Four Paradoxes in Successful Learning Environments

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What if we adjusted our approach? What if we gave students more breaks? Maybe our kids will turn out better than we did.


Educator Tim Walker just reminded me about what really works when teaching students. Like many other U.S. teachers, Walker thought the schools in Finland sounded almost “mythical.” The rejection of high-stakes testing, a curriculum based on critical thinking and problem-solving, smaller classes, and time reserved for collaboration between teachers – these are just few of the pillars of a system that has been heralded around the world. So, in 2013, Walker moved to Finland and was soon teaching fifth grade at a public school in Helsinki. He began documenting his experiences. In an interview with the NEA (National Education Association) he talks about his admiration for American teachers and the system they must work within. Then, he offers insights on how we might be able to beat the system through what he’s learned while in Finland.

Below, I summarize my take on his interview and four paradoxes I observed when comparing how we teach in the U.S. and how it’s done in Finland.

Four Paradoxes to Effective Instruction

1. Less is more and more is less.

In Finland, there is actually less class-time instruction minutes than in America, but students seem to score higher on similar tests. Why? Kids need breaks, probably every 45 minutes. This enables them to be more focused when instruction happens. America boasts of more classroom hours than any country, yet our scores are not the highest. What if we embraced—fewer hours, more breaks and better scores?

2. Give it away and you gain.

In Finland, teachers are given time for collaboration and idea sharing. They actually share best practices instead of hoarding ideas for themselves. This actually makes each instructor better and the school performs at a higher standard. It begins, however, with a perspective. Teachers expect to collect ideas and give them away. The “win” is not personal success but campus success. It’s about collective improvement. This feels so un-American, where we emphasize individualism and personal freedoms. But, I think we could learn from the Finnish schools here.

3. Talk less and teach more.

In Finland, faculty are permitted to do more experiential learning and project based learning with students. This means, the instructors do less instructing and more facilitating experiences. But it works. Metacognition takes place within the students not just the faculty. Due to project-based learning, student engagement and test scores go up as their learning rises. Kids begin to “own” their education, rather than expecting the teacher to give them the answers.

4. Laugh more and you’ll seriously learn more.

Too often, American academics assume that if we are serious about a subject (and about our education) we won’t goof off or laugh. After all, learning is no laughing matter. Or is it? In Finland and other schools systems like theirs, students and faculty are empowered to enjoy the journey and even have fun as they learn. And it is paying off in outcomes. In America — a teacher who does this is breaking the mold. Did you know that in the 1950’s, people laughed an average of 18 minutes a day? Currently, we laugh an average of 4-6 minutes a day. This is not helpful.

I believe one of the reasons today’s students are so “random” in their sense of humor and so sporadic in what they tend to spend time with is that we adults have removed our humanity from the learning process. It’s a grind. It’s push, push, push. No nonsense. No goofing off. Build your resume and your transcript so you can climb to the top.

For many of our young adults, it’s having an adverse effect.

What if we adjusted our approach? What if we gave students more breaks? What if we offered more experiences to converse about? What if we laughed more? What if we gave away all we know and possess? These are changes we can make right now.

Maybe our kids will turn out better than we did. 

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