Lessons observed in Finland

Lessons observed in Finland

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During my trip to Finland I was able to observe three lessons in full, one in Finnish with a class of 9-10 year olds in a school in a small town, and another in Religious Education with a class of 8-9 year olds in a school in a city. The third was a short part of a lesson in Maths with some 7-8 year olds which was taught by a visiting student to the school, with some team teaching with the class teacher.

To give some context, lessons in Finnish primary schools are usually 45 minutes long, with a 15 minute break after most lessons. I have tried to report what I saw here without much opinion or analysis, I will save that for a future post, but I wanted to simply report what I saw so that others may be able to reach their own conclusions.

The first was an interesting experience, as I arrived in this class after a tour of the school with no context and the entire lesson taking place in the Finnish language. In some ways this lack of language made it more straightforward to focus on the structural and classroom management aspects of the lesson, but in some ways it made it quite difficult.

The reason for this was that this lesson was very much focused on the content. Where many lessons in UK schools would be focused on structure, perhaps with a three part lesson and some sort of activity for the children to do, the main focus of this lesson was the content and a discussion of it.

The lesson began with the teacher drawing the class’ attention to a page in a textbook which they all had a copy of. It appeared that he expected they had read it before, and I got the impression this might have been for homework. The teacher talked for around five minutes about the book, whilst some of the children referred to it, and others didn’t, but still appeared to be paying attention.

Throughout this lesson the activity of children was much less directed than I would have expected in a UK school. At some points some children started writing notes in some exercise books, but others didn’t, and they appeared to be able to participate in whatever way they wanted, with the main flow of the lesson coming from the teacher and them accessing it in the way they chose.

This went for their attention and behaviour as well. At times different children’s attention wondered a bit, and they started fiddling with things in their desks or pencil cases. This was rarely at a level that distracted anyone else in the class, but it was the kind of behaviour that they would probably have been challenged on by a teacher in a UK school. What was interesting was that this was rarely a total disengagement with the lesson, just a brief break, and most children returned to participating after a short time. At one point a child did not, and decided he did not want to write in his book as the teacher had asked them to. He was spoken to quietly on an individual lesson and this was enough to bring him back on task.

After the initial teacher led introduction to the lesson he started asking questions, with children responding and him engaging with their answers. One thing that was very noticeable to me in all three lessons I observed was the amount of wait time given to children when questions were asked. On all occasions when a question was asked the teacher waited until almost all of the children had had time to think and put their hands up before asking a child to give their answer. The children were very relaxed about doing this, and there was very little of the excitement to answer or be picked that is often seen in UK primary schools.

Both this lesson and the RE lesson were very much discussion based and this discussion was heavily mediated by the teacher. Both classrooms were organised as single individual desks in rows facing the front, although the first teacher did specifically ask the children to pair up and discuss on a couple of occasions. When questions were asked the children gave quite long and involved answers, which suggested they were being asked to think quite deeply about the content of the lesson. After the RE lesson I asked the teacher about the direction the discussion had taken and she explained how one 8 year old had been questioning the Christian message of spreading Christianity, and suggesting this may not be ethical when others already have their own religions.

During the Finnish lesson some children recorded some notes in their books, whilst others did not. Around half way through the RE lesson the teacher asked the class to take their exercise books out of their desks and she began hand writing notes on the board using a visualiser (see above). The children then copied these into their books, followed by more discussion, and more copying. It appeared that the notes were composed in discussion with the children, and that the teacher checked they had reached a consensus, and then summed this up in note form which the whole class then copied.

I have written about these two lessons together as they had a lot of similarities, but it has to be said that from class to class there were more differences than similarities between schools, and even within the same school. In one school I saw very teacher led, textbook heavy lessons in one room, and then groups of children working in groups on iPads or experimenting in practical science in another.

The Maths lesson with the younger children was quite different in terms of recording, as all children had a colourful ‘workbook’ to complete which they wrote in. When they had finished the page they took their book to the teacher for marking, or in this case ‘teachers’ as there were six adults in the spacious room.

I had an interesting discussion with the class teacher after this lesson about the use of textbooks. Their national curriculum is interpreted locally by teachers and officials, and published as a weighty document. The textbooks are then produced, I think by commercial companies, to support this local document. In this case ‘local’ seems to mean the principality of a city.

