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.

Related posts:

Lessons observed in Finland
Second Finnish Primary School Visit
Helsinki, Boot Camp & Rovaniemi; Finland so far...

1 Comment

  1. It sounds like your trip to Finland is a truly fascinating and affecting experience Oliver. I am very interested to find out more about the language and literacy learning in the pre-schools and primary schools there. Robin Alexander has said that there is an emphasis on oracy and high quality dialogue in Finnish pre-schools. He also talked about the ‘culture of the book’in Finland and Finnish children ‘learning to read’ rather than being ‘taught to read’. I am looking forward to your next blog and hope you can give some insight into this.

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