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Four Thrifty (and Simple) Ways to Improve U.S. Education

Editor's Note: Sarah Applegate, Junior/Senior Seminar and Elementary Technology Teacher at the Dalian American International School in Dalian, China, spent four months studying school libraries and information literacy instruction in Finland in 2011 as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. Here are some of her thoughts on ideas we could borrow from the Finnish model to improve US education.

By guest blogger Sarah Applegate

I returned from Finland and became a bit of a crusader for "truth, justice, and the Finnish way." Many people felt that my enthusiasm, while quaint and rather excessive, was unrealistic, misguided, or just impossible.

"They are such a homogenous country," they would say. "Nothing like us in the US."

"Their population is so small," I would frequently hear. "They can do things we could never do." 

Despite this frequent skepticism from my American counterparts, as I traveled throughout Finland, interviewing teachers and students about their experiences with school libraries, I became fascinated and inspired by some of the basic structures of the school system that went far beyond information literacy.

What I observed are four basic system approaches, especially at the elementary level, that seemed to provide a foundation for the professionally supportive and student-centered teaching and learning I saw consistently across the country. These are four approaches that I believe we can implement at relatively low cost in many schools across the United States.

Outside Breaks

Students get 15-minute outside breaks after every 45 minutes of instruction. As one teacher told me, "Students can't focus for more than 45 minutes on a topic and we both need a break. They get to play outside and come back ready to learn." Teachers and students alike felt that this one, simple, scheduling choice provided them both the opportunity to recharge.

Teachers had a chance to get a cup of coffee (Finland does have one of the highest per capita coffee consumption rates in the world), and students got to use their pent-up energy. I loved watching the scramble and chaos of students pulling on their snowsuits, grabbing their boots, gloves, hats, and sometimes skis, and racing outside to play. One caveat—if it was colder than -25C, they didn't go outside).

COST: Little to none. Teachers could change current duty location and times.


Students often have the same teacher for some or all of their elementary experience. Teachers said to me: "I am an elementary teacher not a grade level teacher," and, "Knowing the students well over time helps me teach them better because I don't have to get to know them each year. I already know their skills and who they are."

In the United States, I have spoken with colleagues who are in favor of implementing a similar model. The first month of school would be spent catching kids up and getting to know them again. This model allows us to see ourselves as teachers of students versus teachers of a grade level and would allow for us to more easily meet the differentiated needs of our students. American elementary educators already have the broad knowledge that could help them be more holistic in their teaching. A kindergarten through 2nd grade and a 3rd grade through 5th grade model may be more approriate in the U.S. context, given the different skill sets needed to teach these grades. 

COST: Nothing.

Teaching Principals 

Many elementary principals teach a regular class as part of their school day. The principals I talked to felt that being in the classroom helped them stay connected to the work their teachers did every day and helped them be better school leaders. They had a better understanding of the challenges teachers faced in their daily work and they had a stronger sense of the needs and strengths of teachers and students by staying connected to the daily teaching and learning. Teachers admired the principal's willingness to stay in an instructional role and felt that their instructional leadership was validated by being classroom teachers not just building administrators. Administrators also felt that it was important to keep their instructional skills sharp. 

COST: Zero.

Utilize Already Existing Public Resources to Supplement Needed School Resources

I went to Finland initially to figure out how the Finnish schools teach information literacy skills without having a teacher librarian, and often, without having a school library at all. What I discovered is that the public libraries are well integrated into the community, are close to many people's homes, and are very responsible to the needs and interests of the citizens, with outreach to infants (a library card early in life is an expectation) along with senior citizens (libraries were charged with teaching seniors how to use cell phones when they first were on the market).

BC9795F168AE4A468604F839FCBEE38D.jpgThis investment was appreciated by students in public schools, so much so that they didn't see much value in school libraries if they had one. Students learned, from an early age, that the public libraries could supply the print resources they needed and wanted for school and personal research, and the schools don't try to duplicate or replicate what was offered there. Teachers provided the instruction that wasn't available at the library (research models, responsible use of information, supervised research projects), and, in many instances, worked with the public libraries to use their resources. In some Helsinki schools, the public librarians even came in to reorganize, refresh and reinvigorate old, outdated, and underused school libraries that had become bookrooms.

Communities in the US could learn from this approach of using and sharing public resources to supplement school needs. In my home community, for example, the public library system is collaborating with the school library to provide library cards (and thus, database and resource access) to all students in the local school districts. District teacher librarians are teaching students how to effectively use the public library resources and teachers are able to assign learning projects that benefit from the more expensive and dynamic products available through public library buying power. Schools save money and libraries expand their patron usage while increasing their community value and impact.

COST: Minimal.

cost saving.pngCost isn't the biggest hurdle to consider implementing some of these ideas, rather, we need to shift mindsets. Moving from "I am a 2nd grade teacher," to "I am an elementary teacher;" or moving from "We have to get X number of hours of math in," to "Our students will learn math better if we give them more outside break times."

These are low-risk ideas with high potential payoffs. The quality of life for both teacher and student could be improved with both the regularly scheduled breaks and the looping model. Instructional leadership could be deepened within a building with teaching principals, and both cost savings and community collaboration could occur with increased school and school district connection with public libraries. These are just a few of the short and sweet ideas we can gain from Finland. Next, my dream is that we could continue to move toward their model of whole child support through free school lunch and health care for all. But until then, we can also start small, with baby steps.

 Image caption: Teen section in the Turku Public Library.

Image taken by and used with permission of the author. 

Quote image created on Pablo

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