Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms by Timothy D. Walker

2. Belonging

  • Recruit a Welfare Team: Teaching can be a lonely profession if you only spend time with your students. It’s important to cultivate relationships with other adults at school and beyond. The teachers in Finland seem to get this. Teachers also have occasional meetings with the principal, social worker, nurse, psychologist, and special education teachers so as to feel that they are not in this alone.
  • Know Each Child: Tim suggests that you greet each child at the door by name and repeat the process with goodbyes. He routinely eats lunch with students and makes an effort to sit with every student at some point. He also makes home visits so he can get to know the guardians, their insights regarding the child, and to learn more about each student. Out of class conversations are important as it’s hard to get to know students when you are dealing with academic content. Looping, where a teacher has the same students for two or more years is more common in Finland.
  • Play With Your Students: Playing games with students is a great way to build camaraderie and form relationships. Be sure to check out the game human bingo. Let the students pick their favorite games and don’t lead if you don’t have to. Spending time on the playground is always good, but most important at the beginning of the school year. This is a time when things should be more relaxed with a focus on relationship building.
  • Celebrate Their Learning: This is something that should become routine in your classroom. Finnish teachers share the home economics room and take turns letting their students cook and eat what they make. Eating what they make is an example of celebrating their learning. Another example is having students deliver short book reviews to the class. As this happens students can make a list of the books that they wish to read in the future. Students can also read what they write such as poems. Evening sessions with parents can also serve as learning celebrations. Older students can put their work on a class blog. These efforts will serve to bring your class closer together.
  • Pursue a Class Dream: The big dream for older elementary students is to organize a “Camp School” where the entire class goes camping. This requires a lot of planning and fundraising. There are other dreams, which might involve things like raising money for a cause, producing a music album or movie, creating an app, or hiking up a mountain. It is vital that the dream comes from the students and that everyone participates. When the dream is finished be sure to have the students reflect on this team-building process.
  • Banish the Bullying: Actions described earlier can help prevent bullying. In Finland, 90% of the schools use a program called KiVa, which is Finnish for nice. It involves describing the bullying action in writing and having a meeting with the parties and older students to negotiate how the parties could have behaved differently. A follow-up meeting is held two weeks later. If the problem still exists parents join the action.
  • Buddy Up: In Tim’s school sixth-grade students buddy up with first-grade students for occasional activities. This can involve joint learning where the sixth graders help the first graders. They can spend time on the playground together and go on joint field trips. This seems to increase the first graders’ sense of belonging. He thinks that other grade combinations could also gain from this type of activity.

3. Autonomy

  • Start with Freedom: Research suggests that a sense of autonomy is a major ingredient in happiness. When Tim started work in Finland he found the students to already be more autonomous than his American students. He knew that autonomy and choice were important, but at first, he thought they were something he should ease into. He changed his mind after students asked to run a bake sale and assured him they could manage it all by themselves. He soon instituted an independent learning week and even avoided circulating to see how they were doing. In one case a student wanted to try out some new quiz software (Kahoot!). After discussing it with the class they decided to test drive it. Students did all the work setting it up and creating quizzes. He found that they were motivated and inspired as they learned.
  • Leave Margin: Tim found that some students thrived while others struggled during his independent writing workshop. But by giving students autonomy, he had more autonomy to work with individuals or small groups that needed him the most. Margin is the flexible time where your efforts can be directed as the events in the classroom role out.
  • Offer Choices: During his first independent learning week, Tim just gave students a pile of work and turned them loose. While they all got the work done they weren’t happy that they were all doing the same work. Choice can be as simple as letting students choose their own books and deciding how they want to report on them. The key is to find out early on what the students’ interests are. That will allow you to connect their interests to the curriculum.
  • Plan with Your Students: This is the most powerful thing Tim discovered. Finland now requires teachers to offer at least one interdisciplinary unit of study, which is of particular interest to the children and that they are to help planning the unit. Tim’s class did one on solar energy. During the unit, he found that they were motivated and highly committed to doing high-quality work even though it wasn’t graded. They also did work at home that wasn’t assigned. They start by saying what they Know (K) about the topic, what they Want (W) to learn, and at the end show what they Learned (L). This is known as the KWL chart.
  • Make it Real: In sixth-grade students in Finland engage in a real-world simulation called “Me & MyCity.” Like many Finnish innovations, this one started in the US. They borrow a lot and when they find something good they add it to national policy. This doesn’t happen in the US thanks to the thousands of school boards that set policy. This innovation models real markets and economics and the children gain a sense of purpose as they experience joy. Other examples of “real” feature a first-grade class where they use real needles and a sixth-grade class where they let students use welding torches. In short, when classroom learning resembles real-world learning, it’s easier for kids to see the intended purpose of their schoolwork.
  • Demand Responsibility: In Finland teachers are held responsible, which is trust-based. In the US, teachers are held accountable with standardized tests, which are fear-based. While you can’t do anything about the US accountability system in the near term, you can trust your students with more autonomy. Giving students more responsibility can also reduce stress. Letting them grade their own homework and tests so they get immediate feedback is one example.
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