Many educators know the amazing facts and stories surrounding Finland and their education system.
This tiny nation has made a name for itself when its students ranked among the top in the world on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for critical-thinking skills in science, math and reading.
However, its school program looks radically unlike U.S. or Asian programs. Here are just a few highlights:
- Little to no homework in the early grades
- No formal academics until age 7
- 75 minutes of recess a day for elementary school
- No standardized testing until age 16!
One U.S. educator, Timothy D. Walker, began teaching fifth-graders in Helsinki after moving to Finland with his family.
What he found amazed him, causing him to reconsider many of his assumptions about the educational system he had grown up with in the United States.
His discoveries eventually led to a blog, Taught by Finland, and a book, “Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms.”
How, you may ask, does this apply to homeschoolers? Well, we’re glad you asked!
We found at least 10 recommendations in this book that can apply to home-based educators just as well as (if not more so than) those teaching a traditional classroom.
1. Well-being starts with the teacher.
Timothy expresses amazement at the relatively short time teachers in Finland spent “preparing” for their classes and more time relaxing. They were also concerned that he wasn’t relaxing enough!
In September, over the course of a week, three of my Finnish colleagues told me that they worried I might burn out, because they hadn’t seen me in the teachers’ lounge. I admitted to them that I was spending all of those fifteen-minute breaks in my classroom, working hard on different teaching-related tasks.
Their solution? Take more time off!
“One of my colleagues told me that she needed to spend a few minutes every day in the lounge, slowing down with other teachers,” he writes. “She claimed it made her a better teacher.”
How does this apply to homeschool teachers? Well, we may not have a teachers’ lounge, but we can certainly use frequent breaks!
Try to build a few minutes of each day just resting from the task of teaching your kids. This is for yourself, the teacher. It could be during your morning quiet time and devotions, kids’ naptime, meals, or a few minutes in-between subjects.
Additionally, schedule rest days for yourself. Our annual Women’s Encouragement Day is like an official day off for homeschool moms to recharge!
And don’t forget our homeschool conference in the spring, where you can meet with other home-educating colleagues, browse curriculum and brainstorm for the upcoming year.
2. Schedule frequent brain breaks (for students).
Are your children struggling to focus during school? Maybe it’s because they don’t get enough time to stop focusing!
Based on his experience with frequent breaks built into the Finnish school day, Timothy Walker encourages teachers to do the same. We need to start seeing brain breaks, or recesses, as “a strategy to maximize learning.”
Pellegrini’s findings confirm that frequent breaks boost attentiveness in class. With this in mind, we no longer need to fear that students won’t learn what they need to learn if we let them disconnect from their work several times throughout the school day.
All these breaks can take different forms – free reading or writing, a fun math game, or even jumping jacks. However, it is important for the student to choose a break that appeals to them personally.
3. Learn on the move.
Who says school only has to take place sitting down?
Timothy Walker outlines learning methods that require movement among classmates: an active gallery walk, for example, or standing desks. Some children read best while walking, or taking clipboards to complete tasks “while standing around the classroom.”
4. Take learning outside!
While we’re on the subject, who says school only has to take place indoors?
Finland is famous for its exposure to nature. This is, after all, the country where parents routinely take sleeping infants outdoors even in freezing temperatures, saying they nap better that way!
Here are just a few suggested strategies for incorporating nature into your homeschool:
- Field trips in the wild
- Cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and other excursions
- Nature journaling and walking
- Greening your “school grounds” with butterfly gardens, bird feeders and baths, and potted plants
5. Focus on relationships.
Timothy Walker talks about the importance of strong teacher-student relationships to successful learning.
As parents, we enjoy a closeness to our students that many outside teachers can never touch! While that can present challenges at times, it can also work to our advantage. Timothy Walker talks about simple strategies to help strengthen the teacher-student bond:
- Eating lunches together
- Setting aside time just to play with your students (no formal teaching allowed!)
- Using a “soft start” to return to schooling – the Finnish term is ryhmayttaminen, “which literally translates as ‘grouping’ but means something similar to the English term ‘team building’
- Celebrate learning with a tangible achievement (e.g. eating their creations in home economics or sharing book talks with their peers)
6. Employ Finland’s ‘Buddy up’ strategy.
Timothy Walker talks about a unique Finnish school tradition “in which the sixth grade classrooms would team up with first grade classrooms.”
