Sink or swim: Thoughts from Finland

The following was the basis for a talk I gave as part of the Fulbright Forum on March 17 at the University of Jyväskylä and hosted by Fulbright Finland.  My four-month research project is “Cooperative Learning Strategies as a Best Practice in Student-Directed, Globally-Minded Classrooms.”  Basically, it was a chance to present on my thinking at the half-way point.

Thanks to Fulbright Finland for the photo!

Whether we teach in the U.S., Finland, Botswana, or New Zealand, we are faced with increasing decisions about how to best get students to collaborate, problem-solve, and develop independence for school, work, and life in general.  We are challenged to create opportunities for students to explore phenomena and practice solving global dilemmas both in the context of traditional classrooms and the laboratory of society today.  Gone are the days when a society, however small, could perpetuate a completely isolated existence.  Some of the most remote cultures on earth can participate, virtually, in the larger global context.  Educators have a responsibility, now more than ever, to model global thinking and hone related skills in students.  

Creating meaningful cooperative learning tasks is one way teachers can build trust while incorporating relevant content, teamwork opportunities, and heightened challenges to give students the chance to grapple with both local and international dilemmas.  Such tasks not only improve students’ social skills but also allow them the freedom to wrestle with challenges and issues in a collaborative, non-competitive environment.  Despite the varied, individual curricular paths of students in Finnish upper secondary schools, cooperative learning tasks can serve as a unifying force among students while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of a global outlook for all.  At a time when the Finnish National Board of Education has reformed its curriculum to require a more intercultural and interdisciplinary focus, cooperative learning strategies offer teachers the chance to enhance global-mindedness in all students.

In theory, teachers use cooperative learning strategies to provide opportunities for students to work in structured environments, typically with assigned or chosen roles, as a means to work collectively to solve a problem, complete a series of tasks, or dig more deeply into research.  Classic cooperative learning tasks operate on the “sink or swim together” mentality; that is, the premise that the success of one student hinges on the success of all others in the group so there is incentive for each individual to contribute to the greater good of the group as well as gain the chance to teach his or her peers.

In my own practice, however, I often struggle with the successful implementation of such tasks.  I witness one student try to take over the group or many students disengage just assuming that the “smartest” kid will do the work.  I see students rush through tasks as quickly as possible not wanting to engage in deeper discussions even when time limits are non-existent.  In meetings with colleagues after classroom observations during a two-year period, time and again, we lamented the difficulties of successfully implementing authentic cooperative learning strategies and often saw our best-laid plans quickly devolve into glorified group work.  What was going on?

Prior to my arrival in Finland I envisioned my research as a quest to examine the extent to which Finnish teachers use cooperative learning strategies and their varying levels of success.  The impetus for my research was a piece by Pasi Sahlberg that I saw in the Washington Post titled, “Five U.S. Innovations that Helped Finland’s Schools Improve but that American Reformers Now Ignore,” with Sahlberg including cooperative learning as one of those innovations.  I had been following Finland’s schools in the news for nearly four years by the time I read it and it sparked something.  Are Finnish teachers really having more success with implementing cooperative learning tasks in their classrooms?  …This seemed unusual but intriguing…  If so, what are they doing that my colleagues and I aren’t doing?  …I worked hard to put these lessons together and so many times they floundered…  Moreover, are the students in Finland having more success engaging in the tasks than my own?  …Don’t Finnish teenagers get distracted by their phones?…  Are they learning more deeply?…  And how would we know it?…  Are they simultaneously developing skills that foster both collaboration and autonomy?…  Maybe it’s a Finnish thing…  Also, how does the fact that each student designs his own curriculum path impact the likelihood that he will have success working with others?  …Wait, Finnish kids design their own curriculum path?!… And will grappling with complex questions in collaborative environments allow students to develop a more global mindset?  …And on and on and on in this brain of mine… I imagined that I could begin to answer these questions by observing the day-to-day activities in upper secondary classrooms and talking with teachers as well as conducting teacher and student perception surveys to gather quantitative data about such tasks.  And, admittedly, on a more raw, emotional level, I felt like Sahlberg’s post had taunted me a bit as if to say, “Tsk, tsk American teacher!  You invented this amazing thing but now you can’t even do it right!”  The post simultaneously irked me and motivated me, which is a good thing, because I landed here in Finland and now I could begin to explore for myself.


University of Jyväskylä

The emphasis on problem-solving, collaboration and independence starts young in Finland.  Since children are not required to begin compulsory schooling until age seven there is a lot more time for unstructured play and exploration in the natural world.  Free play not play dates.  Exploration not organization.  Figuring out how to sink or swim or both.  Playgrounds are designed in such a way so that as children become physically stronger and more persistent they reap the rewards of the higher, faster slide or the daring, more exciting climbing bars.  Wee ones walk by themselves to school and ride the city bus with friends, carrying their own backpacks, hockey sticks and goal net down the street after dark.  Pre-teens walk a mile to the town pool for P.E. class, unaccompanied, unsupervised, and unharmed.  Sixteen-year-olds make the decision whether they will attend lukio, the three-year secondary school that serves as preparation for university, or attend a vocational school, of which there are over 50 different kinds, that serves as preparation for a specific, paying career.  

