And if you like his graffiti art as much as I do, you’ll follow his artist’s page on Facebook and Twitter.
Here’s an inspiring video montage from my friend David Popa—a young, talented American graffiti artist—who visited Helsinki during the summer of 2014. Not only will you witness his impressive spray-painting in this 6-minute video, but you’ll also catch several gorgeous glimpses of the Finnish summer, urban-style.
And if you like his graffiti art as much as I do, you’ll follow his artist’s page on Facebook and Twitter.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with one American talk radio host about my experiences as a foreigner in Finland (and why I moved to this Nordic nation in the first place). He had stumbled across my article “5 Bad American Habits I Kicked in Finland" and he had a few follow-up questions.
To listen to this segment, click here. Wait a minute or two and it will auto-play, taking you to the beginning of the interview at the 103rd minute. Enjoy!
Photo credit: Masaki Ikeda
From “5 Bad American Habits I Kicked in Finland”, published on The Atlantic’s website today (!):
1. I don’t fear awkward silences.
I have yet to meet an American who doesn’t dread the awkward silence. A lull in any conversation is to be avoided at all costs—even if it means talking about the latest viral cat video or celebrity breakup.
The Finns I’ve met, on the other hand, embrace the awkward silence. They understand that it’s a part of the natural rhythm of human interaction. Sure, Finns know how to have conversations, but they’re not driven by a compulsion to fill time and space with needless chatter.
On a recent school day, as I dug into a lunch of fish sticks and steamed potatoes at the teachers’ table in the cafeteria, I was joined by a Finnish colleague. We exchanged hellos (since, you know, we hadn’t yet greeted each other that day), and then ate our meals in complete silence. We had been teaching all morning, and those fleeting moments of quiet were like a rest for our souls. After 10 minutes, I glanced up at the clock and, seeing that my next lesson was about to begin, broke the calm by saying goodbye. Even though we had just given each other “the silent treatment,” no harm was done. Quite the opposite, actually. I pushed in my chair feeling refreshed…
Read my entire article here on The Atlantic’s website. And if you enjoy it, would you consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter? Thanks!
Photo credit: Ariel Waldman/Flickr
Before I started teaching at a Finnish public school, I taught first graders in Arlington, Massachusetts. And I had a sharp-eyed mentor teacher named Joanna.
"Psst. Can I speak with you for a second?" Joanna pulled me aside during a lunch break. She wasn’t wearing her characteristic smile. "Tim, please don’t be offended by what I’m about to say, but whenever I peek into your classroom, you always seem to be sitting down with your first graders on the rug." The criticism stung—not because it was off-target, but because I knew it was true.
My habit of requiring my young students to sit passively for a half-hour or so on the rug was clearly not working for them. By the time I’d release them from the rug to do independent work, they were exasperated and I had to peel a few of them from the floor.
Armed with an old-fashioned stopwatch, I forced myself to keep all of my lessons under 15 minutes. The results were encouraging: My students transitioned quickly and worked more efficiently at their tables when I kept these lessons short. But I soon detected another obvious problem.
My students were sitting down nearly 100 percent of every class. Intuitively, I knew this was problematic and later, I found out why.
When I stopped to think of it, whenever I’d visit other schools in the states, I would see the same phenomenon. American students were being asked to sit for the majority of lessons. Not only that, but they weren’t very active during the entire school day. And this could only mean that millions of children were missing out on the rich benefits of being more physically active.
Research has shown that physical activity can fend off obesity, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve cognitive functions—like memory and attention—and positively impact mental health.
I somewhat assumed that the lack of physical activity in schools was an American problem—a natural byproduct of long school days and limited opportunities for recess. But when I started teaching in Finland, I saw the same thing happening at my public school, Ressun peruskoulu, a bilingual "comprehensive" (grades one to nine) school in downtown Helsinki with nearly 400 students.
At first, this didn’t add up. Kids in Finland have short school days and frequent 15-minute breaks—typically there’s one after each 45-minute lesson. And even though the breaks keep them more focused in the classroom, they don’t necessarily keep them more active at school.
On the playground—sunshine or snowfall—I’d find many young Finnish children spending recess passively. Some would be tapping away on their smart phones, hooked by the latest mobile game, while others would be huddled together, sitting down on benches or standing in small groups and chitchatting. Usually, I could find a handful of students playing tag or soccer. But the number of passive kids typically seemed to exceed the number of active ones. In the hallways of my school, older students were often slouched against the wall or even lying down, waiting for their next lesson to begin.
Finnish researchers recently confirmed my observations. On the "Finnish Report Card 2014 on Physical Activity for Children and Youth," kids in Finland received a "D" for overall physical activity levels. In 2013, one study revealed that only half of the participating Finnish elementary students met the national guideline of engaging in at least one hour of "moderate-to-vigorous" physical activities each day. Among middle-school students, the figure was even worse: 17 percent.
