Monday, September 19, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 1:  Less is More

This post is the first installment of a five-part series, chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

This summer, I decided to take a field trip to a faraway place to learn about the most successful and efficient school system in the world.  I wanted to see how a different culture educates their kids.  I wanted to learn from their successes and see what aspects of their educational system are applicable to American schools, Catholic schools, and all of us at Trinity.  My journey took me over 4,200 miles away to a small country on the North coast of the Baltic Sea.  This is the story of my trip to Finland.

Finland has been an educational giant in the developed world since the results of the first PISA tests sixteen years ago, which ranked Finland 1st in reading literacy, 4th in math literacy, and 3rd in science literacy.  If you find it surprising that Finland ranked at the top of the list, nobody was more surprised than the Finnish people themselves.  When the first results were released, the educators themselves figured it was some kind of mistake.  This “mistake” was only confirmed three years later, when Finland placed 1st in the world in reading literacy and science literacy, and second in the world in math literacy.  Finland clearly had a good thing going after all.  Of course, humility comes somewhat naturally to Finnish culture, which may explain their top ranking in the world after all.

In my 16 days in Finland, I was constantly surrounded by a people and a country where less is more.  The city of Helsinki contained fewer skyscrapers than any big city I have ever seen, with two modest Cathedrals setting the skyline for the city.  The Finnish people live in modest homes and apartments, retreating to small cottages in nature as their favorite vacation spot.  Although it helped that I was on vacation, I was constantly presented opportunities to slow down, enjoy a cup of coffee, and take in a meal at a café.  Finland was a good destination for business travel and relaxing, and people genuinely seem to enjoy a slower pace of life.

This culture of "less is more" permeates their education system as well.  Children start their formal schooling in first grade at the age of seven with hours that resemble my half-day kindergarten back in the 1980's.  Finnish students take recess several times per day, with law mandating a 15-minute break after each 45-minute class.  Doing the math, this adds up to as many as six recesses a day in a common middle school schedule.  Finnish teachers spend significantly fewer hours teaching the week and more time collaborating with other Finnish teachers over warm cups of coffee.  Visiting Finnish middle schools, it was not uncommon to find foosball and ping pong tables in the hallways, as students needed something to do with all of their break time in the middle of the day.

The most amazing thing about their "less is more" philosophy is that it worked.  I knew about their approach, their recesses, and their efficiency in class.  What surprised me was their rationale behind their approach.  Finnish children do not get so many breaks because it lightens their load or because guilty Finnish adults worry too much about the stresses on today's youth.  The breaks and "less is more" mentality is emphasized because it gets results.

In a trip designed to learn from Finnish culture and schools, I am not 100% sure what to make of all of this.  I'm not sure that frequent recesses, breaks, and foosball tables would improve our education in the United States as it does in Finland, although I call dibs on the foosball table if we ever get one.  However, as we start a new school year, I do know that I could benefit from a little more "less is more" in my life.  I know that my work could improve with a little more sleep, a few less 10-hour workdays, and a few less activities crammed into my free time.

This may be the place many of our families find themselves in as we enter this new school year.  As we settle into the September routine, I encourage you to think about "Less is More".  You may find that by doing fewer activities and allowing more open time on your family calendars, you will find yourself happier and more productive.  Maybe the "to do" list could be shorter so long as the things at the top get done.  Maybe we can all benefit from a few more lazy Sundays, a few more opportunities to relax on the margins of our daily schedules.

This school year, don’t be afraid to do a little less.  As the Finns taught me, less can definitely be more.

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