I can’t find the “Less” in the Middle of so much “More”.

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I’ve not written much since I have been home from my Fulbright experience in Finland where I became the champion for the Finnish concept of “Less is More“.  The truth is I quickly realized that I couldn’t make the Finnish “less” work in the middle of all of the American “more”. Within weeks of returning from Finland feeling fresh, rejuvenated and free of business, I found myself more committed, more scheduled, and more stressed than ever before.

I got completely sucked back into the outrageously busy lifestyle of the Typical American.  When I returned I was simply too occupied and drained mentally and emotionally to write.   I didn’t have the time, energy or the stillness required to produce good and thoughtful writing.  The days of my peaceful and quite Finnish lifestyle full of self-reflection and introspection were over.  They were replaced with days of my to-go-coffee, 10-minute lunch breaks and penciled in meetings.

Forgetting everything I loved and observed in Finnish classrooms, I fell right back into the swing of the American teacher lifestyle.  Each day I have 192 students, 7 classes and high expectations and demands.  I became consumed once again. I was putting in 12-hour days filled with grading hundreds of tests and assignments.

I quickly realized that the Finnish mentality does not work in our American schools. I tried some Finnish classroom ideas on my students.  I tried to ease up on the homework assigned.   I tried to adopt the “less is more” concept to my teaching and my classroom, but it did not work.  Our Society has created a structure that is too integrated with our competitive culture for the Finnish mindset to be effective.  My 7th grade students didn’t know how to adapt to a school mode based on less structure, less competitiveness and less formal accountability.

And if I am being honest, I didn’t know how to adapt my teaching either.  It took me all of three hours back in the school setting to feel the weight of the substantial curriculum I was expected to cover in a year.  I forgot how much our 12-year-old students were required to learn in only a few short months.

I soon understood that a Finnish pace was not going to cut it in our results-centric culture.   If I want my students to succeed in our society I would have to pick up my pace.  I would have to do more, not less.  I am ashamed to admit how quickly I relapsed back into the nasty American obsession with testing and results.

At the end of the day, the heart of the American spirit is competition.  Those who succeed in this country have worked the hardest and have pushed themselves to their highest levels. They really have done more, not less.  As teachers we are expected to demand excellence from our students and push them to compete to become the best.  This mentality is non-existent in Finland but also impossible to remove from American education.

Our students are truly remarkable.  What we expect and demand from them really is too much.   They have 7 to 8 classes a day, homework, sports practice, violin lessons and are also expected to get straight A’s and maintain a normal social life.  These are impossible standards for most adults, let alone 12-year-old kids.

I often feel guilty about pushing them so hard. The new standards expect my 7th graders to think and reason like PHD students. I am expected, no demanded, to lead them in that thought process regardless if they are developmentally ready for such advanced level thinking. The standards seem impossibly high.

Yet I am reminded  daily that I preparing them for an American work force that demands and expects too much of them as well.  It is our culture.  It is our identity.  Heck, It is the American dream.  We taught to believe that if you work hard enough, and do and accomplish enough you will eventually rise to the top.   The top of what and for what nobody knows. But the top is the best. Right? Maybe Not.

But this mentality exists so permanently in our culture that trying to remove it completely from the classroom would do our students a disservice. If they are going to succeed in our society, they have to learn to cope in high stress situations.  They have to learn to aim high and work hard.

As Finland demonstrates, this ultra competitive results driven philosophy on education is not necessarily the best method. I really do believe in the Finnish mindset of Less is More. I stand by what I wrote last spring. The problem is that until we change the societal expectations and our broad education systems, this Finnish mentality will not work.   The state, nation and even the parents of my students demand I push students to reach their fullest potential. I am not a good teacher unless I get them to work hard and push them to be their best.

In the United states we do not teach to the middle (the universally achievable average) as Finland does.   Instead of teaching to the middle like Finland, our standards aim for the very top level of possible performance.  We put expectations that are so high that only a select few are capable of reaching.  The result is we have a group of truly elite scholars and a group of those left in the dark.   Education mirrors society and while we are very good at getting a big group of students ahead in life, we also leave behind those who can’t cope with our demands and expectations.

