The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) keeps track of things like students performances around the world and compares data based on economic information as well as learning policies.
One such policy is the amount of time that students are expected to spend on homework. Homework policies around the world vary widely. In Finland, high school students may spend around three hours per week completing homework assignments. In the U.S., homework time is doubled. Yet Finnish students lead the world in global scores for math and science. They come in third among 57 countries for scores in reading. The U.S., on the other hand, hovers in the middle of the charts in all three disciplines.
Despite the siren song of homework proponents who insist that homework increases student performance, this OECD graph shows that this is rarely the case. In fact, this comparison of students within each country shows how piling on the homework can actually be detrimental to student's scores.
As this graph shows, in many countries, the more time students spend on homework, the worse they perform in school. (Photo: OECD)
It seems the world has caught on to this idea that less is more when it comes to homework. In its latest report, the OECD found that the average number of hours that students spent doing homework decreased from 2003 to 2012 in almost every country around the world, except for the U.S. American students have seen an increase in weekly homework, yet test scores have remained stagnant over the 10-year study period.
So what do countries like Finland know about homework that we Americans don't? The answer is not a simple one. There are many factors that affect an educational system — from poverty rates to parental leave policies to the availability of preschools — and they can't all be quantified in neat little charts. In addition to its minimalism when it comes to homework, Finland also has subsidized daycare, generous maternity leave policies and free health care for students. All of these policies affect student grades as much as or maybe even more so than their low teacher-student ratios or the fact that teaching is one of the most highly respected occupations in the country.
One major difference that is evident between Finnish and American homework policies is that of content. In the U.S., homework — particularly in elementary and middle schools — consists of worksheets that reward memorization over rational thinking. But content is king when it comes to homework in Finland. Students aren't assigned homework unless it plays an integral role in what they are learning. This changes the way that both teachers and students view the assignments. Teachers in Finland are also actively encouraged to alter assignments based on the needs of individual students.
The point isn't that homework is evil. It's that we are doing it wrong. And if we really want students to benefit from extra hours spent hitting the books, it makes sense to take a closer look at the countries that are doing it right.
There’s No Homework in Finland
Which countries have the best education system and why?
Nordic education is often held up as a shining example of best practices. Students are given a great deal of freedom, can pursue interests, and teachers are held up as shining examples to be emulated. And this is a good system in a lot of ways: So long as your students buy-in, are typical, and non-problematic. The Finnish system is excellent for a largely homogenous country in a relatively small area with a similar culture that values education. In short: the Finnish system is great for Finns. The Finnish system does not shine nearly so well for students who are unusual, largely because they don’t have a lot of them. Special needs kids tend, comparatively to other countries, to be underserved. They operate in largely the same ways as other kids, but that won’t work so well for them. Rebellious/education-rejecting students are similarly very poorly handled. Finland’s “bright side” of its education is indeed a shining star of awesome, but their underside is just as dirty as anywhere else. Overall, though, Finland’s practices are definitely best for Finland. Top marks.
The Chinese education system tends to take a lot of heat in the Western world, but much of it is undeserved. Here’s a quick reminder: China has a population of 1.3 BILLION people. Dirty math puts that at quadruple the United States and two hundred and sixty times the population of Finland.
Now tell me, Mr.American-Insulter-of-Chinese-Systems, exactly what non-standardized approach you’re going to use to individualize the education of the children of ONE. BILLION. PEOPLE.
Of course China leans heavily on standardization! You have this many children, that many college seats, and you have to compare these bogglingly large numbers of children from across this huge country: you’re going to have to have some standard metrics. China recognizes the value of teaching children to think (contrary to Western media sentiments) and does a decent job of teaching them to think in the Chinese style. China puts tremendous value on testing and the value of tests, and so they shine mightily in that vein. This system, which would be terrible in Finland and is so maligned in the United States, is exactly what China needs. They’re still tinkering with it — and so they should — but their system makes sense for them. Their practices are the best for the needs of the Chinese. Top marks.
The United States model is either brilliant or horrible, depending on which parts you look at, and who’s talking about it.
American education loves it some tech these days. Yes, yes it does.
In America, a great war is being fought over differentiation vs. standardization, great, country-spanning curriculums and town-specific lesson plans. In essence, we’re caught between Finland and China, and we’re trying to sample the best of both. At the same time, though, there are a few things in which America positively shines in education, and we frequently forget to celebrate these things:
The United States positively kicks ass at teaching atypical children.