What did you think about the strengths and weaknesses of American schools before you encountered the Finnish system?

Before moving to Finland, I confess that I did very little thinking about how US schools might compare to other schools around the world. I suspected that America had its share of 'bad' schools, but I largely blamed the nation's social inequality for their failings, not the educators. Also, I had a hunch that the world's 'best' schools could be found in the United States — institutions where children could encounter well-balanced curricula while learning in a student-centered manner with little stress.

 

Today I'm convinced, after teaching and living in Finland, that the glaring weakness in American education is, in fact, a basic matter of inaccessibility: too many kids in America lack access to decent schools.

If you had to pick one or 2 Finnish practices that American teachers would benefit most from adopting in their own classrooms, what would they be?

I'd love to see American teachers adopt the practice of offering several short brain-breaks throughout the school day. Students in Finland can expect a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of classroom instruction, and research shows that these kinds of breaks help students stay focused during class.

Taking such frequent 15-minute breaks may seem unimaginable to American teachers. How can individual teachers bring the free-play philosophy into their classrooms?

Many US teachers would undoubtedly experience pushback from parents and administrators if they implemented a Finnish-style schedule, but I think it's still possible to bring this research-backed strategy into the classroom while keeping things academic. In Teach Like Finland, I propose the idea of offering 'choice time,' in which students have about 10 minutes to disconnect from the usual focused schoolwork several times each day. On these occasions, children can choose the engaging activities they want to pursue in the classroom, such as playing a fun math puzzler on their own or reading an interesting book at their independent reading level. Okay, it's not free play, but choice time would provide students with several moments to get refreshed before the next lesson begins.

Are there any models out there for American schools, philosophies, or even individual teachers that show us how Finnish-like practices can work in the American context?

Debbie Rhea, a professor at Texas Christian University, visited Finnish schools several years ago and she was also impressed by the 15-minute recesses. After returning to America, she developed a pilot study to investigate the benefits of a Finnish-style school schedule. Her LiiNK research project is now implemented in several US districts in different states.

 

In Finland, children have plenty of opportunities to interact with nature as they complete their schooling. It's something Richard Louv noted in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. While it might be harder for some US teachers to emphasize nature-based learning (due to differences, for example, in curricula and natural surroundings), I've chatted with a couple of American teachers, Eliza Minnucci and Meghan Teachout, who pioneered an initiative called 'Forest Friday' at a Vermont public elementary school. These teachers also keep a website, forestkinder.org, where they often connect with educators around the globe who want to implement similar practices.

Do you have any advice for parents who want to bring some of the lessons of Teach Like Finland into their own homes?

Although I've written this book with US teachers in mind, many of the 33 Finland-inspired strategies, such as 'keep the peace' and 'demand responsibility' would work well at home, too. I'd recommend that parents begin by focusing on implementing the strategies included in the chapters 'Well-being' and 'Autonomy.' This is a sensible starting place because promoting a child's health and independence at home will encourage their success at school.

Are there any lessons that Finnish teachers can learn from American teachers?

Absolutely. Although Finland boasts a glowing reputation as an education superpower, it's the United Stated, surprisingly, where many of the world's most innovative pedagogies are conceived and developed. Pasi Sahlberg, the Helsinki-based scholar and the author of Finnish Lessons, identifies a number of these 'borrowed' ideas in his book.

 

Finland's newest core curriculum requires that teachers move away from subject-based teacher-centered instruction toward interdisciplinary, student-centered teaching. Finnish educators, undoubtedly, would benefit from visiting American schools where project-based learning, an innovative interdisciplinary model, has been successfully implemented for years.

 

While many Finnish schools use an effective anti-bullying program called KiVa, I'd also like to see Finnish teachers emphasize social-emotional learning more systematically through implementing daily routines such as welcoming students with a handwritten note when they enter the classroom and offering a morning circle that builds a sense of community. I've found that many US educators employ a social-emotional learning plan in their classrooms, and they rave about its importance.

Do you have questions about TEACH LIKE FINLAND?

Send your questions for Timothy D. Walker to education@wwnorton.com!