Finnishing School


It’s a familiar sight during the school year: students lugging backpacks stuffed with books. But do teachers need to pile on assignments to help students learn the material? Maybe not. Finnish students, for example, consistently rank high in global standardized tests despite spending significantly less time in the classroom and on homework than students in
other countries.

Could U.S. students benefit from the Finnish approach? Jennifer Stewart, a history teacher at Moses Brown, aims to find out. Thanks to a recent Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant, Stewart will spend the spring 2019 semester in Finland studying that country’s methods of teaching humanities.

Stewart, a Chicago native who started teaching at Moses Brown in 2006, says the inspiration to research Finnish teaching methods came from students in her Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics course. Several years ago, a class compared Finnish and U.S. institutions, and students learned about Finland’s impressive educational performance, despite relatively light workloads. Students started asking why their studies couldn’t emulate the Finnish model.

“They would say that to me, and initially I would just laugh it off,” says Stewart. “Of course, we can’t be like Finland – it’s a completely different context.”

Yet last fall Stewart started taking the question more seriously. She heard concerns about student stress, and she wondered whether she could modify her own teaching methods. Stewart researched opportunities to learn more about the Finnish system, which led to the Fulbright program. The application process was detailed and lengthy, she explains, but Fulbright does not require U.S. grant recipients to speak the Finnish language, which Stewart does not speak.

Some of the grant’s details are still being worked out, such as where Stewart will live and which courses she’ll attend, but she has high expectations for the research period. She notes that there are contextual factors unique to the Finnish system. “I’m hoping my experience will not only push me to re-evaluate my own homework practices,” she says, “but that it actually equips me with practical approaches and tools for doing so.”

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