Finnish students spend considerably less time in class and have far less homework than their counterparts in Hong Kong. They don't do many drills, rote learning is frowned upon, and tests are few and far between. But they performed slightly better than their Hong Kong counterparts on a standardised test designed to measure student achievement in three key areas.
According to the Program for International Assessment, which tests the maths, science and verbal skills of 15-year-olds around the world once every three years, Finnish students came in third, behind only those in Shanghai and South Korea, and ahead of those in Hong Kong, who came fourth.
So what is the secret of the Finnish educational system's success? The Finnish schooling system is essentially egalitarian in nature. Students are under little pressure to outperform their peers. Everyone is supposed to be average, but that average is expected to be very, very high.
Elementary school teachers in Finland are required to have a master's degree. And due to a highly selective recruitment process, fewer than one in 10 applicants to teacher-training programmes make the grade. They are also well paid, only have to work 190 days a year, and are highly respected as professionals in Finnish society.
Unlike their counterparts in Hong Kong, who spend long hours in class, followed by heaps of homework, Finnish students get less than an hour's homework. They are also not streamed into different bands according to their ability, and are often taught by the same teacher for as long as six years. Because teachers spend more than a year with the same group of students, they can adjust their style of teaching to fit the learning capabilities of that group.
When it comes to curriculum, little is mandated by the government. Finnish teachers have considerable autonomy on what to teach and how they teach. The emphasis is on experiential learning rather than listening to lectures and taking notes.
In many parts of the world, students are expected to take responsibility for their own learning, but Chinese parents have traditionally played an active role educating children.
'In other countries, parents are not expected to drill their children at home, but in Chinese culture, parents are supposed to prepare their children for school,' says Florrie Ng, assistant professor of educational psychology at the Chinese University. 'In Hong Kong, schools expect parents to be involved, and help students with their homework.'
This is often a challenge for parents, especially if they have demanding jobs, and struggle to meet the costs of extra tuition. 'Parents in Hong Kong are under a lot of stress,' Ng says. 'They feel they have to help their children excel. In the past, if a kid played the piano, they could put that on their CV. Now, they are expected to also learn the violin and a classical Chinese musical instrument. That can result in a lot of parental stress.'