Beginning Reflections on “Becoming More Finnish”

We left Jyväskylä a month ago. Time is slipping by and a new school year approaches. I am still experiencing “reverse” culture shock”…  but that is a different topic for a different day. Right now, I want to begin to process my experience with “the Finnish Education System” before memories slip away.

One important lesson I learned in Finland is in the inextricable relationship between education and other pillars supporting a society: housing, health care, nutrition, transportation, government, and so on. An unmeasurable portion of Finnish success in education is due to the nation’s overall success in creating a non-corrupt, democratic society in which most people have access to healthy food, an apartment in a safe neighborhood, and a relatively high quality of life overall.

Jyväskylän Lyseo, IB World School

This may sound obvious but it matters when education reformers are placing more and more burden on teachers to do everything for their students (parenting, counseling) while American income inequality grows and millions continue to lack access to medical care. The American federal government, and the states which control public education, appear willing to let millions of children live in poverty. Until the government begins rebuilding American cities to be more child-friendly, and begins offering every child food and medical care, there is a real limit on what teachers are going to be able to accomplish.

Teachers cannot improve their students’ housing, they cannot lower crime rates, they cannot make college affordable. (In Finland, university is free.) So what can they do? What can I do in my own classroom and push for in my own school?

I imagine I will sit with this question for a long time. But here are some initial ideas, in no particular order, based on my experience visiting 20 or so Finnish schools, from primary through upper secondary. I suppose each of these could be a stand-alone post. Again, this is brainstorming, not a complete or comprehensive list.

  1. Offer every child a free, nutritious lunch. This is a great leveler. In Finland, every child eats from the same small array of daily choices. The food is fairly simple but healthy. Children are taught from age 5 to make good choices and exercise portion control. There is rarely dessert. So teachers know that every child in the room receives at least one good meal every school day.
  2. Use schools to create citizens not employees. Think about preparation for democracy more and preparation for an imagined workplace less.
  3. Trust students (In conversation, Finnish audiences repeatedly compared descriptions of American secondary school practices (including hall passes to go to the toilet) to prisons.
  4. Limit homework (the research is out there). This is linked to students’ need for exercise, social time, and sleep. (How many times have I heard American teachers say, “If I reduced the homework load, they would only fill the time with video games and social networking.” Why do we assume unnecessary homework is “better” for kids than Instagram or just “kicking back”?)
  5. Increase student control over the pace of their work.
  6. Introduce more “learning by doing.”
  7. Treat teachers as the expert professionals they are and give them opportunities to explore new methods.
  8. Consider making time during the school day that does not feature classes or clubs.
  9. Be more tolerant of “side conversations” in the classroom: if two students are talking quietly, why not assume they have a good reason to do so?
  10. Focus on quality time, not quantity time, in the classroom, by designing compelling lessons that students can initiate without lengthy daily introduction by the teacher.
Sunset in Värdö, Åland Islands

I’m realizing my list could go on and on. I saw classrooms in which a wall of “houseplants” provided pleasing color and more oxygen, for example. The main lesson I am bringing back is “less is more.”

I can’t control the amount of  class time, but I can have a some say over how much homework I assign and the amount of information I ask my students to grapple with. By slowing the pace of data delivery and pursuing strategies to encourage learning (and not cramming), I think less really can be more. I’ll make the most of my experience in Finland if I focus on reasonable changes I can make on my own.

More soon. Classes begin Monday and I’ll bet being back in the classroom will bring forward topics for further thought.



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