Home » #StuVoice » What Might a Finnish-Philosophy Classroom Look Like in America?

What Might a Finnish-Philosophy Classroom Look Like in America?

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A 2nd grade classroom at Innokas Koulumestari

By: Paul Solarz

Completely realizing and understanding that one cannot just take the Finnish model of education and place it in an American classroom, I want to explore what it might look like if I did!  Using the Innokas Koulumestari philosophy, a Grades 1-6 school in Espoo, this blog post will outline some of the changes that would have to be made in my classroom to look more “Finnish,” a concept that is generally discouraged by Finns!  So, no disrespect intended!

Children in Finland somehow seem to be happier than children in America.  I think it has something to do with all of the independence they are given – they are allowed to grow up to become who they were intended to be instead of being heavily influenced by family members.  Schools immediately trust their students to follow expectations, but when a student slips up, their consequence is that they are not given so much freedom.  I will need to monitor students’ happiness in my classroom, despite the fact that there are few ways to measure it.  I will also need to remember to give them a chance to grow up without too much influence from me.

Another observation made is that children here are more comfortable and treat their school like their home.  Students don’t vandalize, mistreat school materials, or litter in their schools.  I feel that this is at least partly due to the fact that teachers try to create an environment that mimics their home as closely as possible.  For example, students take their shoes off at the door, use their cell phones for educational purposes, and sit everywhere around the school on couches, pillows, and rugs.  Curtains isolate areas of the hallway to make intimate work areas that eliminate unnecessary distractions.  I would want to utilize as many of these ideas as possible in my classroom to help my students feel as though the school is an extension of their home.

At Innokas Koulumestari, they are using the team teaching approach, along with staggering start and end times of school in order to best differentiate instruction for their students.  Although I couldn’t allow my students to come to school late or leave early, I could offer opportunities for them to come to school early or stay late and then perhaps offer “comp time” for students in the form of additional breaks throughout their day.  Many schools in Finland offer regular 15-30 minute breaks between periods.  This could be a way to make that happen!  If I could incorporate the team teaching idea, by just combining two classes, I could have access to two classroom teachers (me and one other), a special education teacher, and an assistant.  With four adults, more grouping opportunities can exist if we coordinate our schedules effectively.

The way we saw teachers coordinating schedules was through a weekly collaboration meeting with all adults.  They “plugged in” all of their appointments, meetings, absences, etc. for the week on a shared Google Calendar and then determined what they could get done in that time by consulting long-range planners that they had created prior to the start of the year.

Teachers are given 2-3 hours per week to have meetings and collaboration time during the school day.  Some of it is while students are at religion and gym, while other times are available by not having students start early or end late on a given day.  The school day goes from 8:00 to 3:00 for teachers, but students go for one hour less (they either come early or stay late, but not both).  Teachers are not expected to come much earlier than 8:00 or stay much later than 3:00.  In addition, many teachers we talked to report not taking their work home with them or working much during their summer holiday.  By planning that collaboration time into our weekly schedule, I can imagine much of our workload decreasing!

Finnish students are actually in school for six hours every day at Innokas Koulumestari, even though it is commonly reported that they spend four hours being instructed each day, the disparity comes from all of their “break time.”  After each lesson, students receive a 15-30 minute break.  Lunch is 30 minutes as well.  During some break times, students are encouraged to get outside and move around.  Those who wish to stay inside may create “clubs” that others can join.  These clubs have a purpose and a goal in mind.  Teachers oversee these clubs but often allow students to work without supervision, except in the case of gymnastics and other clubs that might experience injuries.  It would be easy to schedule break times into the schedule by staggering the start and end times of lessons and utilizing the extra adults wisely, and possibly including parent volunteers more effectively.

In Finland, parents are extremely supportive of teachers and their school’s initiatives.  Parents don’t send emails to teachers, call them, or ask for conferences very often, because they feel that the teacher is a professional who knows what is best for their child.  There is no real way of replicating this in America.  The truth is, Finnish teachers are much better prepared for their profession than America’s teachers.  If America only admitted 10% of the applicants into their teacher education programs, worked meticulously to create college programs that were innovative and rigorous, and required a master’s degree before beginning a career in education, I feel that things might be more similar.  The only thing I can do is be up-front and honest with my students’ parents at the beginning of the year & be completely transparent so they see what we are doing!  I can share the amazing things that we have done in previous years and plan to do this year.  After that, I just have to hope that they support me!

Taking the Finnish education system back to America might be an impossible task, but regardless of the level of difficulty I contend that there are take-aways.  If you can do any of the above at your school, great!  If not, see what you can do to instill a community of independent and collaborative learners who you trust with more responsibility.  You just might be surprised with what you get!  Thoughts?


