The Scoop on Finland
Welcome to "The Scoop on Finland" - our site devoted sharing our experiences learning about the education system in Finland. We'd like to thank the LEF for providing us fellowship funds to travel to Tampere through Learning Scoop to participate in this Intensive Principal Study Tour. Our hope in engaging in this work is to explore myriad aspects of school administration including pedagogical leadership and a learner-centered approach, school finance and human resources, collaboration with stakeholders, counseling and student welfare services, system thinking, and sustainability. Since each day of the tour will also include a visit to a different level Finnish school, we also hope to observe theory in action, and to speak with Finnish principals, teachers, and students about their experiences.
Our interest in Finnish education began years ago, after having read Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons. More recently, we shared the Sir Ken Robinson video How to Escape Education’s Death Valley with the Clarke and Diamond staff as part of the introduction to the middle school scheduling process and were reminded of some of our Finnish lessons. In the video, Ken Robinson references Finland’s success stating “Finland regularly comes out on top in math, science and reading… they don’t obsess about those disciplines; they have a very broad approach to education that includes humanities, physical education, the arts… if people are in trouble [Finnish educators] get to them quite quickly and help them and support them.” Hearing him compare the work being done in Finland to the work we are doing in the U.S. made us realize the time was right to learn more. As a district, we are embarking on an intensive look at diversity, equity and inclusion, and the Finnish schools are known for being grounded in equity. In addition, we are expanding our implementation of Project Based Learning and simultaneously working to create a new middle school schedule. Personalized learning and flexible schedules are also tenets of Finnish education. Our hope, therefore, is to explore these and other Finnish practices to glean practical application opportunities here in Lexington.
We will share our journey with you via this site. Each day we will summarize our learning with photos and key takeaways - we will add each new day to the top of the site so you do not need to scroll to the bottom each time you visit the page. We hope you enjoy!
Day 5: Systems Thinking, Conclusion & Celebratory Lunch
On our last day we visited another comprehensive school that served pre-primary through 6th grade. The school was called Karosen Koul and from the outside it looked - well... sort of like a prison! When we walked inside, however, we were shocked to find an open, modern, warm building where children clearly felt safe and loved. Although there was a sign asking all visitors to remove their shoes, we were allowed to keep ours on since they weren't too dirty from the elements. In Finland, taking your shoes off not only serves the purpose of making you feel comfortable and relaxed, but it ensures the floors stay clean in the bad weather!
One unique thing that we saw today was a Montessori section of the comprehensive school. It was explained to us that families can choose either the traditional education or the Montessori school from grades 1-6. While the curriculum is the same in both, the pedagogy is different. In the Montessori school students had a more flexible schedule. There were some blocks that were reserved for lessons and then others that were open. During the open blocks the students had the option to select subjects on which to work. They had loose schedules to follow and independent work to complete in each subject area. The teachers would spend a few weeks in a particular subject and then move to another area for the next few weeks. The open layout and classroom pods with the common areas in this school supported this kind of learning environment.
Common areas all had classrooms that opened up on them and created flexible workspaces for students where they could work independently or collaboratively
Once again, we saw the value and importance of textile education in the primary schools. In this school there was a woodworking shop as well as a soft textiles (sewing) room where students also learned how to use the loom
Many of the Finnish schools that we visited tended to have these displays in their hallways. Often times the stuffed animals were birds or foxes.
We had several opportunities to observe Physical Education classes and today was similar. This is a 3rd grade PE class, however what is interesting is that there is no PE teacher for this school (or other schools we visited) but rather the classroom teacher brings them to the gym. This seemed more like free play with gymnastics equipment which fits right in with the Finnish values of free play and exploration!
We visited a 4th grade music class where they were learning how to play the recorder! Nice to know that some things are universal. The class was working on playing "Puff the Magic Dragon" all together and they were quite successful after a few tries. The music teacher was actually a 1st grade teacher and another teacher was watching her class while she taught music. In Finland as mentioned above, there are not really speciality teachers for art, music or PE but rather either the classroom teachers teach it or another classroom teacher may fill in.
