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Insights from an experienced educator: Comparing teaching in Finland and the United States

Education experts love to compare U.S. public schools to those in Finland.

The Scandinavian nation consistently tops lists for the highest-performing countries in terms of educational achievement. While skeptics say this comparison is unfair—Finland is much smaller, has a much wealthier population, and is far less diverse than the United States—the comparison persists, nonetheless.

For the past several years, education experts have been trying to unravel the formula that makes Finland’s education system so successful. Is it better teacher training? More student resources? More innovative teaching techniques?

Each of these is important. But one teacher who taught in both the United States and Finland says the real secret to Finland’s success can be boiled down to a single key differentiator: joy.

Want to hear more from Timothy D. Walker about Finland’s school system? Read The American ideals that will save our schools

In 2013, teacher and writer Timothy Walker moved to Helsinki, Finland to be a classroom teacher. During his time in Finnish classrooms, Walker observed some key differences when comparing classrooms in Finland with those in the United States. He compiled many of those differences in a new book, Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms.

In a recent interview with Education Week, Walker spoke to the major differences he observed between the two educational systems. In Finland, schools prioritize teacher and student satisfaction by focusing on a culture of trust, autonomy, and personal classroom reflection. By focusing on these qualities, he says, Finnish educators are able to create more joyful, free-flowing classroom experiences.

Here’s three key takeaways from Walker’s interview:

1. More class time doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes

Making the most of your time is something Finnish educators take to heart, Walker observes.

While Walker had more than 30 hours of class time per week with his American students, he had just 18 hours per week with his Finnish students. What teachers in Finland lacked in terms of actual teaching time, they made up for in efficiency, Walker says.

After every 45-minute class period, students and teachers were given 15-minute breaks, Walker reports. While this may seem impractical, even wasteful to American observers, the strategic breaks give teachers and students an opportunity to recharge and subsequently perform better while in class.

2. Collaboration is key

Teaching in America is often a solitary job. Teachers might work in teams for training and development purposes, but they usually work solo—whether in their classrooms, grading papers, or participating in parent-teacher conferences.

Not so in Finland, Walker says:

“I also saw that in nearly 50 percent of the lessons I was teaching, I would be joined by another teacher. I had collaborated with other teachers before, but not to that extent…Teachers also rotate in watching each other’s students throughout Finland. Two or three teachers are out outside supervising 120 kids at a time, while many teachers are taking a break in the teacher’s lounge.”

Where American teachers sometimes feel the weight of an entire class on their shoulders, Finnish teachers are often less stressed, knowing they have the support of their colleagues to fall back on when challenges arise.

3. Don’t be afraid of being quiet

Finland’s schools put a premium on peace and quiet.

“In Finland, what I noticed is long stretches of time just to be quiet or do independent work, and children seemed to benefit from this,” says Walker. And teachers also make sure students are aware of how loud their classrooms are and how they can reduce noise, he adds.

While American classrooms prioritize vocal participation and group work, Walker says giving students time to be with themselves, to learn on their own, and to be free of noise can help improve student achievement.

What do you think of Walker’s observations? How does your school or district reduce teacher and student stress to promote happiness in its classrooms? Tell us in the comments.