Finland wasn’t the only country that did poorly on its physical activity report card. On the "2014 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth," America received a "D-" for overall physical activity levels. Roughly a quarter of American children ages six through 15 are active an hour per day on at least five days of the week, according to the report card.
Though children in both countries suffer from low activity levels, a key difference exists between Finland and the United States: Hundreds of schools across this tiny Nordic nation are now endeavoring to keep kids active throughout the day through a relatively new government initiative called "Finnish Schools on the Move." This experiment could serve as an example of what America, where problems such as childhood obesity are on the rise, could do to get kids more active.
Between 2010 and 2012, 45 Finnish schools piloted the program. And the results were hopeful, demonstrating schools can increase the physical activity of children as long as they make the effort. According to a survey conducted after the pilot program, half of participating elementary school students and a third of middle school students reported an increase in physical activity.
Earth-shattering outcomes? No. "It takes some time for the actions taken to manifest and as a result, long-term and systematic development work is required to increase children’s physical activity during the school day," says asummary of the pilot program. But humble as it was, "Finnish Schools on the Move" was a step in the right direction.
Tuija Tammelin—the research director of LIKES, the foundation that conducted the study of the pilot program—tells me that she is impressed with the rapid adoption of "Finnish Schools on the Move." In just a couple of years, the number of participating "comprehensive" schools has grown from 45 to nearly 800. In the fall, my school launched this initiative, and I’ve been able to see "Finnish Schools on the Move" in action.
* * *
It’s just past noon on a mid-December school day, and I wander outside during one of those 15-minute breaks. Now that my school has launched "Finnish Schools on the Move," I wonder if anything has changed about my students’ behavior. Will I see fewer kids slothing around the playground?
In neon-yellow vests, two of my sixth graders—Emmi and Marianne—are facilitating a popular game known as "Banana Tag." (The names used for the students cited in this article are pseudonyms.) Around them, about a dozen younger children are dashing back and forth.
Emmi and Marianne are "recess activators," meaning they’ve been trained to work with their younger peers, especially first and second graders, once a week. A few minutes before I arrived, the two girls had huddled up with these 7- and 8-year-olds and decided on a game to play.
I walk up to Emmi during the middle of her game, and as the youngsters cheerfully zigzag to avoid us, I ask her whether the little kids are more active during recess now that she’s leading games. She gives me one of those looks kids give when adults ask them a question that has an obvious answer. With her eyebrows raised, she nods vigorously—a cue that I should jump out of their way.
Eventually it became clear that what I observed that day with Emmi and Marianne was a daily routine. Every day at noon, several recess activators engage in similar activities, dispersing across the blacktopped playground and recruiting younger children to join them in active games like "Banana Tag."
* * *
I visit another school in the Finnish city of Salo—a two-hour drive from Helsinki. There, I find sixth graders helping out in a different way.
A lesson has just ended and I watch as dozens of elementary school students flock to the foyer where their winter coats and outdoor shoes are kept. But instead of zooming outside, which might have been the case in the past, several children stay behind and form a straight line in front of a table near the front door. Each child grasps a slip of paper the size of a business card. These papers, I discover, are "passports" granting them the right to borrow exercise equipment during recess.
A few moments later, two older students slide behind the table. With a key from the teacher’s lounge, they unlock the compartment underneath the table and call up the first child—a petite, blond-haired boy.
"What do you want?" one of the older kids chirps after collecting the boy’s "passport." The boy asks for a basketball and, once it’s presented, snatches it happily and rushes outside. Next, a round-faced brunette steps up and requests a jump rope. And so it goes until the long line of eager children disappears.
Curious as to whether this program has been as successful as that at my Helsinki school, I step up to the counter and ask the older students if they’ve also witnessed a change in the level of physical activity during break times. Their answer, unsurprisingly, is also yes.
But that isn’t enough to convince me that the program is producing results across the board. Although I saw younger children moving a lot during their breaks, I still wonder about the impact of "Finnish Schools on the Move" on older students. After all, the pilot program revealed that sedentary behavior at school increased steadily by age. Later surveys, moreover, reported that just a third of students in grades seven through nine increased their level of physical activity each day despite participating in the pilot.
So I catch up with Heidi Rautajoki, the P.E. teacher at my school who is coordinating the program. Although she’s pleased with the work of recess activators like Emmi and Marianne, Heidi acknowledges that something needs to be done about the older children. But she has a plan.
This upcoming fall, my school will transition to a different daily schedule that is designed to allow students extra time to engage in the physical activities that interest them most; instead of short, 15-minute recesses, the school will offer at least one 30-minute break. This change will especially benefit the students in grades seven through nine at my school: They’ve outgrown games like tag and need something more developmentally appropriate to get their heart rates up.