In this society, trust begins to be cultivated from the start.  Children are trusted to practice collaboration and negotiation through play, time outside, and skirmishes with friends and peers.  They learn how to compromise–or they don’t– but no one is forcing it on them.  Adolescents are trusted to make big decisions about their own lives and educational pathways.  The trust placed on kids from a very young age allows them to try and fail.  It allows them to develop autonomy.  It enables them to trust others.

Conversely, in American society policymakers bemoan the fact that students lack problem-solving capabilities, are too reliant on teachers and parents, and that many lack the elusive trait of grit that enable their Finnish counterparts to find academic and social success.  The blame tends to fall on the schools and the educators themselves.  Really, though, if we pause and look through a wider lens, we can see that the problems with many American students are not the result of what teachers or parents are or aren’t doing, but rather a more fearful society that hinders our youth from developing the wherewithal to make any choices for themselves let alone ones that might dictate their individual future or, perhaps, the future of the global society.  The message that students, teachers and parents often get is “You are sinking.”

From the very birth of a child, American parents are inundated with constant, conflicting information about what they should or shouldn’t be doing in order to nurture a healthy baby.  Hold that baby too much and he’ll never be independent; hold that baby too little and she’ll never form a secure attachment.  Give him peanuts to see if he has a peanut allergy; don’t give her peanuts because she might have a peanut allergy.  Let him sleep in the buggy because any sleep is good sleep; don’t let her sleep in the buggy because that is not quality sleep.  What parents reap from mixed messages like these is an underlying fear that what they are doing is never going to be good enough and that their children are not going to be successful later.  Parents fear their kids will sink.

Many American daycare centers now espouse the doctrine that they must be providing some kind of formal education for their one, two and three-year-olds instead of merely allowing the kids to play and explore in safe environments, indoors and outdoors.  When Finnish five-year-olds are hopping logs and climbing on playgrounds, most American five-year-olds begin their first year of formal schooling: kindergarten.  As Leonard Sax argued in Boys Adrift, kindergarten today no longer resembles the mix of play, crafts, and music that was once the standard in U.S. schools 40 years ago.   In fact, today literacy and numeracy are the main goals of a kindergarten education in the U.S.  If children are not placed on the fast track to learn reading and writing early the fear is that they will fall behind and never be “competitive” in the global marketplace of the future… further sinking, never swimming.

Student artwork at Schildtin Lukio Voionmaan

This fear is intertwined with the rising and crushing cost of college debt.  It is no longer likely that an average American middle class family can afford to put one child, let alone more, through college.  Even with long-term investments and savings plans from birth, it is rare that an American parent has the funds to enroll her child into university so the student will take enormous loans that he will spend the first decade of his working life paying back, regardless of the salary of his first job.  Thus, even from toddlerhood, many parents are compelled to offer their child every single perceived advantage, every chance that might increase the odds of that child later getting either an academic or athletic scholarship or both, to help defray the costs of college and long-term worry of paying back the loans and interest.  

Over the elementary years, fear continues to guide myriad decisions of American parents and educators.  Children are rarely afforded the opportunity to play unsupervised because they might get hurt or lost or into trouble or abducted or shot.  Such fears, whether rational or not, impel American parents to seek organized activities for their children to join.  At early ages American children are signed up for organized team sports or music lessons or art classes or martial arts or all of the above.  If children are dropped off at chaperoned activities then the notion is that their well-being is protected.  At school, teachers are expected to facilitate clubs so that students can both become more well-rounded and also have a safe place to be.

But what about later?  What about the long-term effects of an over-scheduled routine in which there is no room for play?  Increasingly, the result is a constant level of stress and stifling that is detrimental to health and well-being in the long-term.  If children are unable to play independently and solve dilemmas on their own without adult interference then they are not going to become resilient successful young adults capable of making weighty academic, career, and even global decisions later.

Finnish teens, on the other hand, have years of practice with low-stakes decision-making and autonomy thus the choice of lukio or vocational school is a choice that they are seemingly ready to make.  There does not seem to be the pervasive fear that the teen is not mature enough to make such an important decision and that one misstep will cause her to ruin the rest of her life.  Moreover, they have practice with minor collaboration tasks in school that allow them to practice dialogue, divide responsibility, and complete tasks.  They are practicing the skill of swimming together.  

