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Minnesota should "adopt the Finnish education model," Jon Olson wrote in his Feb. 13 commentary "10 bold initiatives for Minnesota." Ted Kolderie quickly shot down the idea, calling it an "impossibility" ("Delving more deeply into 'bold initiative' No. 1," counterpoint, Feb. 16). I heard an all-or-nothing approach in these two perspectives. However, I see a middle ground as a U.S. teacher and parent living in Finland.

The North Star State should neither import nor brush aside the high-performing Finnish model. Instead, Minnesota schools can draw inspiration from Finland while exercising caution.

In the early 2000s, the Finnish education system gained a reputation for high student achievement on a set of standardized tests called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). However, Finland's PISA scores have gradually declined. No one can definitively explain the country's downward trend, but theories abound. In recent years, Finnish schools have struggled to address the low performance of immigrant students and a wide gender achievement gap.

Despite its blemishes, Finland's efficient model still produces solid academic results. Finnish schools offer shorter school days, fewer standardized tests and less stress than I have found in U.S. districts. Elementary school students in Finland enjoy multiple recess periods per day, a balanced curriculum and very little homework. Finnish teachers, who typically hold a master's degree in education, experience significant autonomy within a collaborative teaching environment.

Copper Island Academy, a Michigan charter school I work with, borrows best practices from Finnish education. For example, it implements hands-on programs (including studio and culinary arts), frequent outdoor breaks and teacher-powered leadership. Educators at this K-8 school also minimize homework and standardized test prep.

In 2023, Copper Island emerged as a top performer based on its high Michigan School Index score, placing it among the top 10% of the state's public schools. Their Finnish-inspired model has quickly gained traction in their local community. The school expects enrollment to rise in the fall — from 340 to more than 400 students in just a year.

Finnish inspiration takes different forms. Sure, it can look like starting a school from scratch, but it can be much less ambitious than that. Since I wrote my book "Teach Like Finland," U.S. educators have told me about Finnish-inspired changes they have made in their classrooms, such as giving students more responsibilities and incorporating more movement. But if I could implement just one practice in all U.S. schools, I would choose Finland's approach to recess.

Elementary school children in Finland usually get a 15-minute break built into every hourlong lesson. Several times per day, teachers send their students to the playground for free play after 45 minutes of instruction. (Copper Island Academy sticks to a similar schedule.)

A vast body of research supports Finland's recess strategy. Researchers, including Anthony Pellegrini, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, have shown that regular breaks help children to focus during the school day. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, recess is necessary "for optimizing a child's social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development."

A veteran educator in St. Paul told me that elementary school students in Minnesota usually receive about 15 minutes of recess per day. The state Department of Education even calls providing at least 20 minutes of daily recess to all K-5 students a best practice. The Finns I know would be shocked to hear this.

To their credit, Minnesota policymakers recently improved recess practices across the state. The "Recess for All" law went into effect this school year, prohibiting recess detention (i.e., removing or excessively delaying a child from a scheduled break for disciplinary reasons). However, the law's title is misleading.

Like most U.S. states, Minnesota does not guarantee daily recess for elementary school children. State law only recommends it. But many states — including Rhode Island, New Jersey and Florida — have mandated daily recess over the last decade. Rather than adopting the entire Finnish model, what if the Minnesota Legislature drew inspiration from Finland and simply guaranteed daily recess to K-5 students?

Even better, Minnesota could require its elementary schools to offer multiple recess periods per school day, Finnish style. This reform is doable. Arizona already requires its public schools to provide K-5 students with two daily recess blocks. Minnesota could be next.

Timothy Walker is a U.S. educator and author living in Espoo, Finland. He began a paid partnership with Copper Island Academy in 2023.