In this classroom, students were learning to read by practicing vocabulary words. What we noticed was that during the lesson, students were able to move around however they wanted. You can see one girl in the front lying across her chair and a couple of students standing. When they needed a motor break, they just took it, without interrupting the learning. One child even participated from a lounge-type chair in the back of the room. Once again, flexibility is valued, and the teacher trusts that students are working, even when they are not demonstrating "student posture."
We also had a concluding lecture on system thinking. We began with an activity where we posted initiatives that were either just beginning, in full swing, or going out of fashion in each of our countries. We then compared what we shared, showing that around the world, our values are VERY similar. Our lecturer also shared this slide - which shows the impact when one element of change implementation is missing. The struggles around implementing change are also universal.
Our day ended with a lunch at Henrik's, a quaint restaurant where we could chat with a few of our guides as well as our Learning Scoop organizer! We all got presented with certificates and made connections that we hope to keep up with in the future. We were even shown a brand new app - still very much in the development stage - that will help educators to access lessons from their colleagues around the globe. This has been an inspiring week and we have lots to think about, process, and bring back to our schools.
Day 4: Evening Celebrations
Thursday was Jennifer's birthday so we had to go out to celebrate! First it was recommended that we take in the views from the top of a building near our hotel which we did. Next we walked along the river to dinner and celebrated with dinner and a few rounds of BINGO... Yes BINGO. It was another rainy evening but that didn't stop us from exploring! Great evening, great friends!
Day 4: Cooperation and Collaboration
Here we are with our Learning Scoop classmate Tim, and our student tour guides from today - Declan and Annabella.
Our school visit this morning was to the Takahuhti School, a grades 1-6 school. We were looking forward to this visit, as it was the first time we would be able to see the young students at work - and the visit did not disappoint! Upon our arrival, students were outside in the school yard playing - for those who had arrived at 9 to begin classes, 9:45 was their first break time. We noticed that all of the children were dressed for the weather in snow pants, and jackets with hats and mittens. Finnish families always dress for the weather because they spend time outside every day, no matter what. When students came back inside, they quickly took off their winter gear - including their boots - and continued their lessons without shoes. We were told this is very common as they want children to feel comfortable while learning.
Summary and Key Takeaways
- Finns value cooperation and collaboration but see them as different things
- Cooperation - individuals exchanging relevant information and resources to support one another's individual goals
- Collaboration - individuals working together on a shared vision - with collaboration there is something new created
- Finnish education stresses both cooperation and collaboration over competition
- Home - school communication is valued and the school year is structured to include various meetings and electronic reports
- In the 8th and 9th grades students spend 1 week working at local businesses - these businesses then offer the students feedback
- Like in the U.S., the Finns believe all children have the right to be educated in their local school with their peers - therefore all students are included as much as possible. It is only when they are not able to meet a child's goals in a "normal" class are they separated into a "special" class.
We commented on how well even the youngest children did with dressing and undressing quickly and putting their shoes and jackets away. The teacher told us they work with the students on this skill from they time they are in pre-primary, so it is something they do quite well. We are learning that Finnish children are very independent and are expected to do many things on their own without adult help. Pictured here are all the shoes and jackets outside the classroom. All students will take off their shoes before entering their class.
Many schools in Finland may have different starting and ending times for students. For example at this school, students begin at 8:00, 9:00 or 10:00AM depending on their class. This can also change throughout the year. When we asked about parent schedules and how they feel about this, we learned that since Finnish children are much more independent at a younger age, they often will get themselves to and from school independently and be home alone at a very young age. The Finns feel that their country is very safe and that independence and taking responsibility for yourself are important cultural values.
We loved seeing all of the unique Finnish names. The teacher explained that just like in the U.S. there are many new names emerging - like Wisdom - and older, more traditional names - like Aino - are becoming popular once again.
In Finland there is not just an emphasis placed on the academic subjects, but on the visual and performing arts and student social/emotional health as well. The boots on the right were painted by the youngest grades and they were extremely well done! Under the boots is a video clip from a music class we observed. During the class the students sang a song from a popular Finnish children's movie and then they had the opportunity to try out some different musical instruments. On the left are posters that depicted rules the students made up and felt the school should uphold. These posters were made as part of a week where students studied and discussed appropriate behavior and socialization.
