Our Finland Schools Tour Diary

Our Finland Schools Tour Diary

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 one of Catherine's photo diary from two school visits. You can read part two here, and part three here

Our first school visit was in Tampere. One of the first things I noticed was the long line of coat hooks in all the corridors of the school. Students also remove their shoes for many lessons. Some have "outside" and "inside" footwear, particularly in winter. Younger students have all breaks outside (regardless of the weather), and Years 7 - 9 must spend at least 2 lunch breaks per week outside. One of the students told me that if it went below -20 degrees Celsius, they might let them inside for breaks. Otherwise, they are expected to go outside - rain or snow! 

Student notices and the lunch menu are displayed on screens around the corridors. 

We were intrigued by these buttons outside the staffroom. Apparently, when a student needs to speak to a teacher, they press the button with the teacher's name. Inside the staffroom, that button lights up. No sound is made, however. I asked the teachers how they knew someone was at the door, and they said someone generally glances up and sees the light on and tells you. In other words, the child must wait patiently until the teacher is ready to see them, or until someone opens the door. The students are not allowed into the staffroom. This small gesture of respect spoke volumes to me!

I was amazed at the graffiti and dirt free lockers at the school (for Years 4 - 9), particularly when a Finnish teacher informed me that this was a particularly old school with quite dated decor and resources. There was no litter anywhere, or gum under desks. After lunch, two students used enormous mops to help clean the corridors. They are rostered on for this duty. Cleaners operated throughout the day alongside the staff and pupils, and were treated as an integral part of the school team.

The school library held many delights. Its beautifully organised, high-quality resources were plentiful and varied - print, digital, audio, games and newspapers in Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian and German. I particularly loved the special area for under 5s, where a class of tiny beanie-clad preschoolers were choosing books to borrow. Finns apparently borrow more books per capita than any other nation. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that the school library was also open to members of the public, and staffed by the local council. This is the case for all schools and universities in Finland, enabling all students and citizens access to a huge range of fiction and non-fiction texts. While the notion of shared libraries for schools and communities challenged our heightened child safety fears in Australia, it is certainly a very efficient way to maximise resources.

Finnish students from Years 1 - 9 receive a free meal for lunch, regardless of their parents' income. We joined the staff and students for lunch, and were given a local Tampere specialty - black sausage with mashed potato and lingonberry sauce (with a side serving of tomato and tinned peaches). Pat and I sat opposite the school principal, who loaded his plate with 3 sausages, which he urged us fervently to try. My desire to be polite overcame all else, and I managed to eat some of the famous sausage with the help of ample lingonberry jam per mouthful. Neither Pat or I will ever look at a sausage quite the same way again!

We arrived at the second school (Years 1 - 9) on a gorgeous, crisp morning. I was surprised at the high number of bikes in the racks and asked if this was standard. I was told it was perfectly normal except when it snowed, so students were forced to walk. Nearly all students walk to school (even the youngest students) as they all live locally. While some catch public transport, the Finnish mantra that "the best school is the nearest school" means students can walk with parents, alone or with other students to and from school. Apparently, very few students are driven to school, apart from the occasional child with special needs.

This school had its original building and a newer section. Areas for sport and play were designated for all ages, and, like the previous school, outside play during breaks was encouraged and enforced, particularly in the younger grades.

The top row shows the inside of the "old" part of the school, built with snowy weather in mind. We were fascinated by the indoor games provided for students, although they make perfect sense in a Finnish climate. The elegant fittings and decor of the "new" common areas of the school, pictured here, are designed for student use. They were in impeccable condition. The level of trust given to the students, and their corresponding responsible actions, were eons away from any school I have seen in Australia. Keep in mind this is not a private or exclusive school. This is a standard Finnish comprehensive school! 

Clearly, the school has many woodworking and technical resources. We dropped in on a Year 5 class using the circuit equipment and the welding guns. The teacher explained that while students were not allowed to operate large machinery like lathes until Year 7, they made regular use of the room's resources during their technology lessons.

These Year 5 students were making a lamp in technology, incorporating electronics (circuit-building and welding), woodwork (design and make the base of the lamp) and textiles (design and make the lampshade). The rigour and sophistication of the task for a Year 5 group impressed me! 

We also visited a Year 8 Textiles class. Students were finishing their pyjama shorts and were just about to start their hoodies. Early finishers were designing and creating dream catchers. I spoke to a group of boys (with the help of Tomo, a visiting vice principal, to translate) about how they felt about the subject. They were generally positive. When asked why, one fellow replied that "It was good to do things with your hands. You always need to know how to use your hands." We noticed looms in all technology rooms. These are an integral part of the Finnish technology curriculum, echoing historical traditions. Much of the artwork around the walls of the school (and others) involved the use of fabric.

We visited the world's cleanest art room - eerily uncluttered! The teacher spoke to us about his concerns about Finnish education, and the decline in the number of hours allocated to the arts. It seems some problems are universal.

Morning tea (or rather, coffee) was served in the comfortable staff room, with korvapuusti (cinnamon buns) and ginger biscuits. Teachers don't have long for morning breaks, often having a quick coffee before returning to class. At lunch, they can opt to eat at the cafeteria for a small fee, take the cafeteria meal back to the staffroom, or bring their own.

Many return from Finland obsessed with open plan classrooms and cool furniture. While I loved the funky furniture and some of the clever design features, open plan in all situations was not conveyed in the schools we saw. Rather, the emphasis seemed to be on flexible use of all resources for a specific purpose - at the discretion of the teacher. For example, in these two Year 1 classrooms, the same desks have been arranged differently (and can easily be moved again when needed). Pat and I were both very taken with the clever design of these chairs in the cafeteria, which tucked up under the table so their legs were off the floor ready for cleaning.

With so many people potentially crowded indoors, spaces had been created for quiet, individual work or private collaboration or conversation.

In this Year 9 chemistry lesson, students were using laptops to access a program that balanced chemical equations. Interestingly, ICT is not a "subject" in Finland. This doesn't mean technology isn't used; it's just expected to be incorporated into subjects if it "enhances the learning." Food for thought!