Under this new model, the older students will have the chance to come up with their own diversions to keep themselves active during the school day: yogalates, floor hockey, or gymnastics, to name a few of the possibilities. The kids get to dream it up; as long as it’s something vigorous, it’s an option. Students will run and direct these activities—and that’s intentional. Finnish schools are encouraging children to take ownership by inviting their ideas and carving out the time and space for these activities to happen at school.
But this model doesn’t only underscore value of student empowerment. It also demonstrates that increasing physical activity shouldn’t be a goal reserved only for recess or P.E. class. And Heidi agrees:"P.E. lessons are just not enough."
* * *
In fact, I’ve come to realize that class time should also involve physical activity. When my school’s faculty introduced "Finnish Schools on the Move" last year, the coordinators came up with various strategies for getting students to be more active during lessons: offer "energizers" (short breaks from sitting for students during lessons), allow kids to complete work while standing, and replace conventional chairs with exercise balls so that students can bounce and learn simultaneously, for example.
I’ve since searched for even more ways to activate my sixth graders during lessons. One of the strategies I experimented with last fall is what I call "theactive gallery walk," which keeps kids moving yet ensures they’re focused during class.
This tactic grew out of my frustration with a very traditional way of doing school. All too often, students present their work passively; they stand at the front of their classrooms with a poster or slideshow presentation and lecture the class on what they’ve learned, for example. Not only does this common practice consume a lot of instructional time, but it’s also unproductive. Sitting down and listening to numerous presentations in a row can become eye-glazingly boring for everyone in the class—including the teacher—no matter how skillfully the students share their work.
While giving students the opportunity to present their learning is, of course, important, I’d argue that it’s not worth doing if it’s not engaging and active for kids. Hence, the active gallery walk.
Here’s how it works: Students fasten their presentations to the walls of the classroom or hallway as if they were exhibiting their work in an art gallery. Each display is numbered and the children rotate from exhibit to exhibit systematically, spending a minute or two carefully studying each one. To make this experience more meaningful, students provide written-feedback to each other as they’re visiting each display. Before they start the active gallery walk, I hand out sticky notes in two different colors. On one color, my sixth graders write questions about the work for the presenter to consider and on the other, they jot down positive observations.
And although they appear to bob happily throughout an active gallery walk—as they lean in to view each presentation and scrawl feedback on sticky notes—perhaps the best part for them comes after the activity is over. They rush to take down their presentations and return to their desks, where they then scrutinize the feedback from their classmates. Naturally, I give them time to revise their work. And to my delight, students have always chosen to improve their presentations without any prodding from me.
* * *
Halfway through our most recent active gallery walk, I check my watch and I’m amazed at how quickly time is flying by. Twenty minutes have already passed, but it feels as if we’ve just begun. Emmi turns around when she hears me exclaim "wow!", and asks for an explanation. I show her the time and, like me, she can’t believe the number of minutes that have elapsed. We agree that learning should feel this way all the time.
Jukka, another one of my students, approaches me after the active gallery walk, gives me a high five, and thanks me for the lesson. But in my mind his expression of gratitude—as if I’d just given Jukka and his classmates an unexpected gift—is unwarranted. All students deserve active, engaging lessons like the one he and Emmi just experienced.
"Finnish Schools on the Move" has helped me to see that schools in America—and around the world—can increase the physical activity of children by nudging all students to take ownership of their active lifestyles and encouraging teachers to come up with creative ways of getting kids to move inside their classrooms.
This post was originally published by The Atlantic here.
Photo: David Goehring/Flickr
Thank you for reading Taught by Finland in 2014! Check out the year's top blog posts below. And have a Happy New Year!
First Grade in Finland: Every Day is a Half-Day
“Every day I see first graders who thrive with shorter school days in Finland. They can (and often do) spend hours engaged in deep play long after the school day has ended, developing their creativity and analytical thinking skills.”
3 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Finland
“In Finland, I’m navigating across a different cultural landscape and I’m watching several of my American habits slip away.”
Work-Life Balance in Finland: Americans on a Different Planet
“We, Americans, like to say that we ‘work hard and play hard.’ But how well do we rest hard, regularly putting our work aside to focus on the other important aspects of life?”
Finland: Where the Helicopter Parent is an Unknown Species
“Although American kids appear to be a lot less independent than Finnish kids, it’s not because they lack an ‘independence gene.’ The biggest difference is that American children have fewer opportunities to exercise freedom… But what I’ve seen in Finland is that children ‘rise to the occasion’ – and become more self-directed – when they experience more freedom.”
