Scale and Educational Systems

Educational systems do not scale well. We see that all around us. At smaller scales, these systems are far more effective than at larger scales. At larger scales, several constraints emerge rapidly – shortage of qualified teachers, lack of infrastructure, equitable access, degradation of learning experiences – that are primarily impacted by vision, capability and level of investments (government or private).

Since the educational system is, like Healthcare or even the government itself, primarily driven by the expert capability of human resources, there is even more pressure if we use the same systems to train/educate future human resources. Even with the promise of tools such as eLearning, intelligent tutors or e-tutoring that help reduce load on critical teaching resources, which is really a mode to reduce the adversity of scale, this primary capability is paramount.

I find this in my research over USA-India educational systems. The startling insight is that while there may be operational differences (learning autonomy is higher in the USA, teaching system is more transparent/accountable), fundamentally both countries are facing the same challenges (employability, access, equity, infrastructure, pressure on government funding, thrust on vocational training) despite there being a multiple of 4 in enrolments at school and projected multiple of 2 in HE enrolment (by 2020), if one was to compare the student population statistics (India has 4X school and will have 2X HE students as compared to the USA). We have 6 times the number of colleges. And so on.

In fact, the census (I am using this as a proxy for enrolment data which I have to find), shows that Finland, Denmark & New Zealand have a 05-24 years age group population of less than 1.5 mn people; and Australia has 5.5 mn in the same age group. But UK and USA have 15 mn and 85 mn respectively; while India has 451 mn! Finland, Denmark, New Zealand and Australia are the highest performing nations.

The UN Education Index gives these smaller countries the highest ranking in the world! Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Cuba and Australia shared the top rank, USA is at rank 20, UK at rank 30 and India at rank 145. Not too surprisingly, the GDP per capita index by the IMF (2010) pegs the USA at rank 7, UK at 21, Australia at 10, Denmark at 17, Finland at 22, New Zealand at 32, India at 129. This showcases that despite having lower per capita GDP, all 4 top ranked countries have a better ranking. This is despite the general high correlation between the two indicators of nearly 0.81 (I took 169 countries and compared them), as would normally be expected.

This sort of questions positions like in this post, How does Finland’s Education become the Best in the World?, which tries to take what is good in the Finnish context and tries to apply it in the USA context, something I advise against for the most part.

From the Huffington Post comes another reiteration of do what works well elsewhere, Lessons from Finland’s Educational System. There is an interesting insight into the way the Finns think from what Dr. Pasi Sahlberg says:

Finns don’t believe you can reliably measure the essence of learning. You know, one big difference in thinking about education and the whole discourse is that in the United States it’s based on a belief in competition. In my country, we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth. 

Zaidlearn points to some interesting comparisons between the Finnish and Singaporean Educational Systems in The Finnish Education System rocks!. What is interesting here that Finland GDP per capita lags behind Singapore’s, but Singapore is 52 on the Education Index rankings.

I am basically trying to make the argument that traditional educational systems are unlike traditional industrial systems and cannot scale. In which case, international lessons could be learnt for micro-strategy or operational considerations, but perhaps not for macro, policy level changes.

More importantly, this is one piece that contributes to the thinking on alternate systems of education or to change discussions.

One thought on “Scale and Educational Systems

Add yours

  1. Great post! Thanks for the mention, too 🙂

    I suppose we need to fuse micro and macro strategies to make it work on the scaling issue.

    In other words, think big, start small, and then scale fast.

    Autonomy and sharing will be important. Break India into pieces, and zoom in on regions to improve all corners.

    Easier said than done 😦

    Though, we need to tailor our own systems to support and empower in-line with the cultures and sensitivities of the nations.

    Thanks again for making me think…. a bit 🙂

    Warm Regards,



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