Five Strategies American Teachers can Learn From Their Finnish Counterparts
David Tow, English Teacher at Terra Linda High School and the Marin School of Environmental Leadership, went to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching program. Today he shares what he learned—and how it can help other U.S. educators.
By guest blogger David Tow
It seems like the lessons from Finland never end.
When the 2009 scores from the PISA—the Programme for International Student Assessment, a global study on student performance in core subjects completed every three years—were released and Finland's holistic model ranked evenly with the traditionally regimented systems in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and South Korea, experts across the world wanted to mimic the small Nordic nation. When their ranking slipped in 2012—still above the average but sandwiched between neighboring Estonia and Canada—analysts examined the dissonance between 2012 and 2009 and saw a different type of success. Finnish educators and schools were doing a better job of meeting the needs of struggling students, more students were beginning to attend upper secondary schools, and the country was rapidly becoming more diverse.
Now, when numerous U.S. education experts, from classroom teachers to the U.S. Department of Education, say that the Finnish case doesn't really apply in America, my response to them is 'why not?' There are lessons to be learned from Finland.
Lessons From Finland
While I was in Finland during the winter of 2016, I studied the way Finnish young people conceive of their civic and national identity. I hoped to connect these findings with the American experience, especially the diverse perspectives of my Northern California classroom. Throughout my time there, visiting schools of all levels in nearly every major metropolitan area—several Finnish friends said I saw more of their country in one winter than they had in a lifetime—I learned that Finns of all ages, but especially young people, consider national identity a liberal, open, and self-identifying constituent category. After completing my research, I recognized that while Finnish civic identity was unlike the American case, there were many ways Finnish educators were making their students competent, confident, and more ready to compete globally. The campus, the classroom, and the relationship between student and teacher were built in a way to encourage and foster the independence that the society at large valued. School reflected Finnish society. After I returned stateside, I attempted to apply many of what I saw as Finnish educational best practices into our education system.
I began by rewriting mission statements for the courses I was teaching and shared them with students, who helped me revise them again. Then, I spoke with policymakers and analysts about the gap between our rhetoric around "student-centered" teaching and the tendency to revert to traditional teacher-centered models that actually happen in classrooms. I envisioned a comprehensive reimagining of the compulsory education system in the U.S that, to me, would better serve the wide range of ability levels, cultural backgrounds, and skills needed to succeed in life after and outside of school. My ideal system involved community schools under local control, where teachers and stakeholders worked to translate national standards into innovative curriculum. I drafted new graduation requirements that guaranteed each student left school eligible for college, ensured they would enjoy school through mandatory high-interest electives, and presented vocational training as a full and respectable option. I sketched new school buildings where students had free reign of classrooms and workshops, where teachers collaborated in departmental offices, and where administrators' offices were relocated alongside instructional areas.
However, each time I'd offer a sweeping proposal, I came across variations on the same theme: it was too difficult. Sometimes that meant the ideas were unpopular or at odds with current educational practices; other times, it meant they were counter-intuitive or too expensive. And sometimes, it meant just plain difficult. After my immersion into Finnish society and education, I returned inspired and thinking in terms of systemic change while neglecting the easiest place to make change: my own classroom.
Teaching Shifts to Make Now
So, to disprove the myth that what works in Finland can't work in the United States, I'd like to celebrate the nearly one year since I left San Francisco for Helsinki, Finland, by offering you five teaching shifts that you can make in your classrooms right now using the best Finnish examples.
- Teach on a first-name basis: Most teachers in Finland prefer first names to honorifics, and while this shift alone isn't enough to change the classroom climate, it is a good example of the egalitarian nature of most Finnish classrooms. The teacher is a co-participant in the students' education, rather than the font of knowledge. By elevating the students' role to that of (almost) equal with the instructor, students feel more personally invested in their own learning. It is, after all, their responsibility. Start by recruiting the students to make a classroom constitution, protocols, and rules. Later, you can turn content-based conversations over to student facilitators and make yourself an equal participant. In my classroom, I set four preconditions—respect, bravery, politeness, and attendance—and let the students develop the rest.
- Concede the classroom: For many American teachers, the classroom is their turf, filled by their posters, their supplies, their mementos. The American teacher owns their classroom. In Finland, most teachers migrate from class to class, and share a department office with their colleagues to encourage collaboration. Without a formal classroom, the ownership of the space becomes shared. When teachers and students come together, it is on neutral territory, where no one faction has to stand their ground, where they can more quickly get to the matter of learning. I encourage teachers to limit their belongings to bookshelves and closets. Let the students claim and decorate the rest. Unused white boards can be space for doodling and brainstorming. Half-filled classroom libraries can be stocked by students' favorite books. If the classroom belongs at least partially to them, students will care more deeply about it.
- Concede the school: Similarly, American schools are treated closer to private property than a public good. Libraries often host minimal evening hours, spare classrooms are locked, and students sit on the hallway floor while offices go unused. Conversely, many of the Finnish schools I visited opened up the school to the students. The primary concerns when considering allocation of space is how it would serve the students and how many students it would help. Empty rooms are open for students to use for study groups and leisure time. Libraries, gyms, and conference rooms are open for as long as possible. Classified staff is also often eager to make the school more open for students. A copy of the master schedule and a skeleton key can go a long way to give students a sense of ownership. Teachers on their prep periods would likely welcome the polite company of students over the stony silence of an empty room.
- Practice minimalism: Northern Europe as a whole is well known for its thoughtful, spare aesthetic. But the Finnish brand of minimalism is unique, emphasizing utility, functionality, and uncluttered design. Their classrooms are no different. Partially as a result of having 5 terms a year to the United States' 2 semesters, courses in Finland are much more narrowly focused on a handful of measurable skill-based outcomes and carefully selected content knowledge. By editing courses down to the most fundamental and important components, Finnish teachers not only ensure that students have repeated exposures to those concepts, but that the class doesn't become overly distracted by the continual torrent of assignments and activities. As American policy shifts towards skill-based curriculum, teachers should use this as an opportunity to trim away accumulated lessons and activities that they like but that don't seem to meet a specific objective.
- Ask questions: In front of a classroom of 37 eager—and occasionally skeptical—faces, it can sometimes be hard to surrender the role of expert, to stop being totally certain about not only the content, but also about the effectiveness with which the content is delivered. In Finland, I saw teachers asking students as many questions about the conduct of the class and their understanding of the objectives as I did about content knowledge and skills. Having these sorts of metacognitive classroom discussions is expensive—they take valuable class time and can put the teacher in an emotionally vulnerable space—but the rewards can outweigh that investment. Students will appreciate having a voice in a trajectory and nature of the course, and will almost categorically offer genuine feedback if teachers spend the time to foster an environment that supports it. By breaking up class time with candid conversations and informal assessment—even a chance for students to rank their understanding on a scale of one to five using an upraised hand—teachers will be rewarded with valuable immediate feedback and students will understand that their teachers are more concerned with their growth than the day's agenda.
Any American teacher who implements any, some, or even all of these strategies will not experience immediate success. They will not find their classroom changed overnight, the previously disengaged or intractable students sitting in the front row, ready to raise their hands. But what the teachers will find if they stay this course is a classroom where students have more demonstrable power and where teachers are not compelled to rule by dint of their own authority, an environment where students feel important enough to offer suggestions and feedback, a community where students feel like equal stakeholders in their own education.
At the very least, teachers will be engaging critically and reflectively on their practice, working with students to develop clear expectations, and trying something new. There's something to be said for that. After all, it works in Finland. It can work here, too.
Photos courtesy of and used with permission of the author.