How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play
“As a teacher, I’m always trying to improve my classroom through experimentation. What I realized in Finland, with the help of a flustered fifth grader, is that once I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction.”
In Finland, students always have time for bathroom breaks
“In Finland, I’m seeing a fearlessness-driven approach to education. Finnish policymakers aren’t scared that their schools will fail at educating children well, so they trust educators… Teachers have a lot more autonomy in the classroom. And kids have a lot more time to be kids.”
The Dignity in Finnish Education: Discoveries of an American Teacher (Guest Post)
“Finns don’t need to be the best. They don’t feel comfortable there. They just believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to reach their potential. And that goal is lofty enough.”
Half-Day Heaven: Afterschool with Finland’s First and Second Graders
“As a first and second grade teacher in the Boston area, I never saw students this young look so refreshed after 12:00. The balance of academics in the morning and play in the afternoon must be nourishing them.”
Cooking in a Finnish Classroom: What I Wish I Learned as a U.S. Student
“Students need an education that provides them with lots of diverse opportunities to produce with their heads and hands. In Finland, I’m seeing what this delicate balance looks like.”
Dear America: If you love kids, let your schools show your affection.
“By providing things like frequent breaks, shorter school days and less standardized tests, Finnish schools are not doing anything particularly innovative. This tiny Nordic country is simply making sensible decisions that support the wellbeing of all children. And when you stop to think about it, this is exactly what all school systems should be doing.”
Photo: Lkluft/CC BY-SA 3.0.
A year ago, I moved to Helsinki with my Finnish wife Johanna and our one-year-old son. I had a feeling that moving to Finland would change me. I just didn’t know how until recently.
Like you, many of my habits have been shaped by my culture of origin. In Finland, I’m navigating across a different cultural landscape and I’m watching several of my American habits slip away.
I don't mind being naked with strangers.
In the land of 3.3 million saunas, it is inevitable that you will eventually find yourself naked with people you don’t know. And not care whatsoever.
I didn’t realize that I had reached this level of Finnishness until last month. A close friend of mine from New York was visiting us in Helsinki and I insisted that—on his last night in Finland—he must join me for a trip to one of the city’s public saunas.
I explained that Finns go naked—but men and women have separate saunas. Sauna is not, in any way, sexual. Coed saunas exist in Finland, or so I’ve heard, but the general consensus is that they’re creepy.
I was convinced that my American friend would fall in love with the Finnish sauna culture, savoring the searing heat and the refreshing dip in chilly seawater. But I was wrong. Very wrong.
Before entering the sauna via the changing room, I smiled and quipped to my friend, “This is where we leave the towels, man.” My friend was not amused. Clutching his towel around his waist, he growled “no way” indignantly.
Unfazed by my friend’s reluctance, I hung up my own towel and strolled into the sauna Finnish-style. I found a spot on the top platform—along with another naked man. A few moments later, my American buddy timidly opened the door to the sauna and located a spot on the lowest bench, still gripping his towel as if his life (or manhood) depended on it.
He lasted about three minutes before declaring “enough” to me and the other naked strangers in the dimly lit room. Since we had already agreed to swim in the sea, I followed him out of the sauna and outside onto the deck where there were stairs, leading into the water. (Keep in mind that it’s November, so the sea hasn’t frozen over yet in Helsinki, but it’s getting close).
I descended the stairs first and submerged my whole body into the sea, except for my head. Finnish friends have taught me to avoid putting my head under, so that I won’t suffer permanent brain damage.
After I had grabbed my towel from the railing at the top of the steps, my friend—true to form—climbed down the stairs, so that the water was up to his knees and immediately, he bolted back up the steps where he quickly snatched his towel.
Without saying a word to each other, we headed back inside. I ditched my towel in the changing room and walked back into the steamy sauna. I assumed my friend would show his face a few moments later, but he never came. This was when I started to wonder if I had ruined my friend’s trip to Finland.
When I emerged from the sauna, my friend was changing into his clothes. Apparently, he had just taken a long, hot shower in his bathing suit and he was ready to put this sauna experience behind him.
I don’t ask “how are you” carelessly.
In Finland, “how are you” is a dangerous question—because you may actually get a truthful response. And before asking this question, you need to ask yourself if you can handle the truth.
At one dinner party, I’m reaching for a slice of rye bread and to be polite, I ask a middle-aged friend of my wife’s family how she’s doing. She thanks me for asking and goes on to explain how she’s not sleeping very well. Not only that, but she’s convinced that she needs to take medication for her sleeping disorder, but she won’t be able to get medication for some time. I nod without saying anything, caught off guard by her honesty. Too much information, I’m thinking.
