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Educating for the Future: Case Studies from Finland and South Korea

By Jennifer Zhang

The only thing that’s certain about the future is its uncertainty. This adage holds doubly true for the world’s job markets.

According to McKinsey, less than five percent of existing occupations can be wholly automated using current technology. Although as much as a third of constituent activities in 60 percent of trades could become automated. Predictions for global job loss by 2030 range from 10 to 800 million—a third of the full-time workforce. Technological advancement, digitization, and globalization will create immense yet uncertain ripples in the job market. This raises pertinent questions for how society will prepare the group that will be impacted the most—students.

Future-proof skills

The future workplace is predicted to become less structured, and employers are increasingly calling upon their employees to freelance across multiple businesses, projects, and “gigs.” And as technology edges out jobs in menial labor, administration, and other repetitive vocations, workers must become adaptable and proficient in interpersonal skills that machines cannot replace—these include leadership, digital and face-to-face networking, social skills, emotional intelligence, and resilience. Technical skills, such as data and information management, programming, digital literacy, and critical analysis, will also be in high demand. However, these skill sets are rarely integrated into education systems.

Finland and South Korea

Education systems vary significantly across the world in terms of access, quality, content, and length. There is ample variation among developed countries, but most fall somewhere between Finland and South Korea when it comes to test scores—both consistently score among the highest on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Finland’s public education system emphasizes teacher autonomy and open-ended, often project-based learning that deepens critical thinking and interpersonal skills. There is little to no homework and no standardized testing. The average time spent in conventional lessons is 24.2 hours per week, the second-lowest among PISA participants. This leaves ample time for teachers to develop curricula and students to pursue extracurriculars. Consequently, Finland has some of the lowest rates of competition among students, personal dissatisfaction, and schoolwork-related anxiety. However, context is critical to interpreting these results. Finnish teachers are highly respected, there are next to no private schools, income inequality is low (but growing), and the population is ethnically homogeneous.

South Korea, in contrast, is centered on rigorous, lecture-style instruction that measures student success through frequent exams and yearly standardized testing. The average time spent in conventional classrooms is 30.3 hours, the fifth-highest among PISA participants. Also, many students receive private tutoring for college entrance exams, adding up to 11 hours of instruction per day. Student life satisfaction is remarkably low, while the student suicide rate is 7.8 per 100,000 people, the second-highest in the world. Like Finland, teachers are highly respected, and the population is ethnically homogeneous, but almost half of upper-secondary students are enrolled in private schools, and income inequality is high.

Future-proofing education

The average half-life of a learned technical skill has declined to five years. Thus, many employers and workers are confronting the necessity of life-long learning and frequent re-skilling. It is unlikely that primary or secondary education systems can equip students with all the technical skills that will be needed for employment. Fortunately, there is no expiration date on interpersonal skills, which countries are starting to incorporate into curricula.

A revision to South Korea’s national curriculum, due to be fully implemented by 2020, adds six key competencies that include creative thinking, communication, civic engagement, and aesthetic-emotional competency. Singapore’s desired education outcomes include character development, creativity, and cooperation. In 2015, the Netherlands initiated curriculum development to incorporate social and emotional skills, problem-solving, and creativity. Many other countries have taken similar steps. The 2015 PISA examination included an assessment on collaborative problem solving, where South Korean students scored four points better on average than Finnish ones (which may seem counter-intuitive) and where students from the United States ranked 13th—higher than in any other subject.

Room for improvement

There is a great deal of separation between the text of national curricula and what is implemented. And a multiple-choice standardized test cannot fully simulate working with people in the real world. A 2018 Global Youth Index study of 25 countries showed that only half of secondary school students have worked with others in a group project or given an oral presentation, while only a third have led others in a group project or school-related event.

Some education reformers believe the answer is personal learning, enabled by technology. Some have called for the full integration of computer science into schools as a core course alongside language, science, mathematics, and social studies. Some argue the answer already exists with vocational schools that substitute conceptual learning with hands-on training. One must recall that the half-life of a technical skill is already only five years and continuing to decline.

Perhaps Finnish educators have already discovered the solution to making students ready for the future—by giving them a self-directed, entrepreneurial classroom. Implementing similar models around the world would call for a fundamental re-design of education, such as shortened lesson times, student autonomy, reduced standardized testing, and practical learning. In many countries, this runs counter to cultural tradition and the instincts of policymakers accustomed to quantitative assessment. However, if governments around the world already recognize the importance of interpersonal skills in educating the future workforce, change may be closer than we think.

Jennifer Zhang is a youth policy advocate and lead ambassador with Knovva Academy, an international education organization. She was a speaker and teenage youth representative at the 2018 and 2019 Youth 20 summits. She is currently studying political science at Columbia University.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.