In classroom observations, interviews, and conversations with Finnish teachers, it seems that most use cooperative learning strategies as a way to let students practice social skills, relax a little bit, and discuss concepts in a less formal manner.  Teachers repeatedly talk of trusting students overall and specific to this research, trusting students to work together on team tasks and not have to worry about discipline problems.  The cooperative learning tasks I observe here in Finland are usually low-stakes tasks aimed to socialize students for a changing world.  The tasks are typically characterized by a lot of student choice, whether choice of topic, choice of teammates, or choice of product, weaving in some practical life skill or current events situation.  Many of the textbooks, written by teachers, have group activities built into each lesson in the book giving students frequent opportunities to collaborate.  One of school’s aims is to help young people become more social and these tasks are designed to give students practice in doing just that.  

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English class text

In observations, interviews and conversations with Finnish students so far, cooperative learning activities garner a wide range of reactions.  Many students have told me that they would rather work on their own because learning is their own responsibility and they don’t want to have to worry about the learning of others.  Many have told me that they like it because they get to relax and it is more fun than if their teachers lecture.  Several students mentioned a shift in society and asserted that the younger generation is much more extroverted than the older generations so, they believe, it is not surprising that their teachers use team tasks more.  And time and again, I heard comments about being part of a “global world,” “global society” or “intercultural community” in which people have to figure out how to work together.  

It is by no means a surprise that some teachers use cooperative tasks a lot and some use them very little.  It is not shocking that some students like it and others do not.  At the moment, the take-aways for me are why teachers here choose to use such tasks (primarily for social reasons), how they execute their cooperative tasks (quite informally) and the levels of student engagement (consistently high and with relatively few distractions).   Additionally, I reflect on how we might cultivate more autonomy and trust in students in my own school and how I might use cooperative tasks more as a way for kids to practice socializing than for giving them high-stakes assignments that they feel stressed to complete, whether alone or on a team.  

When I return to the states, the leaders in my school district will invariably ask me how we can improve our school based on what I have researched here in Finland.  I can’t say, “Change America.”  I can’t say, “Get rid of college debt.”  I can’t say, “Tell parents to stop over-scheduling their kids.”  While I know it is overly optimistic to think that we can eliminate all of the fear that drives much of American decision-making, I do think it will be an opportunity for us to try to cultivate more trust, autonomy, and collaboration within our own school district– more swimming– and perhaps that will result in some sort of better net result for global society overall. 

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Every day is too much.


Boix Mansalla, V. & Jackson, A. (2011).  Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our youth to engage the world.  Retrieved from

Ferguson, Andrew.  (2011).  Crazy U: One dad’s crash course in getting his kid into college.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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Jääskeläinen, L. and Repo, T. (eds).  (2011).   Schools Reaching Out to a Global World: What Competences Do Global Citizens Need?  Retrieved from

Levine, Madeline.  (2006).  The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids.  New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Pokka, Ari.  [TedX]. (2015, April 9).  Finnish Pathways [Video file].  Retrieved from

Ripley, Amanda.  (2013).  The Smartest Kids in the World: And how they got that way.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Sahlberg, Pasi. “Five U.S. Innovations That Helped Finland’s Schools Improve but That American Reformers Now Ignore.” Weblog post. Washington Post. The Washington Post, 25 July 2014. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.

Sax, Leonard.  (2007).  Boys Adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

Sax, Leonard.  (2010).  Girls on the Edge: The four factors driving the new crisis for girls: sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, and environmental toxins.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

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Warner, Judith.  (2005).  Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the age of anxiety.  New York, NY: Riverhead Books.  

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10 thoughts on “Sink or swim: Thoughts from Finland

  1. Wow Meghan! Very thought provoking. I look forward to learning more from you when you return. I am so proud of you for taking the time to ask the right questions without fear of what the answers might be..we all need to incorporate this kind honesty into our lives. Xoxo-Morgan

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Meghan, Your study is very interesting. It is a difficult task for parents and educators to find the best ways to help our children become independent thinkers and cooperative team-players.Congrats on your achievements.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Meghan: I am very impressed with your commentary. It made so much sense to me, but it scares me knowing that change is so hard for many people. I pray that you will be successful in implementing some of these practices when you return to Steamboat. One person can make such a difference. I truly admire you for all that you are doing.


    1. Thanks Aunt Jackie! I know what you mean about change. I was telling someone here that I am not disheartened by my school district (as it is a pretty great place) but I am disheartened by American politics and so much inequity in our country. But, yes, I guess we start small! Love you!


  4. Meghan Hansen Peters
    Amazingly perfect! Yes you can say all of those things but will it change….. I would love to share this extremely well written thoughts and observations with all teachers!!! I appreciate and put trust in those guiding and teaching our children each one of us is so uniquely different and from the beginning of time you where able to choose your walk of life. Unfortunily we are not able to find our God given gifts anymore because of the hurry up and go rushed lifestyle we are all guilty of at some point. Not to say school is not important but it is not for everyone to follow the right thing to do. The created jobs that drive our industry is becoming sickening to pay so much for college, marketing, documents etc…. Anyway I am always sending you and your love! We miss you and yours can’t wait to chat upon your arrival! Xoxoxo


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