In the United States, if I ask someone how he or she is doing, that person knows that I’m most likely being polite and I’ll be met with the standard answer (“Good, thanks.”). This happens even when things are not going well at all for that individual. If someone dares to share that he or she is just “okay” or “fine”, I know that this person is going through a major crisis and I should probably back off.
On another occasion, I’m at Hesburger—the Finnish fast food equivalent of McDonald’s—and I step up to place an order. I start with the traditional American pleasantry, “Hi. How are you?”
The jaw of the young Finnish woman behind the counter drops. She stammers, looks down and then, mumbles, “Uh, I’m okay.” I wonder if I just offended her by my warm greeting?
About 20 minutes later, I stroll up to the counter again and order an ice cream sundae with caramel sauce. This time I leave out “How are you?” and surprisingly, she looks more comfortable. I mention that I’m American and somehow that makes sense to her. She smiles faintly and under her breath, she mutters “Oh, that explains it.” In that moment, she surely has forgiven me for asking “how are you” without caring.
I don't grab coffee to go.
In America, we like things on-the-go. We eat breakfast in the front seats of our cars. We eat lunch at our desks, catching up on emails. And of course, we drink coffee on the run. America runs on Dunkin’, right?
In Finland, people slow down when they drink coffee. They sit down. They sip leisurely. They chat. They’re so relaxed that I often catch them staring into space.
Given our on-the-go obsession with coffee, one might suspect that Americans would far outpace Finns in coffee consumption. Nope.
The United States isn’t even in the top ten when you rank actual coffee consumption per person. The average Finn drinks twice as much coffee as the average American!
The fact that Finland is leading the world in coffee drinking, behind The Netherlands, doesn’t surprise me at all. Everywhere I go in Helsinki I’m offered coffee. And it’s hard to say no. Before moving to Finland, I averaged about one cup each day in Boston; now I’m up to four cups!
And the most surprising thing is that I rarely take coffee to go. I’ve learned from my colleagues to adopt the Finnish way of taking breaks to drink coffee—from actual mugs.
But a couple of weeks ago, I had an American relapse. I needed to rush out of our apartment, and I didn’t have time to sit down for a cup of coffee. I knew exactly what this situation called for.
Frantically, I rummaged through the shelf that held our coffee mugs and sippy cups. Eventually, I found one silver to-go mug, but its black cap was warped. And when I poured the coffee in, the bottom of the mug started to hiss and form tiny bubbles. Arrgh, this will spill all over me in the subway, I thought.
I shouted gruffly to my wife, "Why don't we have one decent thermos in this house!?"
Johanna—without the slightest hesitation—snapped back, “Because we live in Europe. And Europeans don’t take coffee to go!”
Photo (above): Wikimedia Commons/Marek Radziszewski
Just a few weeks into teaching at a Helsinki public school, I sat down with one reporter who was intent on teasing out the lessons I was learning as a young American teacher in Finland—even as I was struggling with classroom shock. Now in my second year of teaching in Finland, Crawford Kilian returned to Helsinki and stopped by my school. In the following post, he reveals his observations and insights from his recent visit.
On a sunny mid-September morning, I caught a tram across Helsinki to Ressu Comprehensive School. I'd been invited by my American friend Tim Walker to be a guest speaker for his Grade 6 class in the school's English stream. Finland's education system famously tops the world in many measures of student achievement. After following Finnish education from a great distance, I was eager to see what it was like right in the classroom.
Spoiler alert: it was exhilarating. But for the Finns, it wasn't good enough.
While I waited in the hall for Tim to collect me, I watched the kids coming in. They might have been in any elementary or middle school in the Lower Mainland -- whites, Asians, blacks, browns, some girls in hijabs, the guys toting skateboards or scooters, all as enslaved to their smartphones as Helsinki's adults.
Tim collected me and took me on a quick tour of the school, a repurposed hospital. One of his colleagues later told me it had taken damage in the Finnish-Soviet Winter War 75 years ago. Ressu is a slightly unusual school, offering the International Baccalaureate program and English immersion, and recruiting students who are 20 per cent expatriates.
We checked briefly into a textiles classroom and a cooking class (more boys than girls), and then met his Grade 6 class. He's been with the same kids since last year, and their rapport was obvious.
At once we were in a high-intensity 45-minute class. As the kids took their seats, Tim read part of a story to them (from his iPod) and asked them to brainstorm questions for me, the visiting expert. We then had a greeting ceremony -- Tim has been encouraging development of social skills, which most Finnish kids aren't taught. So everyone shook hands and said hello.
Tim talked about their impending assignment, a persuasive essay; introduced me and brought the kids out of their seats into a circle to ask me questions. And they did: what kind of books did I write, and how much did I make? Oh, and how old was I?
