Teach like Finland – take your time

Most of our knowledge of Finnish schools comes from Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons. Accounts of the day to day life of teachers are hard to find, partly because of the difficulties of learning the Finnish language. Now at last we have such a book:
Teach like Finland: 33 simple strategies for joyful classrooms
You can find an introductory video on Youtube.

Timothy Walker is a dedicated American teacher nearing burnout. He is checking his lesson plans during breakfast, and marking late at night. He has little time for his own children, and is even skimping on sleep. He’s starting to hate his job. His Finnish wife tells him it needn’t be like this, but he doesn’t believe her.

“Good teachers, I told my wife, don’t do short workdays. In fact, I explained, they push themselves – to the limit.”

“Not in Finland,” Johanna said.

Eventually, he gets a job in a bilingual public school in Helsinki as a grade 5 class teacher (i.e. 12 year olds).

At first he suffers culture shock. For a start, the timetable involves a 15 minute break after every 45 minutes of class. He even tries teaching through the break but realises that his pupils return alert and ready after breaks. He’s so used to rushing around that he is worried to see his colleagues ‘sipping coffee, flipping through newspapers, and chatting leisurely with one another’.

After a few weeks, three of his Finnish colleagues tell him they’re worried he might burn himself out if he doesn’t take breaks. An hour after school finishes one day, the head says “Shouldn’t you be at home?”

He starts to realise that he is a human being, not a machine. But he also realises that teaching and learning benefit from not being overstretched. Teachers take turns to supervise breaks, but the 12-year-olds also act as play leaders for the younger children.

He begins to realise the importance of belonging. Every so often, there’s a meeting between the class teacher, the principal, the nurse, the social worker, the psychologist, and the special education teacher – the ‘student welfare team’. He feels support from sharing responsibility. Instead of getting tough at the start of a year with a new class, teachers prefer a ‘soft start’ – a few days talking about the summer, playing games, exercising. He suggests organised games in the gymnasium but the kids invite him to play Kick the Can in the yard.

He realises the value of taking time to celebrate the students’ work, whether that’s sitting down to eat what they’ve cooked or children reading aloud what they’ve written.

Much of the book is about simple changes of routine. The author writes about giving opportunities for choice and initiative, involving students in planning a class project, the Independent Learning Week. There are tips for reducing workload. Teachers only occasionally grade a student’s homework. Instead they go over the work with the students together. Finally, the students are encouraged to take responsibility themselves.

Pasi Sahlberg has written that, unlike US high school exams, matriculation (age 18) in Finland involves challenging problem-solving. ‘Students are regularly asked to show their ability to deal with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs and popular music’. Timothy Walker starts to write more open end-of-year tests for his 12-year-olds, such as investigating whether toothpaste is acidic or alkaline, or discussing why people migrate to Finland, or presenting a comparison between two different climate zones. He sees that the best way to prove their learning is to apply it.

TImothy Walker is careful not to simply report things that might not be transferable. He thinks of strategies that he could adapt to US schools. In fact, the book’s subtitle is ’33 simple strategies for joyful classrooms.’

The book ends with a section on cooperation. We learn that teachers often discuss ideas, plan and teach together. They often see each other teach and invite colleagues into their classrooms to share expertise.

And the final note: Don’t forget joy.

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