What do the world’s best education systems have in common?

Does the PISA Report sound familiar to you? Surely yes, since every so often all the news and media report their results. But do you know what exactly this report is? This is the Program for the International Assessment of Students, promoted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that is carried out every three years globally, and that measures the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in three areas: reading, math, and science. With the results of each country, the OECD is able to calculate which are the best educational systems in the world.

And, what is the secret to get to be in the top positions? Despite the fact that the countries that top the rankings are very heterogeneous, they share three key factors: teacher qualifications, cross-curricular learning, and free studies. In this post, we break down these three characteristics that help us understand the success of the best educational systems. 

What are the best educational systems in the world?

The last PISA Report dates from 2019, and in the top 10 of the best educational systems are five countries in Asia and four in Europe: the first positions are occupied by  China, Singapore, Macao, and Hong Kong. In fifth and sixth place we find two veteran Nordic countries in the list of best educational systems:  Estonia and Finland. The seventh place is for  Canada, the only country in America to sneak into the top 10, while  Ireland ranks eighth followed by  South Korea, in ninth, and  Poland, in the tenth. Other countries with elite education systems that have been ranking high in the OECD for years are the Netherlands, Sweden, or Japan. And Spain?  Our country is in position 24. 

What do the world’s best education systems have in common?

As you can see, the countries in the top positions in the PISA ranking are very different and it might seem that their educational systems are too: it is well known, for example, the enormous demand to which students in China or Japan are subjected Contrast with the flexible education of the Nordic countries. However, these systems share the following key features: 

  • High qualification of teachers 

One of the common points of these educational systems is the very high qualification required of students to be able to dedicate themselves to teaching: for example, in Singapore only 5% of the students who obtained the highest grades among college graduates. In Finland, only students with the best ‘selectivity’ scores (more than a 9/10) can take the national selection exam. This exam, which is complemented by a series of specific tests (technologies, art, an interview …), is used to decide who is qualified to take the Teaching career: only the best 10% of candidates end up accessing it. 


Another of the common aspects of the countries in the top positions in the PISA ranking is creative learning, which replaces the traditional ‘blackboard and notebook’ method. Perhaps the paradigmatic example is the particular Finnish educational system, since in this country children do not have tests or homework to do at home, nor do they have specific subjects. So what do they do in schools to achieve such high results? The key is to enhance the student’s transversal thinking and their creative capacity through thematic projects in open spaces: this allows students to own their own learning process and progress through curiosity and not by pressure for results. 

In Estonia, much importance is given to projects outside the classroom, focused on real day-to-day problems, and students are also given the freedom to choose from a large number of subjects. Singapore is also a good example of this system, as students are encouraged to carry out their own projects with the tools and materials provided, while teaching by memorization is not recommended. 

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