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Author Interview: 'Teach Like Finland'

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Timothy D. Walker, author of the new book, Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies For Joyful Classrooms, agreed to answer a few questions.

Timothy D. Walker is an American teacher living in Finland. He has written extensively about his experiences for Education Week Teacher, Educational Leadership, and on his blog, Taught by Finland. He is a contributing writer on education issues for The Atlantic.

LF: You write a lot in the book about the life of a teacher in Finland being much more sane than our lives here in the United States.  Can you talk about the differences and what you think would be required in order to make some of those modifications here?

Timothy D. Walker:

One of the major differences is scheduling. Finnish law allows teachers to incorporate a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction, and those frequent breaks keep students and their teachers fresh throughout the school day.  Also, Finland's teachers benefit from having significantly less hours of classroom instruction each week. At my Helsinki public comprehensive school (grade one to grade nine), a typical full-time teaching load is only 24 classroom hours each week. That's representative of what you'd find at other comprehensive schools in Finland. Deduct those 15-minute breaks from the workload, and Finnish teachers are only spending about 18 hours instructing their students. A recent teaching survey showed that U.S. teachers, compared to their international peers, spend the most weekly hours instructing their students: 27 hours per week, on average.

In short, it's harder for U.S. teachers to stay balanced when they're spending many hours in the classroom with few breaks. (As someone who burned out while teaching in the States, I can empathize.) There are other systemic differences, but I think the allocation of time is the starkest one.

I find it difficult to imagine that American schools will start adopting a Finnish style teaching schedule. That said, we can learn from the mind-set of many Finnish teachers. In my experience, they value free time and collaboration in a way I'm not used to seeing among American educators, and those priorities support their overall well-being. I devote an entire chapter of my book to the subject of mind-set.

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LF:  A common criticism of  holding up Finland's schools as a model is that its success is less due to its teaching methods and more due to its homogenous population and lack of poverty.  How do you respond those criticisms?

Timothy D. Walker:

It's a fair critique, and Finland, undoubtedly, benefits from little poverty and minor diversity. Look at Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest states, and you can see why we should exercise caution when interpreting Finland's high scores on international standardized tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). If you disregard their performance in math, 15-year-olds in Massachusetts produce PISA results on par with the world's top performing countries.

In my book, I try to shy away from explaining Finland's high international standardized test scores. I'm more interested in identifying strategies that support joyful teaching and learning.

LF: Let's say I'm a teacher who is intrigued by Finland's schools.  What are some simple changes I can make over the next week to begin testing out some of your "33 Simple Strategies"?

Timothy D. Walker:

While I taught in the United States, I often ate lunch alone in my classroom. I didn't exactly grasp the value of having casual conversations over meals. In Finland, it was a different story: my school required that I eat with my students and other teachers on a daily basis--and this shift helped me to see the importance of this practice. In "Teach Like Finland," I suggest setting aside time for regular meals with your students and colleagues to develop stronger rapport.

At my Finnish public school, I witnessed my fellow teachers welcoming one another into their classrooms on a regular basis. It's a wonderful practice. When we invite each other into our classrooms, we can tap into one another's strengths. I recommend trying a "teacher swap" -- you teach a lesson in a colleague's classroom, and your colleague teaches a lesson in your classroom.

LF: In what ways, if any, do you think schools in the United States might have an advantage over those in Finland?

Timothy D. Walker:

I love this question, because it's usually posed the other way around. Yes, U.S. schools have a number of advantages. One major advantage is pedagogical innovations. In my opinion, America boasts some of the finest ideas in education. In fact, Finland has borrowed several innovative practices from America and implemented them on a national scale, such as a concept called Me & MyCity, which I describe in my book.

In America, social-emotional learning (SEL) is widely accepted as highly important. I've met many US teachers who are intentionally addressing the social and emotional needs of their students. That's a wonderful thing! In Finland, I've found that SEL is still viewed as a novel idea. I'd say this is a specific area where America can teach Finland.

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LF: How long did you teach in the U.S. prior to moving to Finland, how long have you been there, and what are your future plans?

Timothy D. Walker:

I taught in the United States for 4.5 years before moving to Helsinki during the summer of 2013. In Finland's capital city, I taught fifth and sixth grade students for two years and then my family and I moved about 200 miles north to the city of Kuopio, where I took a break from teaching to focus on writing. This summer we're moving back to Helsinki and I plan to return to the classroom as a full-time teacher! I'm excited.

LF: Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share?

Timothy D. Walker:

I'm a big believer in the idea that we can learn a lot from one another, as long as we're reflective and humble. This message is at the heart of "Teach Like Finland."

LF: Thanks, Timothy!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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