Her take on it was that her job as a teacher was to know and support the needs of the children in her class, not to spend large amounts of time generating resources such as Maths questions for lessons. She spoke of the efficiency of a group of people creating all the questions needed to teach the curriculum and then distributing it to an entire principality, rather than what she saw as the English way of doing things which was for individual teachers to devise and create lesson resources. She was also quick to point out that there is no requirement for teachers to use any textbooks, and they can pick and choose which parts they do use. In practice though, she said many teachers do use text books a lot in their teaching and use the time and mental space created by this to engage with children and support their individual needs.

Hopefully these thoughts on the lessons I observe provide an interesting snapshot of what children experience in Finnish schools. I must stress the caveat that the diversity of teaching methods came across as one of the tenets of their teaching profession, and that whilst these are the lessons I observed in detail, my walks of the school did show quite a variety of other approaches.

I am currently travelling home, but students from Plymouth University have stayed to teach for another six weeks and I am sure they will gain considerably more insight into how the Finnish education system works than I have in my short time there.

Other blog posts from Finland are here.

Teacher Education at the University of Oulu

Teacher Education at the University of Oulu

Yesterday we were given a tour of the Faculty of Education at the University of Oulu by Mathematics education lecturer Vesa-Matti Sarenius.

In Finland, all teachers have a masters level education, which takes them five years. For their courses they take 3 or 4 subjects, with secondary teachers having a ‘major’ in their subject, and primary teachers usually majoring in pedagogic studies and taking 2 or 3 ‘minor’ subjects as specialisms. Primary teachers also take a core course which covers all of the subjects they will be teaching, which Vesa-Matti explained to us in his lecture I blogged last week.

All students study for free, and can access considerable subsidies to support them. In the canteen the standard lunch cost €7.21 for visitors, a little less for staff and only €2.60 for students.

We were given a comprehensive tour of the facilities, and one of the things which struck me most was the strong emphasis on technology and textiles education. The facilities for this in terms of workshops and studios were fantastic, not surpassing given the impressive facilities in every school I have visited.

I spoke with one lecturer who was building his own acoustic guitar from scratch in the workshop. He showed me some work that might be more typical in schools; a model of a bee with legs made of wire coat hangers. Inside there was an electronic mechanism made of lego-type building blocks which spun two off-centre weights on an electric motor. This caused the bee to vibrate, and move forwards whilst flapping its wings. The lecturer explained to me that the mechanism was designed in a similar way to the vibration function on a mobile phone, so was a good way of teaching children the basic concepts of these devices.

I asked what age of children would be making such a project; he replied that it would probably be kindergarten level, so younger than age 7. Pretty sophisticated stuff for children that age, I thought.

In the textiles rooms we found many traditional looms and spinning equipment, all of which seemed to be in very regular use. Across the technology education department there seemed to be a strong sense of the importance of craftsmanship, and a sense of the history of these skills and activities and their centrality to Finnish culture. This sense of history is something I noticed also in the Primary schools with their collections of old resources, not in use, but kept for posterity. I think this brings an interesting slant on some of the discussions happening at the moment in the UK around cultural capital.

A similar ethos was in evidence in the large museum of stuffed animals in the Faculty of Education, with smaller but impressive collections in some of the schools we had visited. One school had decided to remove all of these animals from the glass cases so the children could appreciate them further by touching them, and their corridors were lined with stuffed birds and small mammals.

More to come on the Finnish lessons I have observed…

Posts from my trip to Finland are all available here.

Finnish primary school visit 3

Finnish primary school visit 3

Yesterday saw myself and my college Miles Opie travelling further south, to visit a group of four of our students who are undertaking their teaching practice in a Finnish city; a noticeably more urban setting than our previous school visits.

The physical environment in this school was very similar to that in the schools we have already visited; light, spacious classrooms, a building in immaculate condition, and even the same furniture consisting of individual desks for children. It was perhaps a little more spacious than the other schools we have visited, but had the similarly well equipped specialist spaces for activities such as craft and sports.

