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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,020
Registered: 12/3/04
Posted: Jan 22, 2014 1:26 PM
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From TAUGHT BY FINLAND [Tim Walker, an American teacher in Finland,
discovering Finnish education as he teaches in Helsinki], Saturday,
January 18, 2014. See
, Saturday, January 18, 2014.

By Tim Walker

When I was teaching first grade in the Greater Boston area, my
Finnish wife, Johanna, loved to tell me about schools in Finland.
Most of what she told me sounded mythical.

According to Johanna, Finnish children started first grade at age
seven. Their school days were often just four hours long. Her close
Finnish friend, a first grade teacher in Helsinki, worked about 30
hours each week, including planning time.

For years, I refused to believe my wife. My reality as an American
first grade teacher was just too different from the one she described.

Many of my first grade students were a full year or two younger than
their Finnish peers. Our school days lasted seven hours. Unlike
Johanna's friend, I was pulling in 50-hour weeks of teaching and
planning. I just didn't believe that another way was possible until I
started teaching in Finland.

The Afternoon Blues

In the hallways of my Finnish school, I often observe first graders
packing up their backpacks to go home at 12:00. Even though the
school year began in August, this is still a strange sight for me.
This would have been the sign of a half-day at my previous school. In
Finland, this is normal for first graders.

As a first grade teacher in the States, I found that the afternoon
was the toughest part of the school day. When my students returned
from lunch and recess around 1:00 PM, I noticed a sharp drop in their
energy levels. And they weren't the only ones who were tired. I was
exhausted, too.

During the afternoon, I often felt the urge to give my young students
time for unstructured play. Sometimes I'd hear them wistfully recall
how there used to be free play in kindergarten. On the rare half-day,
my students were always brimming over with excitement.

Even though my American first graders craved unstructured time, I
would feel guilty about providing it in the classroom. In my mind,
free play was babyish. It was non-academic. Although my students and
I found ways of coping with the afternoon blues, I always wondered
about the Finnish model that my wife would rave about. Was there a
way for first graders to have enough time for both work and play in a
school setting?

More Opportunities for Play

Although I'm a fifth grade classroom teacher in Finland, I've been
able to spend several hours observing and co-teaching first grade
classes at my school. I've found that first grade in Finland is
actually quite academic. I've yet to see first grade teachers who use
class time for unstructured play.

What I have seen, however, is a school structure that provides
children with more opportunities to play. Each lesson is one hour
long, but according to Finnish law, students are entitled to take a
15-minute break every lesson. On almost every occasion, younger
students spend these breaks outside with their friends.

In Child and Adolescent Development for Educators (2008), professors
Judith Meece and Denise Daniels praise the wisdom of structuring
regular breaks for social interactions and physical activities during
the school day. Research has shown that these breaks work to improve
concentration and attention during classroom times.

Although first graders in Finland usually spend just four hours at
school, these break times obviously reduce the total number of hours
that they log in the classroom. All told, they only spend about three
hours in class each day. Even on a half-day at my previous school, my
American first graders would still put in more classroom hours than
their Finnish peers on a full-day schedule.

Heading home at 12:00 or 1:00 PM gives these young Finnish students
more opportunities to engage in deep play. This is the type of play
that helps children to develop creativity and analytical thinking.

According to Myae Han, assistant professor of human development and
family studies at the University of Delaware, deep play starts to
emerge at about 30 minutes. Researchers have found that children
actually stop trying to achieve this higher quality of play if they
anticipate interruption. Giving children lots of time for free play
will foster this deeper level of play (Blair, 2014).

Of course, this is a difficult task to accomplish in most elementary
schools, even in Finland. This is why shortening the number of school
hours for young children is sensible. It provides them with more time
to access this deeper level of play after school.

When Less is More

There is mounting pressure to increase the amount of time that
American students spend in school.

In his recent State of the State speech, New Jersey Governor Chris
Christie said, "It's time to lengthen both the school day and the
school year in New Jersey. This is a key step to improve students
outcomes and boost our competitiveness." According to Governor
Christie, the current school calendar is "antiquated." He seems to
believe that increasing the quantity of school hours will improve the
quality of a student's education (Morones, 2014).

Governor Christie is misguided. It's not the length of the school
year that is antiquated, but the length of the typical school day for
America's youngest students. Why do most American first graders put
in the same number of hours as upper-elementary students? In Finland,
students in the younger grades have less hours of school than the
older ones. Ironically, my fifth graders in Helsinki have less class
time each day than the first graders I used to teach in the Greater
Boston area.

Every day I see first graders who thrive with shorter school days in
Finland. They can (and often do) spend hours engaged in deep play
long after the school day has ended, developing their creativity and
analytical thinking skills.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: By Anne Ingman-Virtanen
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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