I had huge hopes to remedy this sad truth.  But I failed miserably.  I tried to incorporate the Finnish mentality I had observed in Finland to my classroom.  However I, being American through and through, soon felt like I was failing my students. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was a bad teacher for not pushing and challenging them to think more critically, do more problem solving and cover more content and problems.  I really felt like I was not doing my job and that they were not learning enough. And so, like a fraud, before I knew it I had abandoned my mantra and dove headfirst back into the “More is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to make the Finnish mentality work in the midst of our American system of high stake testing and competition.  And so I remained silent.  I stopped writing.

I have lost the Finnish “Less” in the middle of all of the American “More”.

I am not sure how to find the “less” here in the midst of the swamped, hectic demands of our society.  And in some ways I enjoy my teeming American “More” abuzz with excitement, engagements and achievements.  And at the same time, there are days I yearn for Finnish simplicity and quiet calm.

And so I am stuck here in the middle struggling between two conflicting philosophies.   I understand both sides of the road and I am confused on how to best navigate. I believe in everything I stated before, Finnish success really is based on the “Less is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to function as a Finn here in my American classroom or in my American life.  It feels like a fight against a strong current.  Right now I don’t have the answers, I really do feel quite stuck. In the mean time I will try to find a way to incorporate a little more “less” in this world of so much “more.”  Until then, I am here writing my thoughts and trying my best. Thank you for listening.

21 thoughts on “I can’t find the “Less” in the Middle of so much “More”.

  1. All I can contribute is – like Jo of Little Women, if you open a “Plumfield” I think the school was called, it would work- when others see how successful you are, then they would copy your work.
    But I can so understand your frustration- often I face the same myself in my constant fights against establishments.

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  2. Thanks for writing again. The last round of testing has made our “more” still not enough. I’m not sure what needs to happen for this current trend to run its course.
    I hate that your frustrated and can’t apply what you learned in Finland amidst the American system. Be have such great student, kids who want to do well, who do try, and for the most part are optimistic about the future. I hope we get them through middle school without breaking that spirit.

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  3. Thank you – somehow through my daughter who is now living in Pori, Finland since last February 2015 with her family – husband, two children Annie 14 and John 11 – to help me understand the way the Finns live. I have followed your writings and have looked forward to hearing from you. Thank you. Your experience should be help for many in the future. Get involved in the change. Joanne Morris

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  4. I am a recently retired educator ~ a friend shared your blog awhile back and I have so enjoyed it! I admire you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is such an important conversation!!… and like all change it has to start somewhere. Have you read the book “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz? It is about our education system and he agrees with you!! Lucky are the students that walk into your classroom. Hang in there ~ it can happen, one student at a time!
    Sue Benson

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  5. You wrote finally. I still believe your post on ‘less is more’ was great information. Sadly the system of Finland isn’t started in grade 7. But as you wrote runs right from the start until the end. Totally opposite of your beloved America school/country. I am happy you could share your past months of struggle in the challenges you faced. May you continue to love teaching…not to forget traveling. The solution to your problem can only be fixed when everyone at your school comes on board with your findings referring to the ‘less is more’ post. The sad thing you already mentioned, this mind set is the American way… work hard or come second best.

    Lastly, I don’t teach in a classroom(not a teacher) but coach sport. Only advice I can give you is come up with your own idea on how to give the learners you teach the best insight on what you know about school. Make them see things for what they really are.

    Change starts with you.

    Regards
    K9

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  6. I am a recently retired educator, and I am so happy a friend shared your blog~ I have really enjoyed the opportunity to read it. The scenarios you share are so real everywhere. Have you read the book “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz? It’s a great read about how the present system is playing out in the lives of young people and therefore… our country. Those are some lucky students that walk into your classroom. Hang in there… change happens one person at a time!