The atmosphere was a little different in this school. There was a similar quality to the interactions between staff and students, and similarly relaxed relationships. We were privileged to sit in on an assembly which was led by a local Lutheran priest, and it was notable how the movement of children into and out of this activity was much less controlled than in a UK school. At the end the entire hall of about 100 children simply stood up and wondered out, some back to classes, some out to play. There were all chatting, but only in the relaxed way a group of adults would on such an occasion, and there was no instructions from adults to get into lines, wait their turn or walk in silence. The children seemed to respond to this by not creating any issues, and moving around the building in a completely appropriate manner. Another example of the high levels of trust and lack of control placed on children in the schools I have visited, conditions which they seem to respond to by conducting themselves very responsibly. One fact which did help with this was the amount of space; wide corridors, doorways and staircases allowed large numbers of children to circulate without causing bottlenecks.

This school was noticeably more urban, and had a much greater mix of ethnicities, and according to our guides also much great mix of economic and social backgrounds. In the assembly I noted roughly ten percent of the children were from backgrounds not indigenously Finnish. Apparently many of these children have recently arrived from Somalia, and the school supports such new arrivals with intensive catch up classes in Finnish and English to allow them to get up to speed with the language and integrate into the main classes as quickly as possible.

This is something I am still trying to unpick, but in a number of my conversations I have come across quite a different approach to differentiation than in many UK schools. Rather than dividing children by ‘ability’ and streaming, setting, or differentiated groups by task, the ethos seems to be that all children should be able to participate with the whole class and move forward together. There is a strong ethos of the teacher knowing each child and supporting and helping them in a personalised way, but not providing a different curriculum or experience for them. Where this is not possible, the approach seems to be targeted interventions to allow the child to ‘catch up’ as quickly as possible, and then be able to join the rest of their class and move forward together.

I may be misrepresenting this, please comment if you feel I am, but it is something that is obviously conceptualised differently to many UK schools and I am trying to make sense of it.

On approaching this school our students were struck by the lack of fencing, with only a two foot high wall to mark the perimeter of the playground and the school. However, once inside the school we noticed there was a security station with a security guard monitoring CCTV. There has been a school shooting recently in Finland and this has obviously caused a shift in security for schools, with the school yesterday being locked when it would normally be open to allow members of the community to come in.

In summary this school was very similar in some ways, and very different in others to the previous two schools, as might be expected when comparing rural and urban schools. I would say in this school there was much more of a variation from class to class in terms of organisation and teaching methods, with some classes engaged in active group learning as you would be likely to see in UK schools, and others having more traditional teacher led lessons.

I also sat in on a lesson in this school, which I will post about soon…

Posts from my trip to Finland are all available here.

Second Finnish Primary School Visit

Second Finnish Primary School Visit

Today we visited our second Finnish primary school, which was of a similar size and in a smiler location to the first yesterday. This school was in different circumstances as they are in the process of amalgamating with the secondary school nearby, and this is causing some changes in terms of staffing and organisation.

The first thing that struck us about this school was the welcome. On arrival we were greeted by one of the teachers and taken to the staff room, where we were all served fresh coffee and presented with two lovely cheesecakes which had been baked by the head teacher. As the bell went for break time the other teachers in the school, arrived, and without exception came to greet us asking our names and introducing themselves.

There was no formality to proceedings, and the introduction to the school unfolded informally as conversations and chats happening concurrently around the room. The students naturally met the teachers they had been in email contact with, and some of them took them off to their classrooms for a quick tour before returning. After half an hour we had been introduced to all the staff, had the ethos and local situation of the school explained to us, and chatted about areas of interest such as the curriculum, all without a formal presentation or powerpoint in sight…

The students are obviously highly valued, partly simply because they are teachers in training, but also because they love to have international students to challenge their children with their cultural perspectives and the English language. The international ethos of the school was apparent from many displays, and the permanently installed, high quality pull down maps in each classroom.

Much of what we saw yesterday in terms of facilities was similar in this school, such as the displays, the use of individual desks, the calm and respectful relationships between children and staff, and the impressive facilities. Our guide describes the school as quite old by Finnish standards, but it appeared very modern by ours. In this case there was no ICT suite, but one class were trying out a class set of iPads, which had just arrived as part of a research project across several schools into how they could be used for learning.

There was perhaps more variation between classrooms in this school, with some children organised into rows and individual desks, and others clearly organised more with group discussion in mind. I did see some reward charts in this school, and each classroom was notably equipped with several pull down maps of Finland, Europe, and the world.

