Timothy Walker, a teacher and a contributing writer for The Atlantic, moved to Helsinki, Finland, in 2013, (and) couldn't stay away from the classroom … he found many contrasts between his 5th grade English-speaking classroom abroad and his work back home … informally document the differences he saw in Finnish vs. U.S. education on the blog Taught by Finland. In his new book Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms, Walker expands upon his observations.
Finland has built a reputation as one of the most successful examples of education. The country is known for its high rates of student achievement. Walker said Finland does benefit from little poverty and minor diversity. However, there are still a variety of areas where Finland excels: Teachers have more rigorous teacher training (acceptance rates into programs are around 10 percent), but lighter workloads and time commitments. Teachers experience more autonomy and less accountability. Teacher retention rates are higher. In his book, Walker unpacks lessons American educators might glean from an internationally recognized education system:
1. “The first thing I noticed was the drastically different teaching schedule. I was used to teaching somewhere close to 30 hours a week with my students in the United States … Finnish educators had significantly less teaching hours—only 18 hours of instruction (which is full time). I also saw that in nearly 50 percent of the lessons I was teaching, I would be joined by another teacher. Finnish teachers and students also get 15-minute breaks throughout the day after 45 minutes of classroom instruction. I was not used to this idea of having so much free time.
2. There is such uniformity in Finland. Finnish educators seem to agree on good practices, learning materials, the curriculum framework that they're following. There is such diversity in the United States. You have incredible schools doing innovative things—project-based learning, social-emotional needs of students—but you find this disparity that doesn't exist in Finland. There is clearly a socioeconomic reason for it, but I also think that there's a level of dysfunction, a lack of agreement to say, "These are the things that work, let's decide to stick with them for the well-being of students."
3. More active teaching strategies seem to be celebrated in the United States, for example, turning and talking with a neighbor during a lesson. In Finland, what I noticed is long stretches of time just to be quiet or do independent work, and children seemed to benefit from this. One practical thing teachers can do is help students become aware of the noise level in the classroom. The promotion of physical activity among school-aged children consists of both increasing physical activity and decreasing sedentary time.
4. Training is important. Teachers need to feel a sense of expertise, to feel confident in their abilities, and have certain areas of teaching developed before they step foot in the classroom. One thing I noticed is that teachers often rely in Finland on commercial learning materials such as textbooks and teaching guides. Before I came to Finland, I had this idea that they were using more up-to-date teaching practices, but you still see some teacher-centered practices: desks arranged in rows, textbook-driven instruction. But textbooks, although they're not the flashiest way of teaching, are definitely a way for a teacher to pace lessons and takes pressure off the teacher to start from scratch.
5. How is it possible that Finnish teachers seem relaxed and have autonomy? They're using what's already out there and not putting pressure on themselves to launch different initiatives. In the United States, you see much more initiative being taken by individual teachers, schools, and districts, and that adds a lot of stress. You don't see that same level of eagerness to experiment all the time in Finland, in a way that helps teachers to stay balanced and focused on the most essential things in the classroom. I was inspired by my Finnish colleagues because they just seemed so relaxed and took breaks, but were also so efficient with their teaching.
6. One other thing that is so important is to connect with other teachers on a regular basis. I was choosing not to collaborate. I think that feeling of burnout can stem from being disconnected from others. It doesn't have to be so structured, we don't have to take out our planners. Collaborate over coffee."