Students are taught to work together at a very young age. We visited a 2nd grade classroom where students were engaged in partner work with their reading. Students chose their partners and got right to work on the reading task as directed by the teacher. Collaboration and working together are hallmarks of the Finnish education system.
All students in Finland take woodworking and textiles all through the primary grades. Here we saw 3rd graders working on projects in the woodworking shop. They were working on bird houses and sauna scoops (this is the tool that is used to put water on the hot coals in a sauna - also what we would call a soup ladle)
Hot lunch is provided for free each day at every school. Students do not ever bring their own lunch in Finland. Each lunch includes a vegetable, a warm main dish, a drink, a water and break with a spread. We have learned that the Finns believe this also adds to their excellent education system. Students that are well fed can learn and concentrate better.
Students have a weekly PE class where their skills are evaluated. Here the teacher is watching all the children throw the ball at the square on the wall and marking their accuracy out of 10 tries. This is an informal way of assessing their physical development
This is a small special education classroom for students that may be struggling with reading or writing. Much like in our schools, students are pulled out for extra support but only when absolutely necessary. From what we have learned teachers will identify and work with student needs in the mainstream classroom to the greatest extent possible. Often times if a student is struggling, a special education teacher will go to the general classroom to asses and provide support. No testing or diagnosis is needed for this to occur. We did see one special education classroom with ten students ranging from grades 1 - 6 in this school. However, from what we understand this is not typical but was necessary in this school due to lack of space.
The Finnish alphabet has 29 letters due to the extra vowel sounds that many words include (shown at the end of the alphabet)
Day 3: School Leadership
Our guides during this trip have been fantastic and true experts on the cultural values and foundation that the Finnish education system are built on. Here we are on Day 3 with Iiris and Ossie, two university students studying education theory. They both have an understanding of the education system from a student's point of view but also from a global perspective as they have the opportunity to speak with leaders from all over the world about their education system. It has been fantastic learning from them about what makes the Finnish education system exceptionally unique. In the picture on the right is Tim, a school principal form Australia who, like us, is here learn about Finland's success in education.
Summary and Key Takeaways
Finnish leaders embrace a learner-centered approach because:
- it engages learners
- it promotes cooperation and participation
- it motivates students to take control over their learning
- it reveals individual needs for support
- it enables PBL and progress monitoring
As organizations, Finnish schools value:
- employees actively participating
- diversity in perspectives which lead to deeper understandings
- employees resolving conflicts in a healthy way as opposed to simply complying in order to avoid difficult conversations
- reflection on your own and others' thinking in order to achieve better decisions
- acknowledging mistakes as learning opportunities
"The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."
Today we visited the Rellu Upper Secondary School. The school serves students from ages 16-19 (and in some cases 15-20). It provides students general upper secondary education (as opposed to vocational upper secondary education), and accepts 185 students each year. We learned a lot from this visit! The principal spent hours with us, bringing us to multiple classes, presenting about her school structures, secondary schooling in Finland, and the role of school leadership. While ultimately, there were many takeaways, one of the most profound was in regards to the freedom, flexibility, and choice that the students enjoy.
The building itself boasted wide open hallways decorated with paintings of former principals - reminiscent of traditional Finnish schools from the 20's-30's.
They were very proud of their historic auditorium space, used for assemblies, matriculation ceremonies, and the second year's ball (similar to our prom).
The staff room was a warm and welcoming environment complete with a kitchen and unique and comfortable seating! The principal explained that she provides the staff with individualized coffee mugs so that they will not leave them around and if they do, they know who it belongs to! It is very common to have coffee offered to you throughout the day. The Finns drink A LOT of coffee which has certainly helped us manage our jet lag.
We visited a chemistry class in the International Baccalaureate school where all instruction is conducted in English. These first year students in the Pre IB program had three different substances and based on what happened when they dropped in water and then petrol, they had to make a determination about what the substance was. As is common in Finland, students worked together and were expected to support and question one another.