I then did an exercise in organizing a persuasive essay on "Why Finland is the Greatest Country in the World." As ideas came to me, I jotted them down on a sheet of paper under a camera that was just a modern version of an old-fashioned opaque projector. I circled and numbered the ideas, showing how some would be the introduction, others the argument and counter-argument and some the conclusion.
It was rushed because we had only six or seven minutes before recess, but it went smoothly. I realized I'd been inserted into a very well-prepared, tightly scripted lesson plan -- far better organized than the way I'd have taught my own post-secondary students. Tim had had plenty of prep time to plan it.
Tim passed me along to a Grade 3 class in the Finnish-language stream taught by vice-principal Juha Säämänen. I didn't need to understand the language to recognize a real professional. But he was not a sage on the stage, demanding the kids' attention. His only real assertion of authority was occasionally to raise a finger to his lips when the class got too noisy. Silence promptly, but temporarily, fell.
Säämänen explained briefly to me that the class was currently dealing with a curriculum on co-operative work, levels of community and democracy. The class was working in groups on projects for an open house in a few days, including painting a big "mural" on huge sheets of paper out in the hallway. Even out of the classroom, the kids worked quietly and effectively. The teacher moved from group to group, explaining tasks, asking questions and keeping them on track.
They did lots of independent work, reading alone or doing exercises in workbooks. The classroom had four clusters of tables, two laptops and an aquarium, but was basically austere. The kids at age seven or eight were very focused; no one was zoned out or distracted by others' activities. They often taught each other, as several did with a zither-like instrument that would be part of the performance at the open house.
As with Tim's class, I was struck by the serenity of the students. One very poised boy introduced himself in English: he was from Seattle, via California, now living in Helsinki. Another boy, speaking equally good English, was from Hyderabad.
Near the end of the class Säämänen pulled the class together, asking questions, assessing the kids' sense of the value of their group work. They answered conversationally, evidently saying what they thought.
That concluded 45 quiet, productive minutes; then they were out for another recess. The well-behaved kids I'd just been talking to ran amok with their schoolmates. While some just hung out with their buddies, most chased one another the length of the playground in some local form of tag.
They were also assimilating whatever they'd covered in their class, and would return to their next class refreshed and ready to learn some more. A couple of hundred children were on the playground with just two teachers keeping an eye on them, but no one notably misbehaved.
Then to lunch. The dining area was laid out partly in a traditional school-cafeteria system, and partly in alcoves each with its own table. Students and teachers served themselves from the same courses (green salad, beets, a good turkey stew, rye crackers) and cleaned up after themselves.
The meal was free for the kids. Teachers paid a nominal fee and ate at their own table. Tim pointed out how little the kids wasted -- after scores of kids had handed in their plates, the compost bin had just a little in it. Trays, plates, utensils were handed in ready for the dishwasher.
After lunch I sat down with Leena Liusvaara, the school's new principal. (A few days later she successfully defended her PhD dissertation on school leadership.) She spoke frankly about local and national educational issues. One surprising point: despite their success for the last twenty years, Finland's schools are about to take a new direction.
"Finland is about to renew its curricula for the whole of comprehensive education, from Grades 1 to 9," she told me. "The high school curriculum is next in line, but the new lesson distribution for all subjects and the draft text for the new core curriculum is already available for schools. Next year schools will rewrite the subject curricula, and the new normative document will be in use from August 2016 onwards.
"There will be new aspects in teaching -- especially inquiry-based learning, finding the future tools for learning, learning and teaching technology, and collaboration. Participation will also be taken to the next level: it requires new approaches of participative collaboration with colleagues, students and parents, and within multi-professional working groups that serve the schools' purposes."
'Finnish schools have to improve'
"Future Schools is a project launched by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the National Board of Education," she went on. "The project is planned in co-operation with universities and economic life. It tries to find concrete steps and solutions to better leadership, staff development, student learning and school well-being.
"The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are not there to stay. Finnish schools have to improve, face our future needs and act accordingly. Student well-being has not been high in Finland, and the new participative learning environment is seen as one solution for this. Curriculum change, future-oriented thinking and staff development all walk hand in hand -- this might be the key factor to the next giant step to something better... but only if the steps are written out in a concrete way."
Dr. Liusvaara's comments put the morning's events in a new perspective. I'd just spent time in two classes any B.C. teacher would be ecstatic to have. The students were calm, alert, on task and working well whether independently, in small groups or as a class. At recess they burned off enough energy to threaten Finland's carbon emissions standards. At lunch they ate delicious, nutritious food -- at no cost to their families.
And it wasn't good enough.
Finland has swung between Swedish and Russian rule for centuries. It fought two wars with the Soviet Union and still kept its independence. That experience, plus its sub-Arctic climate, has created a tough, realistic people who enjoy their summers while planning for winter. After deciding an egalitarian school system was their best bet, they created it in the 1970s and '80s, step by step.
