need a lot more freedom and play instead.