Tim Walker on Finnish Teachers in American Schools

I met Tim Walker in Martinlaakson lukio in Vantaa. In fact, we met in the classroom of Pekka Puera, a math teacher who is something of a rock star in Finnish education circles and whose methods have inspired many of the changes I’ve made to my teaching this fall.

Students in Jyväskylä spend a Saturday morning ice fishing with their teacher

For the past few years, Tim has been writing from the perspective of an American educator living and working in Finland. His current piece for the Atlantic offers a view from the other side, from Finnish teachers who come to the US and try to ply their trade in American schools.

Tim has written in the past about time and how it alters education in the States. Education here usually seems rushed, compressed, stressed by the amount of content (and skills) teachers feel they must cover in order to fulfill extrinsic sets of standards and goals. Another interesting theme in Tim’s articles on time, stress and the difference between the US and Finland is the American emphasis on planning. American teachers are often compelled to produce detailed plans for every lesson; others are instructed that the most thoroughly “scaffolded” lessons are the highest quality. The upshot of this is untold hours of time spent documenting the process of teaching, rather than creatively responding to student’s input and questions, developing new teaching methods, or carrying on other forms of professional development. This is compounded by the number of hours American teachers spend in classroom plus the ever-changing litany of initiatives they must conform to, including Common Core. As one teacher Tim interviewed put it: “I feel rushed, nothing gets done properly; there is very little joy, and no time for reflection or creative thinking (in order to create meaningful activities for students).”

Much of this, as Tim writes in his new piece, boils down to the issue of trust. (“Trust” is a word I heard over and over during my time in Finland. It is used to describe not only relationships between teachers and students or teachers and administrators, but across society in general.) A few years back, I made a little extra income by designing daily lesson plans for a school district in Kansas. Each plan was to conform only to a particular set of desired outcomes, rooted in state standards. When I attempted to include materials which linked issues in American history to the present day ( such as relating the first-wave feminists movement to contemporary women’s issues), I was kindly asked to remove them. Worse, the poor teacher who received my lesson plans was told (by design) exactly what to write on the board and what questions to ask the students. This for someone with a college education and a state teaching certificate! This is not how we expect doctors or electricians to behave, so why teachers?

Tim points out that simply handing American K-12 teachers autonomy is probably not the answer. Such a move has to be coupled with changing the pool of applicants for teaching jobs. But federal and state governments will have to do more than pass another set of “standards” if they wish to break the vicious cycle of long days, shrinking pay, low social status, and burnout.

Check out all Tim’s great writing for the Atlantic on education in Finland and the USA here.

The Education Commission Report on “the Learning Generation”

This report points out the promise of funding education in the poorer nations–and the problems that will came if we don’t. It is striking that even at this moment of increased globalization, international aid for education is falling.

As an American, I am struck by this passage: “Historical analysis shows that inequality fuels unrest and when educational inequality doubles, the probability of conflict more than doubles. Unrest is likely to be greatest where the gap between youth expectations and daily realities is widest.” So as my nation–like much of Europe–turns inward, the selfishness that elites use to deride “globalization” could well lead to greater international conflict.

Source: the Learning Generation | the Education Commission Report

Global Studies in the Age of Trump

Ironically, painfully, it’s International Education Week. It hurts to say this out loud. The meetings of earnest teachers seem hopelessly outgunned as the UK trudges towards its Brexit and the USA begins its transition to Trumpism. Across the West, nationalism is on the march and global citizenship feels in retreat.

This can’t be good news for those of us who want to educate our students to tackle the global challenges that lie ahead.

How should we respond as educators to the rising voices of nationalism, nativism, and xenophobia? At times lately, I’ve felt that there is something radical about seeing people far away as valuable and worthy of care. Is global education hopelessly political, by default the province of “the globalizers?” Some clearly think so. Writing in the New York Times in July, columnist Ross Douthat dismissed global citizenship:

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West … are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

What Douthat completely misses–because he hasn’t bothered to look–is that the idea of global citizenship is most popular away from wealthy nations. In a survey by the BBC, Americans were at about the global average when asked if they saw themselves more as a global citizens or a citizens of the USA. Where was global identity strongest? Kenya, Nigeria, Peru. Lowest” Russia, Germany, the UK, Chile, Mexico.

So-called “cosmopolitanism” and global citizenship are not the ethos of an elite tribe that rules the world. They are the recognition of interdependence between peoples around the earth. We need this kind of thinking.

I also have to wonder: what is the nationalist solution to climate change? To the migration crisis? To the bleaching of the great corals in our oceans?