The timetable of the day here was different, with longer lessons of one hour, but a similar dispersal of fifteen minute breaks between the lessons. It was explained that this has been implemented to bring their timetable in line with that of the secondary school. This seemed to be to make using facilities across the two schools more straightforward from a timetabling point of view. However, in many of my conversations with teachers there has been a strong sense of the importance they place on consistency for children. Many teachers will talk of the way they cater for children as individuals, but also of the importance of keeping the experience of different teachers consistent and stable for pupils.

We talked at length about grouping and ability, and the teacher I spoke to was visibly uncomfortable with the idea of setting children, and even of mixing up the members of classes. “At seven years, hese are the longest group experiences we have”, she said “it is important to value that”. (More on grouping here)

She also showed us the local curriculum for their town, which was a weighty, professionally produced volume. It comes with matching textbooks in a range of subjects for each year, as well as work books. We discussed opinions on the use of text books, her attitude was that as a teacher it was not a good use of her time to be producing resources like this, spending hours creating maths problems and the like. She said teachers time was best used understanding the individual needs of children, and creating the environment conducive to their learning.

The teachers in this school had similar relationships to the children as we observed yesterday. They had authority, but in a much calmer way than is typical in the UK. I would characterise this as more like a parent, less authoritative but the children still clearly had respect for them.

We sat in on a Maths lesson, and this individual support was the main focus. In many ways it was quite traditional from the perspective of UK teaching. The teacher ran through some example problems from a text book, the children calculated each step on their own and fed back verbally, and then completed more problems from textbooks and work books. One of the most striking things about all three Finnish teachers I have observed is their use of wait time. They ask a question and wait for considerably longer than you would often see in the UK, usually waiting for the vast majority of the children to put their hand up before eliciting an answer.

Most of the time in this lesson was given over to the children completing some problems, and then when they had finished coming to their teacher to go through them one to one. Where they had made mistakes they were coached and then given time to work through them again.

The children in this school were perhaps more lively than in the last school, although this may be because they are more used to having large numbers of visitors and students. In fact one class were being taught Maths by a University student when I observed. He was not on a teaching course, but a Leisure and Sports management degree, and was completing a four week placement in the school. They had clearly been using his expertise in PE, but he was also teaching Maths and other subjects. He was very confident and effective in whole class teaching, and the children clearly respected him as a teacher. He had no ambition to be a teacher, but I got the sense that to him teaching children was part of being involved in the community, something everyone should have some interest in.

Another thing that has struck me about both schools so far is the sense of history. In the first school they had an area set up as a historical classroom with old desks, an organ and shelves of old textbooks. In the school today they had cabinets in the corridors where they kept old curriculum materials such as detailed posters of historical events and diagrams of parts of the body. The teacher who showed us around explained that their teaching methods had very much moved on, and that these materials were no longer used. Never the less they were kept in a prominent location in the school looked at with a sense of the importance of the history of curriculum and resources. I wonder whether this could be linked to the localised curriculum here, although there is a national curriculum, it is fleshed out in great detail in formal documentation at local level by teachers themselves.

Having seen two schools now, it is interesting to start to build up a picture of the similarities and differences between schools here, and those in the UK. Tomorrow we visit our third and final school in a different town which may shine a light on more of the local variations.

My Finland blog posts are collecting here.

In discussion with a Finnish primary head teacher

I had an interesting chat with the head of the school I visited today, keen to expand on the lecture from Vesa-Matti earlier this week on the Finnish education system.

The schools serves what the head described as a fairly affluent population, he said about 80% of the families he would describe as being well off, with the other 20% having some ‘problems’ and not doing so well. One of the problems that he said affects some children’s progress is coming from families where the parents have split up, and he reckoned around 10-15% of the children in his school were in this situation. I asked how typical this was, and he said this figure would be fairly typical in schools across Finland.

He had been teaching since the seventies, and talked at length about the changes he sees in Finnish society. Particularly he has been recently finding dealing with parents more challenging, and he said the way parents approach their parenting has changed for some, with teachers having to fill the gaps that have been left in dealing with children’s emotional education. He said he has seen increasing numbers of children who need emotional support coming into his school, and that teachers are having to provide this support, although this is something they do gladly and are skilled at.

