What We Can Learn from the School System in Finland

teachers

As American teachers, we're often compared to teachers in school systems across the globe. While we don't have the power to completely reform American education, there are lessons we can learn from countries like Finland about improving how we teach.

Teaching and Learning in Finland vs. the U.S.

In America, our motto of education might be encapsulated in the statement 'work more, work harder, and test often.' Meanwhile, Finland's education system works by the motto: 'Work less, learn more.' That notion drives all of the country's schools, and its results cannot be denied. In America, it is a well-established fact that our education system struggles. When an international study of student achievement is published, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranks consistently low on the list.

Decades ago, Finland faced similar struggles. In the 1970s, only about 30% of Finland's students received a diploma from upper-secondary school (roughly the American equivalent to community college). Today, that number is closer to 80%. Students in Finland also score consistently high on the PISA exam, which is one of the few standardized tests their students take. So what lessons can we take away from Finland's story of educational reform? America's educational system is a bit askew in what it prioritizes.

Emphasis on Play and Family

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The Finnish emphasize the importance of the emotional health of children - without it, students cannot learn. As a result, while students in America may start school at age 4 or 5, in Finland students don't start their formal education until they're 7 years old. Instead of starting school young, children spend time playing and forming emotional connections with their families and communities. So when children do start school, they are more prepared emotionally to be there and learn. A Stanford research study supports this notion. It found that delaying the start of school by a year, as done in Denmark, dramatically reduces the mental health difficulties students encounter in school, such as ADHD and issues related to executive function.

That emphasis on family doesn't end once a child starts school. Whereas in America students spend seven or more hours a day in classrooms, in Finland a school day is 5-hours long, which includes time to go outside and enjoy recess. Lessons are typically 45-minutes long with breaks in between. A typical student is out of school by 2 p.m. and has plenty of time left to spend with family and pursue other interests.

Emphasis on Movement

Finland's teachers are masters at teaching more effectively in less time. That is because their teacher training places a high value on thinking critically, employing research-based practices, and analyzing the effectiveness of those practices through research. In fact, Finnish teachers spend a year teaching at a model training school at a university to perfect their ability to use and evaluate research-based practices in the classroom. The result: by the time they start teaching, they have a master's degree and are experts at evaluating their own effectiveness.

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While American teachers may not be graced with such rigorous training, there is no reason we can't implement research-based practices in our classrooms. For example, in Finland, school schedules typically follow the format of a 45-minute lesson followed by a 15-minute break. In America, on the other hand, we are expected to teach bell-to-bell, with the 'break' being the amount of time it takes to switch classes. While you may not be able to follow that schedule, you can bring the Finnish notion of more breaks into your classroom.

Plenty of research shows the effectiveness of breaks in improving concentration and academic performance. You can incorporate breaks that get kids up and moving, such as through guided dance, or even just give them 10-minute blocks to engage in free-choice activities. That mental break will help your students learn more effectively in less time - so like Finnish learners, your students will learn more with less work.

Less is More

Another research-based practice you can bring into your classroom has to do with homework. Go through your lesson plans and add up the amount of time you expect students to spend on homework outside of your class. Is it three hours a week? Maybe five hours a week? If you teach Advanced Placement classes, it could add up to even more. Now imagine cutting your expected homework time in half. That is what Finnish teachers have done - cut the amount of homework in half.

There is a great debate over the pros and cons of homework. As educators, we know it has benefits but that too much homework doesn't necessarily increase learning. However, we can adopt a Finnish 'less is more' attitude toward homework expectations in our classrooms. After all, who wouldn't want their child to learn more in school with less effort? So try cutting your homework expectations in half, and see what happens in your classroom.

Let's say you are a math teacher. Instead of having students do ten homework problems, assign just five. It doesn't have to be for the year - maybe just for a unit. Think about how you can change your day-to-day class to build in more practice so that students have to do less at home. Even content teachers can reduce their homework.

For example, a science or social studies teacher might assign students to spend 15 minutes studying vocabulary with a parent or older sibling using a game or flashcards, rather than assigning pages in a workbook. Do students still master the skill? If so, you have proven the less-is-more strategy of Finland's teachers. With less homework, you may even find that students enjoy your class more and give you more focus and effort during class.

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Lessons from Finnish Teachers

As American teachers, we cannot completely reform our educational system. However, we can adopt techniques from Finnish schoolteachers to make our classrooms more effective. Think about your own life for a moment. Would you like to be able to leave school, go home, and spend time with your family and on things you love? Our students are no different. Finland's 'less is more' approach to education emphasizes family time, and so can you.

Start by thinking about how you allocate your class time. Do you teach bell-to-bell, or do you build time for play into your classroom routine through brain breaks and other research-based strategies? You can even give students more time outside of class to play by strategically limiting homework, thereby giving students more time to devote to their passions. If you do that, perhaps like Finnish teachers, you can improve achievement while adhering to the Finnish motto of 'work less, learn more.'

By Rachel Tustin
February 2018
teachers classroom management

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