A visit to two Finnish high schools

A visit to two Finnish high schools

During a visit to Tampereen lyseon lukio and Ylöjärven lukio, two upper secondary schools in Finland, Catherine Black was surprised and delighted by the many differences (and the odd similarity) between Australian and Finnish schools.

In September, Patricia Hipwell and Catherine Black travelled to Finland as part of a Teacher Professional Development Study Tour. The purpose of the trip was to see how Finland has consistently maintained its position near the top of the PISA scale for education.

Below is part two of Catherine's photo diary. You can read part one here and part three here.

Tampereen lyseon lukio
On another beautiful sunny Finnish day, we visited Tampereen lyseon lukio - an upper secondary school. While the previous schools visited had been comprehensive schools for 7 - 16-year-olds, this school catered for 16 - 19-year-olds. Upper secondary schools in Finland can be general high schools, vocational high schools or specialist high schools (with a focus on a particular area like music or science, for example).

Tampereen lyseon lukio is a combination of three types of high school.

Tampereen lyseon lukio, which has 560 students aged 16 to 19, is a combination of three types of high schools - a general high school, a European Studies specialist high school and an International Baccalaureate school. 

Entrance to upper secondary schools is based on school reports from comprehensive school. The Finnish system is said to contain "no dead ends," meaning students who chose to go to a vocational upper secondary school, for example, are not locked into attending a vocational university, and vice versa. Unlike some other European countries, where students are cemented into a set study and career pathway during school, Finnish adolescents are provided the opportunities to switch between systems or combine elements of both.

Finnish art rooms are not starkly minimalist.

I was relieved to see all Finnish art rooms were not starkly minimalist! One of the students told me "The art teacher is really nice. She lets us come in here even if we do not do Art as a subject." 

The cool science clock.

Pat came across this cool clock in a science classroom. Can you make the link between the clock and the table of elements?

Finnish school work spaces.

Despite the popular view among many educationalists that the Finns are huge advocates of open learning spaces, our observations proved somewhat more complex. Firstly, every school we visited had students in standard sized rooms, using desks and chairs. When students were required to use an open space, such as those seen here, furniture and other structures were provided to give students the chance to escape from the distraction and noise of others to work in pairs or groups, or to study alone. The furniture seemed to be intended to make the most efficient use of the space available for the intended educational purpose. 

There seems to be an odd belief by some that the furniture itself holds some magical key to student behaviour or learning, or that it corresponds with a particular educational philosophy. Having seen it being used on its home turf, I suspect many may have missed the point.

Finnish staff rooms.

We were welcomed into another civilised staffroom, which exuded the aura of a tidy, stylish studio apartment shared with productive, like-minded house-mates.

Finnish students geography lesson

In a geography lesson, the teacher did a quick formative assessment activity where she asked students to record what they remembered of the world map. Here were a few of their responses.

By a show of hands, she quickly worked out that most students had been able to include the major continents, and were much more likely to have correctly included the names and positions of countries around their own. She went on to make the point that maps are not purely factual texts, but need to be critically examined in light of their creator, their purpose and their audience (as well as allowing for their conversion from globe to two dimensions). She then showed the students a number of examples of maps created by winners of wars, etc., which skewed the territory and positions of places depending on their allegiance.

Kintulammi Forest

In the evening Lakeland Trails took us on a lovely short hike through the forest at Kintulammi, about 20km from Tampere. After cooking over an open fire as we watched the sun set over the lake, we retired to a log cabin for dinner. 

Unsurprisingly, the forest plays a huge role in the Finnish psyche (It covers 75% of the country, after all). "Everyman's rights" allow people to access forest and pick berries and mushrooms, even on private land, as long as they are not disturbing the environment or someone's property or crops. Children are taught from an early age how to tell various mushrooms and berries apart, and outdoor survival and orienteering are part of the curriculum. Ecological responsibility is taken for granted. Many Finns have holiday huts near lakes for summer breaks away from the fast pace of modern technology (with wood fired saunas, of course).

Ylöjärven lukio

On day four, we visited Ylöjärven lukio (upper secondary school) in Ylojarvi, just outside Tempere. Our guide was teacher, trainer and lecturer Sanna Leinonen, who taught at the school while running her own professional development business.

This upper secondary school had been designed in consultation with teachers from planning through to construction. In a small town outside Tampere, the school contains an academic (general) high school and a vocational campus. They also have a strong focus on entrepreneurial studies.