I asked what the main challenge was his school faced, and he was quick to cite decreasing budgets. The school is funded based on the number of pupils, and whilst they have been increasing numbers and class sizes, the money available has been decreasing. However, he appeared to have a high degree of control of his budget, and talked about his ability to shop around with educational suppliers to make sure he could get the best value for the children in the school. Generally his subject leaders make decisions about resource purchasing which he then ratifies.

One of the key themes of our discussion was the freedom of teachers, and he pointed out that teachers are given autonomy to choose how they teach. He does not decree a way in which they should teach, and does not check up on them to make judgements. However, he explained how in recent years there has been a shift from teachers shutting their classroom doors and being quite insular, towards much more collaboration. He described that teachers often work together, or work with each other’s classes if they feel it would be beneficial. They also often come to him for discussion and support, and he said despite the autonomy he had a very detailed knowledge of what was going on in the school because the teachers discussed with him as they felt necessary.

This appeared to be particularly the case concerning children who needed extra support, and he said he has discussions most days with teachers about how the school can best support these children. They appeared to have a comprehensive and individualised support system for those children falling behind, involving increased one to one support and children coming out of the main classes for intervention. Whilst he talked at length about specialist intervention, he did not mention personalisation or differentiation as part of the main classes. I described the kind of three way differentiation by task you might see in the UK, and he said that was not something they practiced in Finland.

My impression was that the teaching was aimed at the whole class, with those falling behind being given extra support, but the majority of the class moving at a similar pace. Having said that, their ‘resource teacher’ often takes groups of ‘talented’ pupils or groups of struggling pupils in extra lessons out of their main class. The head also pointed out that their ethos in whole class teaching is very much to get to know the children as individuals and tailor the teaching to these individuals. This seemed to be more about relationships than planned differentiated tasks or target setting.

We had an interesting discussion about the status of the teaching profession. It takes five years to train to be a teacher, and all teachers must have a Masters qualification, at primary level this is usually in the study of pedagogy with some other curriculum subjects as ‘minors’. Despite the long study, and what he described as the low pay compared to other professions, he said teaching was a very popular subject. However, not everyone in a classroom is a qualified teacher, it is possible and commonplace to work as a substitute teacher before one is qualified. There are some classroom assistants but relatively few, with his school of over two hundred pupils only employing five.

He lamented that few people take on other careers before teaching, and he said it would be beneficial to get more career changers into teaching to bring a variety of experience, however there is no national drive to do so as they have a good supply of well qualified people coming into the profession. At the other end of the scale, he said many people do teach for a few years and then go into other careers, as the education and training they get to become a teacher is seen as rigorous and broad in a way that sets them up well for many careers. Employers outside of education, he said, like to take on ex teachers as they are seen as very capable people.

This conversation uncovered an interesting mix of similarities and differences between formal education in the UK and Finland. The comparison is therefore complex, and it seems there are many specific local differences. Tomorrow I visit another school to provide another point of comparison…

My blog posts from Finland are all available here.

A visit to a Finnish primary school

A visit to a Finnish primary school

Today saw us visiting a Finnish primary school, in our first look first hand at how education in Finland works. The purpose of this post is to capture and describe what I have seen today, no doubt more detailed reflections will follow as I visit other schools this week and start to get a sense of how things work over here.

The school serves around 200 pupils from age six to thirteen in what the headteacher described as a fairly affluent area.

As we approached the school at around 9 am, the first thing of note was that all of the children were out playing. It is still winter here, with this morning’s temperature at around -11 centigrade and the adventure playground and much of the surrounding area covered in thick layers of snow. Such conditions would no doubt trigger an instant snow day in the UK, but the children were dressed for the weather and enjoying themselves outside with adults supervising them.

As we entered the school the bell went, and the children quickly came running back into the school. There were no lines or silence for instructions, they simply came in of their own accord and quickly changed out of their coats and shoes and headed off to their classes in their socks. Uniforms are not usual here, and the children wore a wide variety of their own clothes. There was a bit of chat and banter as they came in, but they quickly got back to lessons.

We soon learned that the structure of the day was based around 45 minute lessons, with a 15 minute break after each one. Lunch was served very early by our standards, from about 11 am, but was given only a half hour slot with 15 minutes for eating and 15 for play. When I asked the head teacher, who is familiar with UK schools, what the biggest difference was he said it was this structure of there quarters of an hour of learning to a quarter of break. He said it kept the children focused, but that for teachers it could be a challenge as every lesson needs to be tight and to the point.

