Is Your Class Too Easy? (Lessons from Poland & Finland)

As a kid, I went to Poland every summer to visit my family.  My cousins and I would drink plum compote on my grandma’s porch, throw corn nibs at chickens, harvest potatoes in the field and then fry them into the best French fries we’ve ever tasted, jump into the local ice-cold creek and play harmonicas.

Interspersed between these country pleasures and mischief was talk of school. Our parents—although or perhaps because they had been born in a small village in poverty—valued education more than anything. And so, it was natural that my cousins and I would talk of what we were reading in school. These conversations went something like this:

Me: We read three books in English this year.

Karolina: Only three? We read 5!

Me: You’re lying.

Karolina: No. Come home with me today and I’ll show you.

Me: Well, I memorized a poem in Polish school.

Karolina: Yeah? I’ve memorize a poem each year since I was 6.

Me: Stop lying!

Karolina: Okay, here’s one I memorized in class this year. “Uncertainty” by Adam Mickiewicz (Karolina straightens her back and makes a serious face} “While I don’t see you, I don’t shed a tear/I never lose my senses when you’re near…”

Me: Ok. Ok. I get it. You’re so smart!

Karolina: Did you notice how I en-UN-see- A-ted? My teacher said I’m good. And how my back was straight. You slouch too much.

Me: Give me a break.

Every summer I learned quickly: Karolina and my other cousins had learned more, done more, experienced more in one year of school than I had in three. In grade eight, my cousins were writing essays. In grade nine, they were reading Shakespeare and debating moral issues.  In grade eleven, they had memorized all the countries and major cities in the world, and they were analyzing the changing geopolitics in India. In grade twelve, they were doing university-level math.  In their final year of high school, my Polish cousins and their fellow classmates sat down—dressed in suits, pressed dresses, and polished shoes, as if to a formal banquet—to write a final exam testing all their cumulative knowledge in math, reading, writing, science, literature, and world history. Only a few of these students would be deemed knowledgeable enough to earn an A—a great honour.

In Poland, no one I met batted an eye at all of this.

Not one of my cousins ever said: “School is too hard.”

Nobody said that his or her teachers were too “demanding” or “challenging” or “strict.”

My cousins admired their teachers for making them better—even if they had to break their backs in the process. And that is where my own Canadian students often differ.

The Smartest Kids in the World

Knowing what I do about the rigorous, high standards education in Poland from personal experience, I was not surprised by the findings of Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. Amanda Ripley focuses on three American students sent overseas to study in schools in Poland, Finland, and South Korea to study. Suddenly, these American students realized two things:

  • 1) School in Poland, Finland, and South Korea are generally more intellectually-demanding, rigorous, and academic. In these countries, schools are primarily places of learning, not to be confused with sport centres. In these countries, students are expected to love rigor. One of the primary reasons, perhaps, that the teachers are rigorous, is that teachers in these countries are generally competent, educated people themselves. To become a teacher in these countries, one has to have the highest academic results.
  • 2) Children in Poland, Finland, and South Korea generally respect teachers and strongly value rigor in education because their parents respect and support teachers in upholding high standards.
Amanda Ripley
Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World.

While we can’t change the way society perceives teachers, or how our students perceive education, we can adjust the level of rigor in our classes. We can catch ourselves in the process of dumbing down our curriculum to appease students or make them feel good about themselves.


Don’t ask: Is this lesson fun?

Ask: Is this lesson thought-provoking, inspiring, challenging?

Don’t ask: Do my students feeling good about themselves?

Ask: Are my students learning? Are they gaining self-confidence from knowing more things and being able to apply more skills?

Don’t ask: Do my students like me as a person? Am I liked?

Ask: Have I made my students smarter, more cultured, better people? Are my motivations respectable?

Don’t ask: Will this unit be interesting to my students?

Ask: Will this unit be valuable to my students? In the process of teaching this, will I make them better at higher-level thinking skills?

Don’t ask: Is this project grade-appropriate?

Ask: What will my students produce if I pose this challenge? Let’s see.

I know it’s popular to talk about self-esteem in students. And to talk about fun. And to put in a lot of games and entertaining flourishes into our lessons. I was once told at a PD session that I should not view myself as an educator, but as an “edutainer.”

But I have to be honest. I’m not an entertainer. At the bottom of my heart, I’m a Polish- Canadian woman with strong beliefs about the importance of challenge, rigor, and high educational standards in every classroom.

And I’ve decided to honour those beliefs in my classroom.

And though my students do grumble about the work at the outset, the evidence is mounting. At the end of the year, by and large, the students don’t mind it.

Kids meet the expectations you set for them.” – Amanda Ripley