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.


5 thoughts on “Tim Walker on Finnish Teachers in American Schools

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  1. It’s no wonder that a highly-qualified Finnish teacher would find it frustrating or impossible in the U.S. system. Tim’s article points out some of the many ways the education system here is set up to require or encourage all the wrong things. (Even many ‘good’, non-commercial charters and private schools buy into testing & numerical rankings.)

    And teacher-training programs, for the most part, prepare new teachers to fit into these schools where scores are a high priority — and self-directed learning, democracy, and social justice are ignored, discouraged or simply not allowed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your interesting views, Patrick!

    Here in your blog post you use words school and learning in a very much synonymous manner.
    Learning and school, though, are completely separate and unrelated concepts. Only on the basis of this observation it becomes understandable how the American school system has evolved to the odd state in which it is today.

    The same kind of educational “messthinking” is repeatedly apparent throughout the complete field of educational reality: teacher education, assessment, research, curriculum texts etc. In philosophy it is called category error.

    We have been made to believe that what is happening at school is learning. But what is happening at school is school. We only meet intellectual difficulties if we try to base schoolwork on learning.

    In my point of view it appears that the ultimate reason for our educational system to stay in stagnation resides in the fact that we are even able not to discuss it in a philosophically solid manner.

    And if we want to understand how it is possible that we have got a school system intended to provide circumstances that are appropriate to determine the grades rather than to learn, the explanation is exactly the same. We think and discuss learning and school in a completely wrong and meaning-free manner.

    On this basis it becomes easily understandable why school has become an active promoter of social inequality, alienation and segregation instead of being a provider of protection against these threats. The fact that it is so very central to the proper identity of the school to be constantly able to assort students and teachers, is a result of this same and central fault in our educational thinking. An essential question emerges: would there be any identity left if this characteristic was removed?

    Because most of the functions of modern society are completely dependent and very much based on the school marks, degrees and grades, I do not see much light in the end of the funnel in which we have become so tightly stuck.

    When discussing school education there is a clearly identifiable divide. There are those who want to develop school and those who want to develop learning. These two different goals are not system compatible at all. Discussing school and learning in the same context is impossible in the same manner as it is impossible to discuss flowers and electricity. And what we cannot speak about we must consign to deeply relaxed shouting (Ludwig Wittgenstein).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am not sure if the learning/school—flowers/electricity analogy quite holds for me, but your point is well taken. We know that “school” can be a euphemism for a locale for socialization. Or less appealing words, like brain-washing.

      Your reply leaves me very curious about how you would resolve this divide. Would you have learning but no schools? Would you re-fit schools to become true places of learning? Your comment seems to assert that this is impossible. I suppose it is in a way, within mammoth “systems” like American public education.

      Yet even within a system of “school” that is dedicated to the reproduction of social and economic hierarchies, there must be learning, no? Students must accumulate the knowledge necessary for their position. Obviously, this is not good enough and such mercenary learning kills curiosity.

      Your point about grades and school status makes sense as well. I teach at a progressive, private school where the question, “Is it on the test” can be replaced by “Does this help my résumé?” But it’s not my students’ fault. This is their system by birth not choice.

      In the United States, where we love to monetize everything and often mistake our materialism for practicality, even community service has become something for high school students to complete as they prepare to present themselves to universities. The same is true for athletics. The college applicant becomes something like a brand. Many students see this, most don’t like it, but few see any other way.

      But! The economic consequences of learning for its own sake or for its impact on ourselves as human beings is potentially catastrophic. In a society as economically unequal as the USA, it is risky to pursue a passion outside engineering, technology, and a few other disciplines. What will the college graduate do with $50,000 of debt and a bachelor’s degree in poetry or dance or medieval history?

      I am personally fortunate in that I have small classes to teach at my well-funded independent school. I get to know most of my students very well. This makes teaching and learning something beyond inculcation. On my good days, I am educating them in the sense that I am helping them draw out and explore their idea on important issues. On bad days, education becomes contractual: I am preparing them to take their place as leaders atop society’s many hierarchies. My colleagues and I are well aware of this danger and we work against it. But the false promises of life after landing on the winning side of American inequalities can be a powerful adversary!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your brilliant reply, Patrick!

        I deeply appreciate your expertise. The prevailing conseption of learning cannot changed unless the conception of school first gets transformed. While waiting for this to happen it becomes tempting to conclude that the basis for us to traditionally combine the studies of education and didactics so elementally and especially with teacher education is intellectually wrong.

        Although amusing, this is not a joke.


  3. Almost 50 years ago, Ivan Illich expounded on some of the shortcomings of our approach to education, focusing on mandatory schooling, and the need for more ongoing, natural learning. In ‘Deschooling Society’, he envisioned a more community-based, learner-driven system.

    Alfie Kohn has pointed out one pervasive problem with schools today: grading and how extrinsic rewards always tend to displace intrinsic rewards. Add to that the practice of assigning children to grades based primarily on academic progress.

    Although we do see some attempts to incorporate non-academic intelligence and learning, both types of grades tend to separate schools and learning — weakening or destroying people’s natural curiosity and drive to learn.

    Peter Crownfield

    Liked by 2 people

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