In a mathematics class we saw the teacher providing real world examples of where the learned math skills would be used. We were also struck by how language-based the math lesson was. The teacher spent quite a bit of time explaining why these skills were important before allowing students the opportunity to practice. As we learned yesterday, Finns believe that education should prepare students to develop problem solving skills by exposing them to real world application. The context provided in this class certainly seemed aimed towards that goal. This class was a part of the general studies school and therefore the instruction was provided in Finnish.
We also visited a History class int he IB program where students were just beginning to discuss the Cold War. In this group, the students were eager to share with us and many explained they enjoyed that class because they had the opportunity to discuss topics with one another.
We also enjoyed the History class because many of the students had either traveled to or lived in other countries including the US, Brazil and Mexico. We were able to engage in really interesting conversations about the differences in Finnish and American education and culture in general.
We enjoyed coffee and conversation with the principal who shared so much! We were also able to offer her some advice because she is about to enter a large building project and renovation!
There were quite a few take aways from this morning's upper school visit:
- Much of the high school curriculum is student driven.
- There 5 "study periods" in a school year. In each period, students can choose their courses.
- In order to graduate, students have to have taken at least 75 different courses (over 3-4 years) and they will take matriculation exams in at least 4 areas of study. Students can choose which areas they would like to pursue but at least one of them has to be of the Finnish language. Most students take at least 5-6 exams and some will take even more if they are very motivated.
- If the school doesn't offer a course of study, a student may choose to take that course at another local high school so students are coming and going at will. Because students are only there because they want to be there, accountability or attendance is not an issue in Finland.
- Homework is assigned at the high school level, but students are encouraged to have a healthy lifestyle outside of school and after 1 or 2 hours of homework, the Principal stated that she counseled students to stop. This forces them to prioritize their preferred areas of study.
Day 2 Evening - Fun in Tampere!
For dinner we explored the city a bit and came across a beautiful location on the river Tammerkoski. They have already put out holiday lights which were a beautiful addition to the little square on the waterfront. We also had the opportunity to sit in a little pub where there was a live jazz band. We were told that Finland is the safest country in the world and so we felt very comfortable exploring new streets and trying out new venues. Tampere truly is charming!
We have noticed that restaurants here in Tampere have not been at all crowded, but empty in fact. Today we learned that most Finns enjoy dinner at home except on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Wednesdays are a big night to go out because it is mid week and considered "little Saturday". Regardless we have been pleasantly surprised with the delicious food here. We have tried to be adventurous enjoying reindeer, lingonberries, pickled vegetables and a variety of sausages!
The Finnish language has very long words and many vowel sounds however we have learned that there are not a lot of vocabulary words but rather lots of words combined to make other words. For example it was explained to us that the word for Acetone (nail polish remover) in Finnish is made up of the following words: nail polish take off substance, all combined into one word. This explains why these words are so long! Also prepositions are added into words as well.
We took a walk and ventured further from our hotel after dinner. The city is already decorated with lights for Christmas and we figured they don't have to wait until Halloween and Thanksgiving are over!
Day 2: Curriculum and Assessment in the Finnish Basic Education
The weather in Finland today is not ideal.... however what we have learned from the Finns is that they are always dressed for the weather and there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. So we have taken measures to dress appropriately!
Today we discussed the Finnish National Curriculum. As we learned yesterday, Finns value trusting relationships, and in that spirit they were proud to share the inclusive process used to adopt the national core. As was explained to us, when discussions were held about a national curriculum, all stakeholders were provided the opportunity to offer feedback. They felt it was most important that the teachers', guardians' and students' voices were reflected int he resulting document. They were also proud to explain to us that although the general curriculum objectives are nationalized, it is the municipalities and ultimately the teachers in each classroom that select the curriculum materials and determine how to address each objective from a pedagogical lens.
Major Changes in the curriculum included:
- Transversal Competencies (see photo)
- Phenomenon - Based Learning & Subject Integration
- More versatile teaching and learning methods
- Increased physical activity
- Use of digital learning methods
- Assessment as learning
- Participation, Involvement
Day 2: Summary and Key Takeaways:
In 2016 the 5th version of the Finnish National Core Curriculum was published. The key objectives of this curriculum reform were to focus on the following:
- Growth towards humanity and responsible citizenship
- Necessary knowledge and skills
- Promoting education, equality, and lifelong learning
- Sustainable future as an objective, global responsibility
- More participatory, physically active, creative and linguistically enriched schools and integrated teaching and learning
"The aim of pupil assessment is to guide and encourage learning and to develop the pupil's capability for self-assessment. The emphasis is on assessment that promotes learning."
