Lessons observed in Finland

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 16.21.14

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.

Related posts:

Second Finnish Primary School Visit
In discussion with a Finnish primary head teacher
A visit to a Finnish primary school


  1. Thank you for sharing what you saw. I appreciate the opportunity to express my view on this topic. I am very impressed by the Finnish education system. It promotes pupils’ independence by developing their thinking abilities. The fact that the children are not rushing to answer questions shows their maturity and ability to think deeply. Teachers use different teaching methods which is a sign of democratic education.

  2. Hi there,

    Thanks for sharing this with everyone. As a Secondary Teacher in the UK, I’m very interested in observing lessons either in Finland. Would you be able to let me know what the best way would be?


Leave a Reply

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

Creative Commons Licence

Oliver Quinlan: Learning, teaching, technology by Oliver Quinlan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.oliverquinlan.com.Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.oliverquinlan.com/blog