This structure has been decided by the head, but I was led to believe it is fairly typical of Finnish schools. He also defines the structure of which lessons are taught when, and I got the impression this was also influenced by the local education body although I may be mistaken. On the staff room wall was a relatively straightforward chart of the lessons all the teachers in the school would be teaching, which the head consulted regularly when organising what we were going to see.

In the fifteen minute break periods the teachers congregated in the staff room in a relaxed way, a few were getting resources ready for their next lesson, but mostly they were relaxing and having informal chats. This relaxed atmosphere continued throughout the school, and when having our tour of the building it felt much quieter and more relaxed than I have come to expect from a school of a similar size in the UK. The head teacher was keen to explain to the students that their work in the school was very valued and important, but also that taking leisure time to explore Finnish culture and enjoy themselves was also an important part of the trip. I felt like he made a significant point of this, and guess that his previous experience with students from the UK might be that they take some time to appreciate the work life balance that he would expect of them.

The children and staff appeared to have a relaxed but respectful relationship, calling each other by first names and there seemed to be far less instructions and structures as to where to go and what to do than we are used to seeing. However, the children were not simply directing their activities, they were well focused on the teaching that was going on. They were clearly allowed to leave their seats if they needed to, and children sometimes got up mid lesson to put something in a bin, but they seemed to largely maintain their focus on the teacher without explicit instruction to do so.

At this level the vast majority of teachers are generalists teaching a single class, although they had a few members of staff who taught across the school to cover teachers undertaking other activities. The children also often had the same teacher for several years. The head noted that his teachers had a variety of styles of teaching, and that their freedom to teach in the way they felt best is a big part of their professional culture. When it comes time to change teachers, he makes sure that the children from one teacher move to another who has a similar style of teaching to maintain consistency for them.

The most notable impression from the tour of the school was the very well equipped specialist facilities. There was the kind of sports hall we might expect from a private sports club in the UK, a dedicated music room with a wide variety of instruments, and specialised technology rooms for woodwork and textiles, with soldering irons set up for electronics for the older children. Until around age 11 the children study both ‘craft’ and textiles, and after this age they choose to specialise. Although the head said this often splits on gender lines, he noted that increasing numbers of girls are continuing with craft.

This school was renovated in 2007, and felt very new with large rooms with high ceilings over four floors. There was a lot of space, with a spare classroom as well as the specialist rooms, and the whole place was immaculate despite the melting snow on the ground outside.

Displays lined the corridors, and there were a few in the classrooms, but the walls felt much less cluttered than many UK schools. The contents of these displays were largely children’s work, but this seemed to consist of two types; either their art work, or annotated photographs of children engaged in activities such as crafts and sports. Most of these had been annotated by the children and were very neatly presented. Aside from a few posters of the stars and some maps, there were no ‘learning prompts’ on the walls as you might find in the UK, and no working walls with work in progress. It appeared that everything that was on the wall had been specifically created for that purpose; I did not see any extended written work displayed.

We visited several classrooms for our students to meet their classes and the teachers they will be working with for the next six weeks. I noticed that all the classrooms were locked from the inside, the head having to use a key for us to enter them. The children sat at traditional, but new, individual writing desks, and their teachers asked them to stand when we entered the classrooms. In some classrooms the desks were arranged individually in rows facing the front, in others they were in groups, whilst others had a mixture of layouts. It was not clear whether children chose where to sat, but in almost every class there was a clear gender divide with boys and girls grouped together.

The children were very polite and quiet, and they obviously enjoyed hearing our students introduce themselves and having the opportunity to ask them questions, which they did so when prompted by putting their hands up. All but the youngest children appeared to understand English quite well, and many could speak it well also.

As well as the classrooms we went into an ICT suite, in which children were sat using both computers and books at the same time. There were enough computers for a single class, and the head also showed us a cabinet of laptops. He explained he was aiming to develop their resources more into laptops and tablets or mobile technology and remove the suite, but that they are currently exploring the options for this. There were no computers for the children in the standard classrooms, but all rooms had a teacher computer, a projector and a visualiser, and many had some form of interactive white board. The teachers were obviously using the projectors and the visualizers regularly to share children’s work with the class.