That fall my class visited the first grade classroom, where my students were assigned to buddy up with the youngest members of our school. I remember our collaboration started with a scavenger hunt throughout the school, prepared by the first grade teacher. And from that day forward, this buddy system seemed to boost the first graders’ sense of belonging at school. On the playground, during those fifteen-minute breaks, I’d see first graders tagging along with my students and hugging them incessantly.
This teaching method dovetails beautifully with one of the reasons homeschooling is so effective – it prioritizes relationships with people who are different ages from your students! Homeschool kids routinely interact with adults, teenagers, tweens, preschoolers and infants.
In fact, one early advocate for homeschooling, Raymond Moore, goes a step further. He recommended that older children should help teach younger siblings in the book “Home Style Teaching”:
It has been proven in practice that a student can often induce learning in a fellow student more effectively than can an adult teacher. This may be done in a variety of ways and at virtually all school levels. The master teacher, then, becomes more of a teacher-manager who delegates teaching duties and supervises the work of many “teachers.” This is true cooperation – the joint operation by teacher and student. It leads to self-respect and the desire to excel and avoids many pitfalls through building a sense of responsibility in all concerned.
7. Emphasize student autonomy.
As Timothy Walker discovered, many of his second-graders appeared far more self-directed than many of their U.S. counterparts.
Many of them commuted to school on their own, completed their own homework, and fixed a snack (often cooking it, like fried eggs) before their parents came home – all without adult help or supervision.
The book outlines several factors contributing to this, including the principle to “start with freedom.”
Instead of a gradual release of responsibility, teachers provide many “low-stakes opportunities” to pretest student abilities, before deciding what level of restrictions (if any) are needed.
For example, if your kid wants to read a book or solve a math problem beyond their current skill level, don’t automatically say no. Instead, say yes and watch what happens.
If my students fail to do the challenging things they hope to accomplish, no harm done. At least they’ve proven to themselves that they weren’t ready, quite yet. And at this point in the learning process, it’s likely that they’re more open to my guidance.
Additionally, build margin into your lessons so that if you see your students struggling in a particular subject, you can provide direction.
8. Plan educational objectives with student input.
How many of us have tried to drum up enthusiasm from our children for something we have decided they need to be learning? (Guilty!)
Instead, Timothy Walker suggests, teachers should involve their students earlier in the learning process. Finland requires children in its comprehensive schools (grades one to nine) to help their teacher plan at least one interdisciplinary unit of study “of particular interest to the children” per school year.
The key is to give students ownership over their unit of study. For example, the students in Timothy Walker’s class put together a project exploring solar energy.
They put together a slideshow, uploaded their presentation to Google Drive (without his recommendation or direction) for collaboration outside school hours, and designed their own quiz to run after the presentation.
Not only does student motivation increase, but the quality of their work also improves!
9. Focus on teaching essentials, not the extras.
Instead of exploring endless options for extracurricular activities and “auxiliary aspects” of education, Timothy Walker suggests adopting the Finnish teachers’ methods of sticking closely to their curriculum units and lessons.
They emphasize mastery of the subject matter, instead of chasing shiny objects (e.g. inviting outside speakers, student blogging) that often distract us from our main objective.
Timothy Walker also recounts how too much technology use at school can impede learning:
i don’t believe classroom technologies are unimportant. Truly, there is a digital divide in our schools that must be addressed, but in many schools the investment of money and time seems to great. Those flashy technologies can easily distract us teachers from working on the most essential things with our students. I know this from personal experience, and research seems to suggest this, too.
10. Bring on the music!
In Finland, teachers frequently bring music instruments into their classrooms. Fifth-graders have the same number of lessons of math as music – “three hours, every week.”
Increasing research into music demonstrates more benefits it can bring:
- Improved literacy and linguistic skills
- Better memory
- Greater ability to focus in a classroom setting
Even if you don’t incorporate formal music lessons into your homeschool, you can always set academic content to music and song, and students may remember them more easily.
For example, Timothy Walker gives the example of elementary schoolteachers in Finland teaching the names of the continents set to popular song melodies like “Three Blind Mice.”
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