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  7. This is so inspiring! Thank you for writing. I am inspired by the concept of learning from different countries and I would love to write a Fulbright grant! On Jan 24, 2016 11:24 AM, “Filling My Map” wrote:

    > kellyj1111 posted: ” I’ve not written much since I have been home from > my Fulbright experience in Finland where I became the champion for the > Finnish concept of “Less is More”. The truth is I quickly realized that I > couldn’t make the Finnish “less” work in the midd” >

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  8. Dear Kelly, I can imagine what you feel. I’ve lived in Finland for five months, studying their educational system, observing and discussing concepts linked to the Finnish education (guess we were there at the same season). I have had a some similar experience when I tried to apply what I have learned there in my classroom, in Brazil. It’s important to remember that education is deeply bonded to the way of life in a society, and so, to society’s history and beliefs. As you wrote, if you go against this way of life, you are doing a disservice. I guess the question is not how to apply Finnish strategies to our educational environments, but how we can use those strategies to engage more teachers and educators in a conception which integrates learning to the real world, for all people, and for the entire life, without leaving our historical references behind. Doing less is a way, but maybe it’s not the unique. In some point, we will have to do more before someone can do less and succeed. Of course, the overload is a difficulty – we have 24 hours in a day, no matter where we live – but I believe that keeping the flame, continuing to expose the problems, discussing other forms to bypass learning difficulties and stimulating other people to pass by the same experience we did, are ways to improve what we are doing. I agree it’s frustrating we can’t observe effects immediately, but so is Education: we do something small, but good, now, and the outcomes come along time.

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  9. I found your blog about 1 year ago after doing some research on educational successes in Finland. I am a young corporate work-aholic. I went back to school after the 14+ hour days and nights at a major firm as a junior executive. I earned my graduate degree and went on to be a Financial professor. Now I have three kids, ages 7, 4, 2 whom I homeschool for this very reason… to develop during childhood, give them time to enjoy the things they love and allow them to FAIL. Which I found in all my research as key factors in healthy adult word. I often challenge parents on the price tag on College. DEBT and no job, no work ethic and no understanding of who they are and that it is OK to fail and have personal responsibility.
    My only thoughts for people like you is to consider going into the massive homeschooling arena. There are science labs that hold daily classes three days a week for the homeschooling community in Los Angeles. With over 10,000+ homeschoolers in LA there is a booming business in exactly what you could offer. Classes, groups, tutoring… even offering workshops and hand-craft lessons. The sky is the limit out here and other booming cities around the US.
    While the world gets faster, better test takers graduate from highschool you would be not only inspiring others but fulfilling what your heart already knows.

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  10. As a year 7 teacher as well, I share your frustrations, but am also very grateful that here in Australia things are not quite so bad as in the US as far as pressure in education system. I don’t have the answers either but in my own way I try to make small changes (and every now and then bigger changes) in the hope of sharing my successes and possibly inspiring others. Don’t give up on the dream, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing, I’m sure there is a middle ground. It’s not easy….but definitely worth it. Good luck.

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  11. So good to hear from you again. So sorry for your frustrations. I’m still trying to “do less” as you encouraged us to do earlier. I find that my students and me are overwhelmed by what is asked of us. I’m not trying for a complete Fin take over but I had to “do less” because it was impossible to do what was asked and it only made me(and my students) feel like a failure when I couldn’t get it all in. I’m doing what I can with what I have right now. That’s all anyone can ask of us in any country under any education system. So I’m still holding on to a small piece of “do less”. I appreciate your writing.
    Doing less,
    Tammy

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  12. It is a constant struggle against the tide to try and teach students to relax and just learn in our competitive society that doesn’t allow them to even get enough sleep at night, but you are, as a British English teacher once referred to teaching, “fighting the good fight.” If we, the teachers, do not work to change the culture of our students, which seems sisyphean at times, then nothing will ever change. Yes, it is exhausting and stressful, but if we don’t do it who will? And what happens if we don’t fight? Our culture is left with a well-educated elite that merely feeds off of a poorly-educated population that doesn’t know any better than to listen to the elite that take advantage of them. No, we cannot become Finland overnight in one classroom, but we can push our students to focus on what really matters. We can inspire them to learn and grow rather than just “get good grades.” We can teach real world situations in all our subjects so they can see the benefits of having a good education rather than just cramming for tests. And we can continue to protest high-stakes testing by informing parents and students of its dangers. We are the ones who have been put in charge of the development of children’s minds. If we don’t take that charge, then we will only be just as manipulated as the rest by those who have reasons to want an under-educated population where only the biggest sharks survive.