When that system beat the world in the PISA exams, the Finns were as surprised as anyone. That hadn't been the point. What they wanted was a country that could compete in a world of giants, and that meant getting the most out of every kid. If anything, the PISA scores annoyed many Finnish teachers who want universally competent graduates, not individual superstars.
The country is running into tough economic time. Nokia has been sold to Microsoft and then suffered layoffs. Other high-tech industries are scaling back too; even Rovio's Angry Birds aren't doing so well.
But Finland's response is to double down on its schools, not pass along its current industries' losses to the kids.
The world has had a decade to try to catch up to Finland's educational success. Meanwhile, the Finns -- with next winter's cold breath on their necks -- are putting on more speed. They're likely to lap the whole pack of us yet again.
Note: Crawford Kilian’s article was originally published here. It was republished on Taught by Finland with his permission. The photo of a Finnish schoolyard was taken by Sergey Ivanov (Creative Commons).
Last week, Helsingin Sanomat—Finland's largest daily-subscription newspaper--published a two-page story about my experiences as an American teacher in Helsinki. To my surprise, the article has sparked a national conversation about whether Finnish schools should teach social skills more effectively.
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.”
Bambina bellissima (“beautiful baby”)! Que bella (“How beautiful”)! Piccola (“Little one”)! Italians went gaga over my 7-month-old daughter during our weekend trip to Rome. Her cheeks and thighs might even be swollen from all the pinching she received from strangers. Out of all the countries I’ve ever visited—England, Estonia, Canada, Sweden, France, Greece and Russia, among others—no place showers affection on children like Italy. My wife Johanna and I were completely blown away.
But the strangest thing is that Italian schools are not so child-friendly, especially for young children. The warm affection on the streets doesn’t seem to match the policies in the schools. On Friday, I gave a presentation on life at a Finnish public school to a crowd of Italian teachers and school leaders, and I had the chance to learn just how different schools are in this Mediterranean country.
I told them about how Finnish first and second graders have about four hours of school every day, which is more like a half-day back in the United States. Not only that, but kids in Finland have a 15-minute break built into every hour of instruction (more on that later); this means that a 4-hour school day involves just three hours of classroom time for first and second graders! This is incredible news to American parents and teachers, but it’s even more amazing to Italians. I spoke with one parent who told me that her daughter, a student at a public elementary school in Bologna, does 8-hour school days (8:00 am to 4:00 pm) with barely any time for recess. Oh. My. And I used to think that a typical schedule at an American elementary school was too much for kids!
The Finnish approach of providing less academic instruction to young kids is sensible. As students in Finland grow older, they generally spend more hours at school. For example, my sixth graders are in school about six hours every day compared with the four they used to have as first and second graders. 7- and 8-year-olds thrive on shorter school days because they need lots of time for free play. Sixth graders, not as much.
When you are in school for eight hours (or even six), there is little time and energy to play afterwards. School this long can easily kill creativity, not necessarily by what happens during lessons, but by the space it takes up in the lives of young children. Research has shown that kids only start to enter a deeper level of play—where creativity and problem-solving skills develop—after 30 minutes of uninterrupted free time. If you’re a young American and Italian student, these long stretches of free play are non-existent in schools, so the only hope is that you’d have time after the school day. But that’s unlikely to happen when you’re flat-out exhausted, your homework is burning a hole in your backpack and your bedtime is just a couple of hours from when you return home.
Finns—who are typically reserved—may not be pinching and coddling babies on the street, but they’re making sure that their children are getting what they need at school. Sometimes this looks like keeping the school day short for young kids. Of course, my argument hinges on the assumption that 7- and 8-year-old Finns are spending their after school hours engaged in free play, not structured tasks like private tutoring and organized sports (as is common practice in the United States).
In January of this year, I wanted to see how most of the first and second graders at my school were using their free time after school. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just thinking wishfully that Finnish kids were playing deeply after their last class. I wasn’t disappointed. For three hours, I attended their iltapäivä kerho (“afternoon club”)—a subsidized public program that enrolls 70% of the first and second graders at my school—that was exclusively play-oriented. The adult supervisors told me that they don’t even encourage the kids to complete their meager amounts of homework before they head home at 4:00 pm because they believe young children just need time to play with their friends. And that’s exactly what I saw these 7- and 8-year-olds doing: playing dress-up, building with legos and drawing.
As I mentioned earlier, Finnish kids are entitled to take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. Finland takes this so seriously that it’s even guaranteed by law. While I was visiting Rome, I was told that typically Italian high school students get just 10-minutes of break every day (and they’re expected to eat during this time)! On top of this, they will spend most of the school day in just one classroom; teachers come to them. Meanwhile, kids in Finland—young and old—receive 15-minute unstructured breaks throughout the school day and they have the opportunity to slip outside for fresh air during these times, even when it’s freezing.
