Grist for the Mill

“The Finnish National Board of Education has confirmed the new core curriculum for basic education. The new core curriculum emphasizes the joy of learning and the pupils´ active role.” FNBE website announcement, 2015



In exploring the landscape of Finnish education, one can’t help but make comparisons between what has been called “the best education system in the world” and our own schools, many of which seem to be limping along, having been “underperforming” for decades. It’s easy to grow discouraged. There are so many factors beyond our control. The five thousand pound gorilla in the room, of course, is poverty. We won’t look too closely at that apparently as to do so might require actually taking action to alleviate its symptoms and ultimately to eliminate the underlying causes of the disease, for disease it is. And that will take both political and moral courage, intelligence, and will, as well as a totally reformed tax code generating lots and lots of money. Then there are the current solutions on offer in the form of huge education bills hundreds of pages long that focus on diagnosing and eliminating educational (read economic) disparity, while also punishing it. The weapon of choice is the system of standardized tests and standardized curricula, which have been making some corporations an awful lot of money, money they aren’t likely to want to give up raking in any time soon.

So, given what a hopeless cause it seems, why would anyone even bother taking a look at Finnish education, particularly if we are powerless to change education policy? Isn’t it rather like pouring salt in our wounds? On the other hand, perhaps it can be helpful.

Finland offers a lens through which to view our own schools, but more importantly it offers grist for the mill. That’s a rather old and outdated expression that harks back to the days when farmers would bring their grain crops to a mill to be ground. Grist was the name of the unground grain, so the phrase came to mean anything that can be made useful or valuable by being processed — in this case by your brain, rather than an old-fashioned water mill. So, all the information and stories about Finnish education are grist for the mill of your brain. Reading about, experiencing first hand, or talking with others about how the Finns do school might yield something valuable, if you allow your mind to process and apply its millings to your own situation. Even one idea could make a difference.

For example, let me pick up on one of the questions I posed at the end of a recent post on Finnish education: “What difference would it make if we were to be very intentional about making joy part of our planning in schools?” And while we’re at it, let’s tie that to STEM, which is, after all, the primary focus of this blog.

Right away I think of Lydia Arriaga’s third graders at Byrne Elementary doing experiments with M&Ms and water, noting their observations in their science journals, and Lydia’s wonderment at how eager her students were to do science, completing their homework to insure that they could be scientists again that day, because “scientists are responsible people.” There was joy in her classroom.


A Few M&Ms Trigger the Joy of Discovery (Byrne Elementary)

I remember the Brentano Math and Science Academy auditorium filled with cheering children as they launched their egg carriers from the balcony to the floor below and eagerly carried them to the front where a teacher would open each carrier to determine whether or not the egg had survived its Humpty Dumpty adventure. Most of them did because the students had been prototyping and learning from their own and other students’ initial failures in the weeks before this all-school STEM activity.

Small Moment of Joy at School (Brentano and Nightingale)

Small Moments of Joy at School (Brentano and Nightingale)

And I remember the excitement of a group of students in Rebecca Kornack’s 6th grade class at Mozart Elementary as the little green scientist made a visit to their table because they were acting like scientists. The little green scientist was nothing more than a repurposed Happy Meals toy that the creativity of their teacher had turned into a reward for doing good science. And he made their day!

The Finns place a high value on how children experience their schooling. They want them to feel joy. They want them to have fun learning. They know that the only way to create lifelong learners, a ubiquitous goal in American school mission statements, is to make school an enjoyable experience for children. They honor the childhood of their children; they respect their need for play and fun.

An article in last October’s The Atlantic explored the idea. Author Tim Walker recounted one exchange he had with a Finnish educator.

“‘Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,’ she told me. ‘And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.’

The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about education in America, where I received my training and taught for several years. But Holappa, detecting my surprise, reiterated that the country’s early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. ‘There’s an old Finnish saying,’ Holappa said. ‘Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.’”

And, as we can all attest, our students forget a lot quite easily.

So here’s where my grist for the mill comes in. Reading about Finnish education has made me wonder “What if, like the Finns, you were to do everything in your power to infuse your classroom with joy? What if you were to write at the top of every lesson plan a note to yourself, a reminder to find something that could elicit a joyful response in your students? What if joy were to become an explicit part of your lesson plan?”

Perhaps teaching for joy is subversive. As Neil Postman asked of teachers way back in 1969 in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, “Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as capacity to learn? Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?”

And that leads me to wonder, “What if American teachers en masse were to take just that one idea from the Finns, the idea of incorporating joy into their lessons. What if they were to ponder it, to talk about it amongst themselves, to brainstorm, strategize and even plot together to disrupt an essentially joyless system and find ways to inject opportunities for joy and play wherever they can in their classrooms? The Finns built their extraordinarily fine education system on one concept: Equity. And that decision and focus made a powerful difference. It led to excellence. But they had consensus on the importance of guaranteeing every child an equally excellent education, and the entire government was behind the idea and provided the necessary resources to accomplish that goal. We don’t have anywhere near that kind of consensus or will, and certainly one teacher, or even many, can’t introduce equity under the current system. But perhaps we can shift schooling using a different fulcrum, one centered on joy.

High Five Collage

From Investigating to High Fives: So Natural with STEM

Teaching STEM is a natural for instigating joyful learning experiences, so if STEM is part of your gig, be grateful. Think of all kinds of animals there are in the world, of nature in all its variety, of unimaginable tininess and hugeness, of things that light up or explode or that have a serious yuck factor. Think of the wonder of the human brain, the devastation of natural disasters and the recovery afterwards both by nature and humans. Think of all the marvelous stories, the play of exploration, the fun of learning cool things. Think of all the possibilities for hands on, creative investigations, and, in engineering, for building things that solve challenging problems. High five to that!

Some teachers already do this. Others of your colleagues never will, but that shouldn’t stop you. Your students have one year in your classroom. You owe it to them and to yourself to make it the most joyful year possible for you both. That’s all they have — one year with you. They will never forget. And this upcoming summer, a joyful season anyway, might provide you with both the time and the inspiration you need to think about how to make joy a touchstone of your planning, almost as if it were one of the learning standards. What an idea!

There is one caveat: Joy isn’t engendered by free candy and unlimited recess or no homework. It isn’t fun activities simply for the sake of the fun. Joy isn’t the junk food of education. It doesn’t emerge in a teacher popularity contest won by the teacher who, in an effort to be liked the most, expects the least from students. Getting something for nothing doesn’t nourish students and won’t last very long. Joy arises when we meet challenges and lose ourselves in learning. But you already knew that.

Joy Sometimes Arises from Concentrated Effort in Meeting a Challenge

Joy Often Arises from Concentrated Effort and Meeting a Challenge

What have you done in your classroom of late to make it a more joyful place? What will you do in your classroom next year? Please share.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.



Leave a comment

Filed under Brentano Math and Science Academy, Byrne Elementary, Finland, Finnish education, joy, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s