    Hang in there and keep fighting the good fight. You are not alone.

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  13. Es refrescante para mi, leer los pensamientos que cubren un área difícil de expresar, no desista que encontrara la manera de aplicar en su actividad académica el menos es mas!!! ” less is more”

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  14. I am a 7thgrade math teacher in Knoxville, TN and I love everything you said here and in the previous article you wrote upon returning from Finland . Agree completely. It’s so good to see someone articulate this! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This was so helpful to hear. I look forward to reading more. Right on!!!!!

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  15. I began teaching in 1989 after a career in law enforcement was cut short by a third knee surgery. I’m now a semi-retired teacher; I do a lot of subbing. Like you, I have been frustrated by our insane system of education. We keep doing the same thing over and over, harder and harder, yet we expect a different outcome…insane! I have thought for years that there has to be a better way. I recently began looking into the Finnish model, and it includes most of what I have thought for years we should be doing. I do believe it would work equally well in the U.S., but here is the rub: it absolutely will not work for an individual teacher. The entire school district–school board, administration, teachers, support staff, and especially parents–must be on board. If even one of those is missing from the equation, it will fail…miserably. I would come out of retirement in an instant if someone offered me the opportunity to work in such a school system, but I fear I will be long dead before we give up on the endless testing, the more, more, more attitude, and most importantly the lack of trust that exists in our American system of education. It is nice to dream though.

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  16. I’ve often wondered about the hectic American life style with those long work days and short holidays and intense competition – and even after all that the social mobility is considerably higher in the Nordic countries (a very important reason in this is our universally either free or affordable educational system). What is it that people gain for all that sacrifice of time and leisure?

    I have two small boys and have been able to spend with them so much more time that I would have in the USA. Sure, the taxes and prices would be lower but on the other hand, I don’t have to worry about the college fund. Our younger son is autistic and there has been an amazing system of support and therapy, basically free of charge that we could have never afforded with our middle class income. The American worship of work and long hours just seems so bizarre.

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  17. Kelly,

    I stumbled upon your blog while at ISTE 2016 as I again reflected on “What the ‘secret sauce’ to good education?” I know after all my years in and out of education circles it is not the bright shinny objects on a vendor floor or the latest do this or do that session. I knew some basics about how the Finnish education system is different from our North American implementation but really longed to hear more about it or experience first hand. This is an ‘international’ conference but the international perspective is not prevalent in my opinion. So I googled for some inspirational and found your ‘less is more’ blog entry and really appreciated your reflections. They affirmed what I thought – the ‘secret sauce’ is actually the way an entire society looks at and values education. I was intrigued to know more so dug around your blog and found this entry.

    WOW don’t loose heart! Your discovery of ‘less is more’ should guide you as you strive to change your teaching practice. YES! you have really proven that what you experienced in Finland is way different than how we in North America implement and value education – and YES we respond to the society around us. BUT that doesn’t mean we have accept it all. I don’t have the answer but I believe you are trying your best for your students and that IS the best place to start from.

    I hope you keep reflecting and look for ways to embrace what you saw in Finland and keep inserting in small meaningful ways ‘less is more’. You are influencing many young minds and a society doesn’t change unless the youth stop accepting the way it is and look toward changing it. Changing ALL of America at once is not realistic. Changing one kid at a time is.

    I pray that our leadership realizes that a focus on tests, scores and standards are not the way to educational enlightenment, rather teachers like YOU are. Remember the lesson you learned in Finland – it’s VITAL to honour teaching as a higher calling. You need to find a place where you are surrounded by like minded administration and colleagues – and together you will change a small part of the world. ‘Less is more … yes it is.

    -Tom

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    • Thank you so much Tom for these kind words of support and encouragement. I am feeling so differently about everything than I did last spring when I wrote the blog about not being able to find the Less in all of the More. I have been doing a lot of soul searching and adapting this summer. I hope next year to really create a hybrid classroom, one that has one foot in the American Camp and one foot in the Finnish Camp. I will be writing about this in the near future. It is support from people like you who have helped me stay the course and create something that I feel will be the most beneficial to the students in my classroom. So, keep reading to see what happens next! Where do you teach? What do you teach and how long have you been teaching?

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