Refugees Arrive at Lesvos

When I look at Trumpism, or any other form of developed-world nationalism, one thing I perceive is a lack of empathy. An inability to remember that someone reached out to our ancestors when they crossed oceans leaky ships or struggled to find their place in a foreign land. This is combined with a willful ignorance about the reasons why millions of ordinary people are unwillingly on the move, why global markets are jittery or why the stomachs of seabirds are filled with plastic bottle caps. None of us are not implicated. Trump’s recent roar that “They hate us,”shows his utter lack of interest of curiosity about the world. It doesn’t make me optimistic that he will use the power of the USA to spur global development and peace.

As a teacher of global studies, I feel my job has shifted from the academic consideration of free trade or the globalization of American culture to an emphasis on having my students communicate with young people elsewhere on earth. I am working to have them collaborate with Finnish teens on global outlooks and South African teens on issues of climate and migration.

Similarly, each unit of my course will have an action step. Sometimes this will simply be the communication with other young people. But I don’t feel like I can “teach the migration crisis” at this point without trying to help. Luckily my city hosts the offices of Mercy Corps: hopefully they can help me find meaningful work for my students to do on the issue of refugees. Perhaps we can host a movie night in our community to raise awareness and a few dollars.

The educational networks that exist across national boundaries, from e-Twinning to Google for Education to my own Global Schoolroom (still just getting started!), have never been more important. It’s hard to drop bombs on someone you know, as the old expression goes. Hopefully, I can widen my students’ outlooks to include a greater empathy while inspiring them to feel empowered as helpful actors in these great dramas of our age.

The Jungle of Calais, now “cleared,” was full of children. Where are they now?


https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/20151030_Syrians_and_Iraq_refugees_arrive_at_Skala_Sykamias_Lesvos_Greece_2.jpg; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Slovenska_vojska_tudi_med_vikendom_v_velikem_%C5%A1tevilu_pri_podpori_Policiji_01_B.jpg; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/The-jungle-is-our-house.jpg

As Finnish As I Wanna Be?: November Thoughts On Realistic Adaptation


[Note: this post already seems dated. The election on Tuesday has sent me scrambling for new ways to teach about tolerance, global identity, and globalization. More on all that soon.]

September, begun with Hope for Great New Things in the classroom, has given way to the slow trudge across the muddy lawns of November. Returned from a semester in Finland, some plans give way to the realities of the American system (thankfully little of it enforced at my progressive, independent school):

there will be standardized tests–even for kids at progressive, “lab” schools;

for most students there are “standards,” largely based on content, much of it soon forgotten;

the “college process” weighs heavily on students; and so:

kids care a lot about grades;

the American pace of life makes designing new lessons difficult for me and has taught my students to seek today’s “right answer” rather than see each class meeting as a part of a larger whole; and,

some students aren’t accustomed to taking charge of their learning.

So what to do?

Here are some of the things I am trying:

design classrooms for student comfort; beanbags (I’ll get them someday!), plants, tea;

show real trust in students: after having the class as a whole set clear norms for their behavior, let them move and speak freely in the classroom;

use digital technology to increase learning. Get phones into the mix TEACH kids how to use their devices for academic outcomes. Although it hasn’t been without some bumps along the way, this year I am requiring my students use their laptops and phones more in class. Cracking down on improper use doesn’t teach them how to use them appropriately. Today, some of my sophomores (second-years who turn 16 this year) were texting and visiting non-academic sites. I reminded the class that they would rather be allowed to use their tech wisely than have it banned. I think this message is getting through. I’m confident it is with my older students;

project-oriented units, employing technology and teamwork;

check-ins, reflections, peer evaluations.

Part of a lesson Frederick Douglass that went poorly twice this week. Did I give them enough structure? Apparently not.

If we can’t do mastery-based learning (yet), how about differentiated assessments in which students (sometimes) get to choose their own adventure? Video presentation, graphic novels, or podcast. “Think about about French nationalism by designing a new flag, anthem, holidays, and postage stamps.” All that really matters is that they express the ideas, the fundamental questions, at the heart of the unit, in complex and coherent ways.


One ongoing struggle: turn-around times on assessments. The other week I had faculty meetings after school Monday and Wednesday; Sunday was given over to Open House. Four ten-hour days of conferences began just days later.

At the same time, I just read again about how Finnish teachers try to give constant, daily feedback. I find such sentences stressful to read! I am getting around my classroom, trying to speak with every student every day (at least that is the goal) but I can’t say I am giving them all feedback. I begin most classes with documents on Google Classroom, asking my students how long the homework took and one or two other questions. It’s hard to read all of these, let alone respond to them all. So, I still wonder, how can I give more meaningful formative feedback while getting six or seven hours of sleep.

* * * * * *

What did I learn that day?


Part of me wonders if the solution is, in part, to keep stepping back and thinking about what content they will remember in two, five, or ten years. Good, meaty projects, thick questions, and active learning. This is what they remember. I have to hook the content to those times of fun and engagement. It seems ever more clear that active learning of any kind–any learning-by-doing–leads to better retention for more students than the read-and-discuss model.