Obviously, these 15-minute breaks are not long enough to provide young students with time for deep play, but they’re just long enough to refocus children. So, first and second graders in Finland are putting in three hours of high-quality classroom work every morning—because they’re paced by frequent breaks—and in the afternoon, they’re playing deeply throughout the entire afternoon. That’s a pretty sweet deal for kids.
But the case of Italy still befuddles me. They clearly love children but their schools—with their long and nearly recess-less school days—do not show evidence of their affection. I feel the same way about many American public elementary schools. We say we love children (and I know, deep down, we do) and yet, we send our kids to kindergarten at the age of five and they receive full-day academic instruction. We give young children just 20-minutes or so of recess for an entire school day. We throw dozens of standardized tests at our kids, starting in third grade or even younger, narrowing their curriculum and stressing them out, along with their teachers. We require young American kids to attend school each day for nearly twice as long as young Finnish children, leaving them with little time and energy for play after school.
By providing things like frequent breaks, shorter school days and less standardized tests, Finnish schools are not doing anything particularly innovative. This tiny Nordic country is simply making sensible decisions that support the wellbeing of all children. And when you stop to think about it, this is exactly what all school systems should be doing.
Ps. Thank you, Alessandra, for inviting me to speak in Rome! I dedicate this post to you, Romina and Marco for your inspiring work. Let’s work together to make American and Italian schools better places for children!
Last week, I started my second year of teaching in Finland, and I have the pleasure of teaching the same group of students as last year, moving up with them to teach them as sixth graders. Staying with one group of students is common when teaching at the elementary-level in Finland. Next week, I’ll share more reasons why I’m very excited about my second year of teaching in Helsinki.
But before I turn my attention to writing about this school year, I thought I’d take one last look at what I learned during my first year of teaching in Finland. Although the following radio segment aired months ago, I only discovered it recently and it does a great job of summarizing the major lessons I learned along the way.
Listen and/or read the entire 4-minute radio segment from Colorado Public Radio, or scroll down to read excerpts.
Ryan Warner: So Tim Walker’s blog “Taught by Finland” chronicles his year teaching in a Finnish school. And his story has been written up in a Canadian news magazine.
Jenny Brundin: Yes. Tim Walker is a young American who moved with his family from Boston to Finland where he teaches fifth grade. His wife is Finnish. As some listeners may know, Finland has a much heralded education system. It inspires a lot of respect around the world. It scores extremely high on international tests – so much so that the country regularly hosts “education tourists” who come just to visit the country’s schools.
Ryan Warner: What are some of the differences that Tim Walker notices between Boston schools and Helsinki schools?
Jenny Brundin: First, Helsinki is far more relaxed than Boston. And he says, the kids are more self-reliant. The city has no school buses. Kids either walk to school or take public transit – even the first graders.
Ryan Warner: How does the independence of the kids affect his teaching?
Jenny Brundin: He says normally during the first days of school in Boston, he does a lot of handholding, modeling and directing. In Finland, he asks the kids to show him the ropes right from the start. Kids there have many opportunities to do things on their own. For example, his 5th graders wanted to arrange a school-wide bake sale as a fundraiser. He thought it would mean a lot of extra work for him. But they did the whole thing without his direction.
Ryan Warner: Also, he noticed a difference with how time was used in school?
Jenny Brundin: Yes, in Boston it was go, go, go. As a teacher or student, not a precious minute is spent relaxing. In Finland, the kids get a 15- minute break after every 45-minute class [Tim’s note: This isn’t always the case]. Teachers are free to use their breaks as they like – it may be just sipping coffee in the lounge. Teachers initially worried about Walker burning out because he never went into the teacher’s lounge – he was always prepping for a class (even when he didn’t need to as prep time is built into a teacher’s schedule.) [Another note from Tim: Unlike many American schools, Finnish schools actually don’t build in prep periods for teachers, unless you count a weekly faculty meeting as a prep period. A full-time teaching load in Finland is 24 hours of teaching each week, which includes the 15-minute break times, and every teacher is responsible for finding time to prep outside of their lessons.]
Ryan Warner: So his colleagues challenged him to spend more time in the lounge, drinking coffee and catching up with colleagues?
Jenny Brundin: Yes, and he took their advice! He wrote that, lo and behold, breaks not only refreshed his students but invigorated him. As someone who eats a peanut butter sandwich while I’m hunched over my computer, I could learn from him and his Finnish colleagues.
For more insight into the value of breaks for students, check out “Recess: The Lost Key to Academic Success” and hear from me, an education professor who advocates for more robust recess policies and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Photo credit: Lewisr1/Flickr.