The overall feel of the school was very relaxed, the teachers were happy to chat with us and interrupt their lessons for us to talk with the children. When entering the classes it felt like they were all taking part in lessons as a whole class, and it did not appear that they were working in groups or doing different things, but that the class focus was clearly on the same aspect of the lesson. This would fit with how the forty five minute lesson was explained to me, with a clear focus that the whole class attended to.

The school day had started around 8 am, and seemed to wrap up at about 2 pm, with some children staying behind to take part in what appeared to be an extra curricular club working with lego Mindstorms robots.

I had an interesting chat with the head, and observed a lesson, both of which I will blog about soon…

My blog posts from Finland are all available here.

Helsinki, 'Boot Camp' & Rovaniemi; Finland so far...

Helsinki, ‘Boot Camp’ & Rovaniemi; Finland so far…

Day 6 in Finland and it is time for an update on the trip so far….

We flew into Helsinki late on Tuesday night, and spent the following day exploring the city. We took in the frozen harbour, and walked out to stand on the ice sheet that forms the edge of the baltic sea at this time of year. A group of us also ventured out to an island in the harbour, aiming to visit what we thought was a museum in an old prison and turned out to be a prison still full of inmates and in full service…

Late that night we boarded a double decker sleeper train, and after some catching up in the train’s ‘bar car’ we settled down to attempt some sleep. Somehow our train was delayed by five hours in the night, which had the payoff of allowing us a stationary few hours to get some undisturbed sleep.

We stopped at Oulu only long enough to catch a bus, and head North to Pikku-Syöte, where our ‘boot camp’ began.

The students will be teaching in a number of schools in two locations for six weeks. Four are linked to the University of Oulu and teaching in two of their partner schools, the remaining eight are based in Rovaniemi further north and working in schools linked to the University of Lapland. This forms their official teaching practice for the second year of their BEd in Primary Education, and is assessed according to the English Teachers’ Standards.

The ‘boot camp’ is a chance for them to get to know each other and their tutors from Finland and the UK, and to begin to settle into Finnish culture. The first evening they completed a fun treasure hunt around the area to test their general knowledge of Finland and some initial Finnish language, which was organised by the tutor from the University of Oulu, Vesa-Matti. We then ventured into the forest to find a fire hut for a traditional get together fuelled by Finnish beers and sausages cooked over the fire. Finding the hut in sometimes waist deep snow was a challenge, no less so when it was time to find our way back in the dark…

Day two was a day of Skiing, and a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other better through teaching and learning from each other depending on our previous experience and skills (of which I had none). My complete lack of experience was helped by some truly excellent teaching from students Gabriel and Sophie, and I was once again reminded of how privileged I am in this job to work with such great people.

The evening saw us getting to grips with the Finnish Education system in a seminar with Vesa-Matti, followed by an evening social in a conference room complete with its own open fire and sauna. The Finns really like their saunas, and apparently this is often where business deals and meetings take place. The saunas are single sex but clothes are strictly prohibited, partly because the intense heat can vaporise any chlorine left in swimming costumes causing respiratory problems. The sauna is an egalitarian place, where everyone is equal and is a key social part of Finnish culture.

The following day we had a briefing about the technicalities of the teaching practice the students are soon to begin, and then travelled back to Oulu. At this point our group split, with four leaving for their accommodation at the University of Oulu, and the rest of us taking the train North to Rovaniemi. Since then we have been exploring the local areas, with the Rovaniemi group taking a long walk through a mountain covered in deep snow to a vantage point across this town on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

It is an interesting place, and very much feels like one of the last outposts of any size before the expanse of the frozen north. The large river is currently frozen over, thick enough that many locals are walking their dogs, and even riding bikes across the ice. Ice fishing seems to be popular, and whilst the rods used are smaller than for river fishing in the UK, this is made up for by the need to carry a large drill to make a hole in the ice.

Today we visited the University of Lapland, with the students registering and Miles (my colleague) and I meeting with the staff there to discuss how our work with them will develop in the coming year. Next we have two days visiting schools in Rovaniemi, before Miles and I travel back to Oulu to visit schools there with our other group of students.

Having explored the area, and had a taste of Finnish culture, I am looking forward to seeing first hand how the education system works, and will continue recording my thoughts here…

The photos of my trip to Finland are continuing to collect here…

My blog posts from Finland are all available here.