Finnish National Board of Education
During curriculum reform many asked, "why reform a well-functioning system?" The answer is to increase the impact of globalization and the challenges for a sustainable future. Finland sees that the skills and competencies needed in working life have changed and students need new skills. In order to accomplish this content and pedagogy need to be continuously reviewed and renewed:
- In order to Increase curiosity: We must allow questioning
- In order to develop problem solving skills: We must link school knowledge to real life problems and encourage students to work together to seek solutions
- In order to Increase understanding: We must combine knowledge and skills from different subjects
- In order to raise citizens who will contribute to society: We must promote inclusiveness and participation and give opportunities to make a difference and facilitate positive critical thinking.
Tiers of Support
We also discussed the tiers of support that are available to students in Finland. Similar to our RTI pyramid, the majority of students in Finland are support with best practices in everyday teaching - they refer to this as general support. When students need a bit more, they are moved into what is called intensified support. The interesting thing with this level of support is that it can be provided by a special educator even without any sort of formal testing or diagnosis. This support is usually provided within the classroom, although occasionally a student may be moved to a different group in order to receive this level of support. Finns aim for inclusion as much as possible. At the top of the pyramid is what is called Special Support. This is typically a small group of students who require more targeted support and/or planning.
Grading in Finland
We also discussed grading in Finland. Up through grade 5, students only receive "verbal" grades which means they are given a narrative of some sort. Beginning in grade 6, however, students receive a numerical grade ranging from 4 (failing) to 10 (excelling). The photo on the right shows what each level represents - note that the word "grades" on the right of the pyramid represents the student's score, not their grade level. In other words, if a student receives a grade of 5 or 6, that generally means they have demonstrated that they can understand and/or remember ideas or concepts, whereas if a student receives a grade of 9 or 10, that means they can evaluate an idea or concept and/or they can produce a new or original work that demonstrates understanding of a learned concept.
A School Visit: FISTA - Finnish International School of Tampere
Our school visit today was to FISTA, an international school. The principal there explained to us that the only difference between a regular Finnish school and this international school was that in this school, there are some students who are native speakers of a language other than Finnish. In addition, at FISTA, lessons are taught in English since the basic understanding is that most students are either staying in Finland only temporarily, or that they may travel outside of Finland often. We were reminded that the Finnish language is not spoken anywhere else and so learning English as well as other World Languages is a priority for Finns.
A list of novels that a 7th grade class had selected - some familiar titles here!
As a method of using language in a variety of ways, students were to be creating book reports that contained a creative, written, and oral component.
Students in 7th grade English enjoyed learning about puns and even had the opportunity to try out some rather spicy British slang!
In all Finnish schools, students are taught religion. The majority religion in Finland is Evangelical Lutheran. If there are four or morse students of a particular religion other than this, it is the school's responsibility to provide this religious class for students. If there are not enough students or if a student doesn't identify with a religion, they take an ethics class.
Although we didn't get to observe an ethics class, we did see some student work from ethics posted on the wall. We found this sample particularly humorous, especially on this, our mid-term election day in the U.S. The assignment was for students to create their own religion, and this student decided to create a religion where Donald Trump was God - can you even imagine??
We also observed an upper school Biology class today. Students were learning ecosystems and the relationship between animals and how that may affect ecosystems. Students were also tasked with putting on gloves and examining a dead crow - hands on learning at its best! My favorite part was when the teacher shown here took three dead crows out of an IKEA bag in the back of the room! She had explained that the crows are used for training hunting dogs but come in handy for Biology class as well! hmmmm - well the students were certainly engaged in their observations!
Day 1: Introduction to the Finnish Education System
A BIG takeaway from our morning lecture - there are no dead ends in Finnish education! Even if you choose one path, you can always change your mind later on and pursue something different - and - it's always FREE!!!
