Teach Like Finland, Part 1

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the first in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Since 2001, many educators in the U. S., including yours truly, and around the world have wondered why Finnish students continually rank as top scorers on the international PISA exam. I recently read Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. This is some of what I learned.

Before I even opened the book, I reflected on the use of the word “joyful” in the subtitle. In my work as a school librarian which included thirteen years at all three instructional levels between 1992 – 2009, I cotaught with classroom teachers in their classrooms as well as in the library, computer labs, and out in the field. I had the pleasure of working in many “joyful” classrooms, libraries, and even one very joyful school!

I agree with Teach Like Finland author Timothy Walker that joy is one of the too-oft missing ingredients in schooling today. Walker organizes his book into the four elements of happiness — belonging, autonomy, master, and mind-set — identified by Rag Raghunathan author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? To these Walker adds “well-being.”

There were many other aspects of the Finnish education culture that “spoke to me.” Children start formal schooling at age seven. Elementary schools, in particularly, strive for a holistic, child-focused curriculum that addresses all subjects evenly. All subjects including art and music as well as what U. S. schools consider “core” subjects get equal time. Finnish schools apply the research that has shown art contributes to innovative thinking and music knowledge can help learners grasp mathematical patterns. The holistic model gives children opportunities to cultivate multiple aspects of their personalities and talents.

The average time that Finnish educators spend in actual instruction is also shorter than U. S. teachers per week (18 hours versus 26.5 hours). Finnish students and teachers have 15-minute breaks after every 45-minutes of instructional time. Collaborating with colleagues is one way that educators use that “free” time every day. (See below.)

Walker identified six strategies Finnish educators use to approach their work: seek flow, have a thicker skin, collaborate over coffee, welcome the experts, vacate on vacation, and don’t forget the joy. All of these are well worth considering.

Seek Flow
As a writer and educator, I know and strive for that feeling of flow when my mind and body are totally focused and I do my best work. Walker writes: “Being teachers who seek flow, not superiority, is something that’s not just good for us; it’s also good for our students. Our students are watching us, and if they see that we’re seeking to do our best work, free of comparing ourselves to others, I’m confident that this kind of example will foster a noncompetitive culture in our classrooms… This positive change we want to see—as is so often the case in teaching—starts with us” (Walker 173).

Have a Thicker Skin
Having a “thicker skin” that allows us to give, receive, and respond to constructive criticism is another important strategy. Principal leader and author of The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity George Couros just last week posted “It’s Okay to Be the ‘Boss’” to his blog. The thicker skin strategy totally aligns with Couros’s idea about providing adults with feedback.

Couros writes: “As long as people know that you are both on the same page (that you want them to be successful), they will accept the feedback. For some, it is harder than others, but when they know it is because you want them to be better, it is a much easier pill to swallow.”

Walker goes on to write about how he uses journaling to work through anxieties and challenges in teaching. He also writes about how noting “gratitudes” can boost happiness and giving thanks can strengthen relationships.

Collaborate Over Coffee
Of course, the aspect of daily life in Finnish schools that jumped off the page at me was educator collaboration. Walker interviewed several Finnish teachers and asked: “What brings you joy as a teacher, and what brings your students joy?”

One of the most popular answers was collaboration! He noted that nearly 50% of the lessons he taught during his time in Finland were cotaught.

“Teachers in my school were not just collaborating in the traditional sense, by planning and teaching lessons together—they were truly laboring together, sharing the burdens of teaching with each other. They were helping each other track down the resources they’d need for an upcoming lesson. They were discussing better ways to support needy students. They were analyzing curriculum together. They were talking about how to improve recess for the kids. They were grading tests together. They were offering tech support to each other. To my surprise, this work often happened in between sips of coffee, during those fifteen-minute breaks throughout the day” (Walker 178-179).

His comment made me think about what I mean when I write about collaborating in the “traditional sense.” I believe coteaching involves all of the aspects that Walker describes, but maybe others, who have not experienced classroom-library coteaching between equal partners, do not perceive the same depth of partnership that I have experienced.

In the course of coplanning and coteaching, classroom teachers and school librarians are analyzing curriculum together. They are sharing resources and providing technology support to one another. They are strategizing how to differentiate to meet the needs of all students. And in the most effective partnerships, they are assessing students’ work together and using assessment to adjust their instruction.

Walker writes: “More than anything, I think collaboration is all about mind-set. If you truly believe that you are a better teacher when you are working in concert with others, then I think you will naturally find small, simple ways of collaborating… Their work together seemed like a by-product of their teaching mind-set” (181).

Bravo! And yes! To a mind-set that believes collaboration is the key to better teaching.

I will reflect on the other three strategies next week: welcome the experts, vacate on vacation, and don’t forget the joy.

Works Cited

Couros, George. “It’s Okay to Be the ‘Boss.’” The Principal of Change blog. 18 May 2017, http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7360 Accessed 20 May 2017.

Raghunathan, Rag. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? New York: Penguin, 2016.

Walker, Timothy D. Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.