The Finnish Educational System - Vesa-Matti Sarenius

The Finnish Educational System – Vesa-Matti Sarenius

Sat in a seminar room with the view above, after a day skiing, we heard from Vesa-Matti from the University of Oulu about the Finnish education system.

The Finnish educational system is split into four levels; Basic, Secondary, Higher and Teacher education. Basic education is compulsory and starts at age 7. There are many pre schools from 6, usually attached to the schools the children then go to for the rest of their basic education. Everyone has 9 years basic compulsory education in two main stages, from 1-6 and 7-9.  Many of the features of their school system are influenced by the German system.

There is a national curriculum, drawn up by the National Board of Education and includes foals and assessment criteria for separate subjects. Work is underway for a new curriculum for 2015 which will be designed to last for ten years. This time teachers are quite involved with the development of the curriculum, although this was not so much the case before. Nevertheless, the curriculum is not designed by politicians.

From the core national curriculum, the municipalities define their curriculum, and each school then adapts this to their own local context. The teaching methods and the materials used to teach are left to the individual teachers to decide.

Compulsory core subjects are;

  • ‘Mother tongue’ (usually Finnish), literature and foreign languages (Swedish or Sami)
  • Environmental studies and civics
  • Religion or ethics, history, social studies
  • Mathematics, physics, chemistry
  • Biology, geography
  • Physical education, music, visual arts, crafts, home economics and pupil counselling

Grades 1-6 are taught by class teachers, and 7-9 are taught by subject specialists. 88% of these teachers are qualified, and all of them must be qualified to have a permanent position, the remaining 12% being largely student teachers training.

74% of teachers in basic (primary) education are women, Vesa-Matti explained he thought this was more cultural than values driven and also because the salaries are lower than in some other professions. The average salary for a basic education teacher would be 36,000 Euros with 25% paid in tax. This may sound high for earl career UK teachers, but the cost of living here is also very high, particularly for food.

The constitution of Finland sets out the objective of education as giving all citizens access to education. Even foreign students can access higher education for free.

Secondary education is non compulsory, but it is compulsory to apply or your unemployment payments will be cut. 94% starts secondary education and 88% graduate. If you do not get in to the three schools you apply for then you are excused attending. A hook that is often used is that food at school is free for everyone, and many institutions also pay for all the books needed for their courses.

There are two types of secondary schools; academic secondary schools and vocational schools. The ratio of students at these is about 50:50. There is some crossover in the courses available, with academic subjects available in vocational schools alongside courses in areas such as car mechanics.

The Higher education system has two routes; Universities and Polytechnics or Universities of Applied Sciences. There are 15 Universities and 25 Polytechnics. The numbers of both of these institutions are shrining, as are the numbers of students studying at this level overall.

All Finnish teachers need a Masters degree except for those in Kindergarten. Class teachers train at University, as do specialist teachers who train for a Masters in their subject but also have 2 or 3 other subjects. Pedagogic studies will usually be one of their minor subjects, but their qualification is in the pure subject not, for example a degree in Mathematics education as we might have in the UK.

Vesa-Matti explained that although he has been involved in some ‘education export’ projects, much of their success is down to culture. He said in some areas teaching is better in England, but the difference is that in Finland there is a culture of trust in teachers. There have been no school inspections since 1983. They still have inspectors, but only to deal with complaints. Even within schools, head teachers will not come to inspect the teaching of individual teachers. This trust extends to pupils and parents. Their teacher education system takes on the mission to create teachers who are worthy of that trust.

Despite this lack of ‘checking up’ on teachers, there is a strong culture of professional development, and they have 5 days a year set aside to work on this. To Vesa-Matti this is in some ways conceptually linked to the increase in salary as teachers gain experience; there is an expectation that they continue to develop their practice as their experience and salary grow year by year. The University education is also framed as welcoming all students into the professional and scientific community, a community that continues to develop the thinking around education and the development of curricula.

My blog posts from Finland are all available here.

Coding across the curriculum - Miles Berry @mberryNicky Morgan: Technology key to reducing teacher workloadFlexible learning space opening at Westfield Junior SchoolLearning to swim - Eylan Ezekiel #wherenext @EylanEzekiel Creating a sustainable education system - Stephen Heppell @stephenheppell #eduict2013Tim Rylands - Back to their future #bett2013

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