Day 1 Summary and Takeaways
- The Finnish Education system is based on trust, well-being and equity.
- Education and health care are free for all Finnish people and are considered part of their basic needs. Higher education is free for all citizens.
- The results of the PISA exam are NOT what drives the education policy. Finnish education values different ideals
- The Finnish culture values balance, down time and time with family
- Contrary to popular belief, Finland doesn't spend more than other countries on education. They are simply more efficient.
- School environment matters, but it is more important what you do within the school walls.
- There is no teacher evaluation system. If a teacher is struggling, they are asked "What support do you need?"
- The teaching profession is highly regarded in Finland. Only 5-10% of applicants get to actually train as teachers
- Finnish educators don't believe their learning is ever complete. They are life long learners.
7 Characteristics of the Finnish Education System
Equality and equity
Less is more
Child centered, focus on well being
Highly educated teaching personnel, high teacher autonomy
Trust at every level
No standardized national tests
Cooperation instead of competition
A great resource was shared today - it is the work of Timothy Walker, a former Massachusetts teacher who moved to Finland and began teaching.
You can reference his blog here: Timothy Walker - Taught by Finland
Typical schedules in Finland include recess breaks after every 1 or 2 classroom periods with a typical guideline of a 15 minutes recess for every 45 minutes of instruction. They highly value time to relax and spend many hours outdoors. In fact, in the preprimary grades some classes spend the entire day outside, regardless of the weather. The overall school day of Finnish students is also much shorter than in the U.S. This is because one of the tenets of their system is the belief that "less is more." There is a national core curriculum that all schools follow, but within that, each school and teacher has incredible autonomy. Within that curriculum are courses in math, Finnish, English and Swedish and about 1/3 of a student's lessons will include "practical and artistic" subjects like cooking, cleaning, laundry, art, crafts, and PE. Students also study religion - and there are many different religions taught, depending upon the religions of the students that attend a particular school. If a student is not religious, they study ethics instead.
Students study their own language: Finnish. Here 7th graders were studying different grammatical uses of very similar Finnish words. We learned some basic Finnish words today: Hello (Hei or Moi), Good bye (Hei Hei) and Thank you (Kiitos)
Almost all students are included in Finnish classes and so differentiation is a regular part of teachers' lessons. In a math class that we visited, the teacher showed us the text she uses, which includes both accelerated and modified lessons. There was even a second version of the text for students with language based challenges that page-for-page included the same information but with built-in accommodations for students who need them. So simple - yet so brilliant!
We got to see a special education classroom in Finland which was a separate classroom for more severe disabilities. However, in Finland there are not separate schools for special education, but each school may have separate classroom for more severe disabilities. All other students are included in the main stream classrooms. When teachers have concerns that a student is struggling, a special education teacher may come into the class to help them. No special diagnosis is needed for a special education teacher to come into a classroom.
All students in Finland also learn English and Swedish. English is taught beginning at a very early age. Swedish is taught beginning in 6th grade.
Students in Finland love Kahoot too! Here is an English class where they were learning vocabulary. Students were asked to take out their own phones to participate in the Kahoot game.
We had incredible student guides at our first school visit. These students were 9th graders and had excellent English skills and answered all our our questions as they showed us around their school.
November 4th-5th - Traveling to Finland
Our journey began in a very unexpected way on November 4th. Since our original flight had been cancelled, we were not assigned seats next to one another on our new flights. So when we arrived to Logan, we asked if we could change our assignments to sit together. We were told there that the only seats that could be changed were on the short flight from Boston to JFK. To our surprise when we stepped on board not only had we been assigned seats next to each other, but we had also been upgraded to business class! If only that flight were longer than 45 minutes...
When we landed in Helsinki at 4:00 PM the sun was setting... beautiful sunset but not much daylight here!
After many modes of transportation, including trains, buses, airplanes and taxis we finally made it to our hotel - The Lapland Hotel. After checking in we enjoyed dinner (it was morning at home, but when you are traveling you gotta go with it!) For dinner we decided to enjoy the local fare and had burgers that included cold smoked reindeer (no joke) It was delicious! Please excuse or appearance in this photo, this was after a full 24 hours of traveling!