7 Comments

  1. Joe Mazza says:

    Paul- Love your enthusiasm for bringing your learning home. I think you’re right- there are takeaways. However, it’s important to share what you’ve been immersed in over the last week knowing that not e was following the #pennfinn13 hashtag or might be as passionate as you. Starting with the core values and soliciting ideas on how to support them based on input from your students, grade level team, principal and parents might help you build something sustainable together. Keep that enthusiasm as the return to American school on Tuesday might be tricky for many of us. Great job this week.

    • Paul Solarz says:

      Thanks Joe – it was a blast & I sincerely hope to do this again with you all. I’m not sure if I will do any of the things above, but it was fun trying to visualize what a Finnish classroom might look like back home! Talk to you soon.

  2. Paul, it was great to have you as part of the PennFinn13 team and your perspective as a lower school teacher is invaluable. I am mindful that I was constantly filtering our visit to three very distinct school this past week through three lenses– a high school principal lens, high school teacher lens and researcher lens–and each of these perspectives revealed only a small piece of what is the enormous puzzle of Finnish education. From my high school teacher perspective I was appreciative of the respect and autonomy given teachers and wondered how teachers in each school accomplished all the careful planning that goes into great teaching. I think I saw examples of that at Koulumestari, but, less so in the other two visits. In US high schools where extra-curricular programs are so much a part of what we do, I was interested to learn that sports, music and student clubs are not a standard part of the school program. High school teachers at my US school teach 5 classes, are an adviser for approx. 10 students, sponsor clubs and student organizations, and at least 1/3 coach a team sport. From a principal perspective I appreciated how the use of time (in US we might call this the “master schedule”) was a way that teachers differentiated at Koulumestari, but I was also mindful of the subtle ways that each principal describe how she or he worked each day to encourage collaboration amongst faculty members. That sounded very much like the work I am trying to promote in my setting. I agree with you that we learned a lot this past week, including that our Finnish colleagues believe there’s still a lot of school reform/improvement work to be done in Finland. It was reassuring to see that when educators put the well being of children at the heart of their work it invites a mindset that promotes continuous improvement, no matter what PISA or other “objective” test measurements might report. Thanks for inviting rich, thoughtful conversation with your great post. Let’s keep it going.

    • Paul Solarz says:

      Thanks Susan. I think it’s important to remind people that when we talk about specific aspects of the Finnish education system, we may only be talking about high schools or elementary schools. I was not always completely clear on which level people were talking about when they were teaching us. I would often take new information and assume that it applied to the elementary setting, when in reality it was often just high school or even college level (e.g. 1000 hours per year of planning time & 600 hours per year of teaching time). It has taken the school visits and the Finnish teachers who tweeted with us to clarify our misconceptions.

  3. Sofia says:

    Interesting take on the Finnish classroom. I have always argued against bringing the Finnish classroom to the United States because there is such an immense cultural difference between the two countries which would make a project such as you have discussed nearly impossible if expecting the same results. I very much enjoyed school in Finland as a youngster but never really felt like I belonged when I came to the US and entered school. The connection between pupils and the teacher was so different. But, I also do believe some elements can transfer.

    Just a thought regarding teacher preparation programs… in Finland universities do not use specific programs as cash cows as they do here. Becoming a teacher in general in many states regardless of whether you graduated from a teacher preparation program or not is a joke as is the interview and hiring process. I have seen so many underprepared first year teachers with very little classroom experience and even less content knowledge at the high school level it scares me (and they majored in education)! It’s a lot easier to only admit 10% when you have a handful of programs with limited seats. There are so many issues with our current system and yet we continue to pile on the mandates that only hurt our students.

    • Paul Solarz says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my article. I have heard similar stories as yours relating to teacher prep in America. We definitely need to take a hard look at that system soon. I’m not sure if we can do the same thing though when we require so many more teachers than Finland! And who wants to go into teaching when states (like Illinois where I teach) are trying to raise the retirement age, cut the pension, and have frozen salaries? That doesn’t sound like a profession that gets the same respect that doctors and nurses get! We need to re-brand teaching! :)

  4. Nina says:

    Hi Paul,
    Transparency and collaboration can take education quality surprisingly far :)
    Student happiness is a concept that relates to school well-being (kouluviihtyvyys), and can be displayed with the categories of having, loving and being (picture available here: http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/content/17/1/79/F1.expansion.html and the book here: http://books.google.com/books/about/An_Updated_Indicator_System.html?id=tx_OAAAACAAJ ) I did blog about that and related issues back in November http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/successful-learning-experiences/ Glad to see you enjoyed your visit in Finland!
    ~Nina

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