I MET with a former student a few weeks ago who is now a school principal. After an exchange of ideas, we exchanged books about education. He had my copy of “The Sudbury Valley Experience” while I had his “Teach Like Finland.”
So what’s up with Finland and their educational system?
Well, Finland is notorious for having a “soft” or non-strict approach to education -- short school days, lots of breaks, little to no homework and minimal standardized testing. Yet, it consistently performs well on a set of international tests called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which measure critical thinking skills in reading, math and science. In fact, in the very first PISA results in 2001, Finland ranked number one.
Teach Like Finland was written by Timothy Walker, a former teacher in the American public school system who relocated to Finland and noticed the sharp differences in the teaching philosophies and methods. The key, as he observed, was that Finnish educators “seem to value happiness more than achievement. They make small simple decisions to promote joyful teaching and learning.”
Walker then breaks down the five ingredients of happiness: 1) well-being; 2) belonging; 3) autonomy; 4) mastery; and 5) mindset, then proceeds to discuss 33 strategies revolving around these in order to produce a “joyful classroom.”
I will not be discussing all 33 strategies. You can read the book yourself if you’re that interested. I will, however, be discussing a few that have struck me, and then I will try to relate what I have learned from the Finnish approach into my own studies on the Democratic school system in general and Sudbury Valley School in particular.
One way that Finnish schools promote well-being is to have a 15-minute break after every class. Imagine having recess every period. Oh that would be heaven for a lot of students here. Classes go for only 45 minutes, then there’s a fifteen minute break where students can do whatever they want before the next class begins.
This simple solution gives the brain a break and even has a scientific basis. Anthony Pellegreni, an educational psychologist and emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, conducted numerous studies showing that students were “more attentive after a break than before a break” and also that “children were less focused when the timing of the break was delayed -- or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.”
To promote belonging, a lot of schools have a “Buddy Up” tradition where 6th grade students pair up with 1st grade student. The young kids now have some older buddies to look up to and talk to about this new environment called elementary school, and the older kids feel a sense of responsibility towards their juniors.
Paula Havu, a first grade teacher has this to say about the practice: “Those older students, when they are given responsibility, when they are trusted, when they get a little buddy to walk with them...they change. They don’t need to be tough. They don’t need to be cool. They need to take care of that little guy over there and be the role model.”
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