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.

Related posts:

Lessons observed in Finland
Finnish primary school visit 3
The Finnish Educational System - Vesa-Matti Sarenius

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