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A Finnish tabloid (Ilta Sanomat) published a follow-up piece about my experiences here and posed a simple survey question to its readers: “Should schools teach social skills?” Among 65,000 respondents, 85% of them answered yes. Although this wasn’t a scientific study, one thing was made clear: many Finns want their schools to address the social and emotional needs of students more effectively. And that's exciting news.
My Finnish wife Johanna has graciously translated the entire Helsingin Sanomat article (by Päivi Ala-Risku) into English. I’ve also added links to relevant articles and blog posts. Enjoy.
Last fall, just a year ago, teacher Tim Walker received his first Finnish classroom schedule. It looked strange to him. It looked empty. There were only 24 hours of weekly instructional time in this English-speaking fifth grade classroom schedule. Awesome, Walker thought, more time for my wife, 1-year old son and soon-to-be-born baby. And soon he found out that this wasn’t everything. In each hour, there would be 15 minutes of recess, so only 18 hours would be spent in the classroom each week. Back in the United States, Walker had been teaching 30 hours a week. This made him wonder, “How on earth will I have time to teach everything with such little instructional time?” On the other hand, this is exactly what he had wanted. Walker and his Finnish wife Johanna had decided to move from Boston to Finland so that the daily life of a young family would be easier.
In the United States, Walker had worked long days. On top of a 7-hour school day, he could spend 4 hours preparing for the next day. Vacation time was spent on professional development. When the Walkers had their first child, a third of Tim’s salary went towards health insurance. Also, student loans were a burden. Tim made some extra money by shoveling snow at his school and offering guitar lessons. Johanna babysat children next-door and sometimes Tim would also help out. Soon the Walker family started dreaming of having another child but life seemed too stressful. They thought of the idea of moving to Finland. Life would be easier and Tim would get to know a world-famous school system. The Walkers bought tickets to Finland without knowing about work. Finally, a dream job was offered to Tim from a Helsinki School (Ressu) that offers teaching in English and Finnish. “The principal had interviewed four or five qualified Finnish teachers who didn’t have adequate English skills for the position, so my principal was able to hire me, although at the moment I wasn’t licensed in Finland.” This was a lottery win for a man who loves teaching and pedagogy. He was given the opportunity to find out the reason behind Finland’s success in the international PISA tests.
So, let’s get to work. Walker started his first school year in Finland with passion. The first thing he did was take out the 15-minute recesses. He thought he would have more time to teach if he taught 90 minutes back to back followed by a 30-minute break. The students would do fine, just like back in the States, he speculated. By the time he reached the third day of school, he found out that this practice wasn’t working. “I’m about to explode!” protested his fifth grader. “I’m not used to this!” Walker had to reassess the system. It was true that even in the States students were losing interest at the 45-minute mark. Walker decided to go back to the original schedule. And wow. What a change. "The students returned from recess with a bounce in their steps. And the most important thing was that they had energy to focus during a lesson.”
The Finnish school environment is stress-free compared to the United States where students and teachers are suffering from constant pressure. Teachers work long days and even during vacation time, teachers are expected to do professional development. “In Finland, a teacher’s time-off sounds like this: four weeks at their summer cottage, a hiking trip and a holiday in Italy. I respect Finnish teachers but sometimes it’s hard for me to take them seriously when they complain that they don’t have enough time for everything.” Life in Finland is more laid-back, which is good. One time Walker’s principal was pushing him to go home when he was working at his school at 3:30 pm on a Friday. Everything else seems to be better here, too. Students are more independent; for example, they make sure they have their schoolbooks with them. First graders have only three-hour school days and the rest of the day they spend playing in iltapaivakerho ("afternoon club"). Even cooking is taught in schools here. But everything is not perfect. Tim wants to address one major deficiency in Finnish schools.
The fifth graders were giggling at Walker. “Last time we did this was in preschool,” they were chuckling. Walker had just asked them if they would ever gather together in a circle to greet each other as an icebreaker. Walker was surprised. In the United States, morning circle is a common practice in elementary schools. 20 minutes of peacefully checking in with each other each morning. In the time-crunched Finnish system, there isn’t time for this every day. But Walker didn’t give up and established this routine at the beginning of each week. His students gather in a circle to greet each other. Here’s an example: Walker reaches out his hand to a student next to him and says, “Good morning, Juha.” Juha responds, “Good morning, Tim.” Then Juha turns to a student next to him and greets him, and so forth, around the circle. Sometimes high-fives are exchanged. What’s more important than formality is a friendly greeting, and looking the other person into their eyes. “American children are more friendly and social than Finnish children, but this is only because we teach them to be that way. Social skills don’t come out of nothing.” Lack of community is especially deficient in Finnish schools, according to Walker. Time isn’t spent on learning social skills and dealing with one’s emotions. “Many Finnish teachers believe these are important skills but they haven’t been taught how to teach them.”
Finnish schools are not doing so well on the emotional frontier. Although Finland’s academic success in PISA is still at the top of the world, the research that has assessed children’s satisfaction at school has shown that Finland is at the bottom. Why? “I don’t believe that Finnish kids don’t enjoy their recesses. I believe the problem is in the teaching methods. They tend to be very old-fashioned. The teacher standing in front of the class and teaching.” In the United States, learning-by-doing is favored. Students are encouraged to draw from their skills and talents, and focus on their own interests. “For example, the practice of offering 'Genius Hour' is growing in popularity. Each week students are given one hour to work on a project that they have chosen themselves. It could be something like building your own guitar or coding a game. “ According to Walker, this can boost children’s enthusiasm for school. Even the weakest students could do what they like and still manage to fulfill the school’s requirements.
Walker has adapted to Finland well. He hasn’t had to deal with culture shock, although there are differences between the two countries. For example, children are much more independent at an earlier age. “Independence is a result of freedom that parents give to their children. First graders walk alone in the hallways, and first and second graders use the subway by themselves. This is unheard of in the United States.” According to Walker, American parenting is often based on fear. Danger is lurking at every corner. Now there’s a new movement called ‘free-range kids’ that has taken its name from free-range chickens. The approach favors more freedom for children. This movement still looks different from Finnish parenting though. “In the United States, children are given freedom because it’s thought to be beneficial for them. In Finland, children have a lot of freedom because it is sensible and practical.” If a child can walk to school alone, why wouldn’t they. A parent’s time is saved when they don’t have to walk a 'big kid' to school.
Note: The smiley photo—titled "Onnellinen Opettaja", or in English, “The Happy Teacher”—on the cover of Helsingin Sanomat’s Thursday Supplement was taken by Milka Alanen. When translated into English, the caption reads, “American Tim Walker admires Finnish schools. In Finland, he has learned that you can’t steal recess from the students.”
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