Early Childhood

For those studying early childhood at vocational high school, this room was a "nest," to replicate the conditions of a real home one might be in with a baby. We were all especially taken with the model babies to practise with! 

Interestingly, all vocational upper secondary students must complete a basic course in first aid, child-rearing and aged care - all perceived as basic life skills.

Unusally Finnish items

Here are some things you are unlikely to find in an Australian high school - a stuffed badger or a rack for motorcycle helmets and jackets! For those who claim my love for all things Finnish is unconditional - here's proof of two things I'd be quite happy to keep away from our children.

Universal staffroom signs

By now we had become accustomed to the beautifully appointed staffrooms with their tasteful decor, stylish furniture and spaces for collaboration or quiet, private work. I was amused (and strangely comforted) by these signs, however, which prove that some things are the same all over the world. These signs are urging colleagues to i) pack the dishwasher and turn it on and ii) not knick the newspaper and take it out of the staffroom! 


Snow! Needless to say, this unexpected Autumn flurry of snow was a source of great excitement for we Australians (the New Zealanders weren't quite so enthusiastic).

Like the students, we were given lunch at the school. Our lunch included one of my favourite Finnish delicacies - the cinnamon bun or "korva pullapulla"/ "korva puusti" - which roughly translates to something about a slapped ear. I took this photo to remember. 

Little indications of trust, civility and innovation were sprinkled about the place.

Little indications of trust, civility and innovation were sprinkled about the place. Unlike many of our schools, where public decoration or furniture, or anything accessible to students, is bolted down or out of reach, little touches of beauty like pot plants on window sills, small artwork and sculpture adorned classrooms and hallways. Comfortable, soft furnishings for students were provided and used respectfully. Lockers allowing students to hang their clothing as well as store their books were provided (and remained in impeccable condition). The homely nature of the rooms and corridors was refreshing in an institution, and it was affirming to see that the trust accorded to students had not been abused. Even the set-up of the toilets was thoughtful given the climate, with space to unload your coats and gear before entering the cubicle, rather than being forced to cram it all in with you or leave it outside. Again, toilets were impeccably clean. Impossible or aspirational in Australian high schools?

Students are studying Swedish, Finland's second national language.

In this class, students are studying Swedish, Finland's second national language. Here, they are actually speaking Swedish to students whose first language is Swedish from a sister school in Finland. 5.5% of Finns have Swedish as a first language, and all Finns learn Swedish at school. This means that any of the students speaking to us in English were fluent in at least three languages, which I found seriously impressive, but they seemed to shrug off as no big deal. In Finland, it's normal. Everyone studies their "mother-tongue," Finnish, the second language of Finland, Swedish, and English. Many of the students we met also studied other languages such as German, Russian or Chinese. 

Just as we had learned from some Icelandic teachers we met at a conference in 2015, there is no word for "please" in Finnish (or Icelandic). The polite nature of the request is indicated by tone. One of our tour guides said it was extremely important for Finnish business-people and tourism operators to realise the necessity to add "please" when dealing with English speakers so as not to appear rude, ungrateful or disrespectful!


We chatted to Taru, a teacher of mother-tongue and literature, about being a teacher in Finland. As many know, acceptance into teaching at university is hotly contested, such that only the top 1% of applicants make it. They then have to gain a 5 year master's degree to be able to teach. Their pay is OK, but not brilliant. When we looked at Taru's timetable (pictured), we could see that her face to face day went from 8:15 am until 4 pm, which Taru said was fairly standard for a general high school teacher. During the week, she had spare periods, some of which were spent helping individual students. Meetings, Taru said, were usually before school, about once a fortnight with her team. Each staff member was part of a different team, depending on their expertise and interest. 

So what's the big attraction to teaching for the Finnish? When we asked the teachers we met, the answers seemed to boil down to:

  • we love teaching/students (and we have the freedom to actually teach)
  • the autonomy and associated trust and potential for creativity within the profession

While the Finnish teachers we met felt time pressure, stress, and had concerns about their students, it seemed to me that they were worrying about the RIGHT THINGS. In other words, they were concerned about how they could adjust their teaching to meet the needs of a certain child, or the best way to convey a difficult concept, or the poor behaviour or mental state of one or more of their students. They weren't overloaded with bureaucratic forms and systems or 14 different professional development projects or agendas with their associated acronyms. Instead of spending their time out of classrooms typing up statements justifying their practices for their next inspection or interview, they were in the class teaching, or planning to teach! What a (sadly) novel concept!