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A Visit to One of Finland's Famously Successful Schools

Monday morning in a Helsinki Grade 6 classroom.

By Crawford Kilian 13 Oct 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

On a sunny mid-September morning, I caught a tram across Helsinki to Ressu Comprehensive School. I'd been invited by my American friend Tim Walker to be a guest speaker for his Grade 6 class in the school's English stream. Finland's education system famously tops the world in many measures of student achievement. After following Finnish education from a great distance, I was eager to see what it was like right in the classroom.

Spoiler alert: it was exhilarating. But for the Finns, it wasn't good enough.

While I waited in the hall for Tim to collect me, I watched the kids coming in. They might have been in any elementary or middle school in the Lower Mainland -- whites, Asians, blacks, browns, some girls in hijabs, the guys toting skateboards or scooters, all as enslaved to their smartphones as Helsinki's adults.

Tim collected me and took me on a quick tour of the school, a repurposed hospital. One of his colleagues later told me it had taken damage in the Finnish-Soviet Winter War 75 years ago. Ressu is a slightly unusual school, offering the International Baccalaureate program and English immersion, and recruiting students who are 20 per cent expatriates.

We checked briefly into a textiles classroom and a cooking class (more boys than girls), and then met his Grade 6 class. He's been with the same kids since last year, and their rapport was obvious.

High-intensity brainstorming

At once we were in a high-intensity 45-minute class. As the kids took their seats, Tim read part of a story to them (from his iPod) and asked them to brainstorm questions for me, the visiting expert. We then had a greeting ceremony -- Tim has been encouraging development of social skills, which most Finnish kids aren't taught. So everyone shook hands and said hello.

Tim talked about their impending assignment, a persuasive essay; introduced me and brought the kids out of their seats into a circle to ask me questions. And they did: what kind of books did I write, and how much did I make? Oh, and how old was I?

I then did an exercise in organizing a persuasive essay on "Why Finland is the Greatest Country in the World." As ideas came to me, I jotted them down on a sheet of paper under a camera that was just a modern version of an old-fashioned opaque projector. I circled and numbered the ideas, showing how some would be the introduction, others the argument and counter-argument and some the conclusion.

It was rushed because we had only six or seven minutes before recess, but it went smoothly. I realized I'd been inserted into a very well-prepared, tightly scripted lesson plan -- far better organized than the way I'd have taught my own post-secondary students. Tim had had plenty of prep time to plan it.

Tim passed me along to a Grade 3 class in the Finnish-language stream taught by vice-principal Juha Säämänen. I didn't need to understand the language to recognize a real professional. But he was not a sage on the stage, demanding the kids' attention. His only real assertion of authority was occasionally to raise a finger to his lips when the class got too noisy. Silence promptly, but temporarily, fell.

Säämänen explained briefly to me that the class was currently dealing with a curriculum on co-operative work, levels of community and democracy. The class was working in groups on projects for an open house in a few days, including painting a big "mural" on huge sheets of paper out in the hallway. Even out of the classroom, the kids worked quietly and effectively. The teacher moved from group to group, explaining tasks, asking questions and keeping them on track.

Teaching each other

They did lots of independent work, reading alone or doing exercises in workbooks. The classroom had four clusters of tables, two laptops and an aquarium, but was basically austere. The kids at age seven or eight were very focused; no one was zoned out or distracted by others' activities. They often taught each other, as several did with a zither-like instrument that would be part of the performance at the open house.

As with Tim's class, I was struck by the serenity of the students. One very poised boy introduced himself in English: he was from Seattle, via California, now living in Helsinki. Another boy, speaking equally good English, was from Hyderabad.

Near the end of the class Säämänen pulled the class together, asking questions, assessing the kids' sense of the value of their group work. They answered conversationally, evidently saying what they thought.

That concluded 45 quiet, productive minutes; then they were out for another recess. The well-behaved kids I'd just been talking to ran amok with their schoolmates. While some just hung out with their buddies, most chased one another the length of the playground in some local form of tag.

They were also assimilating whatever they'd covered in their class, and would return to their next class refreshed and ready to learn some more. A couple of hundred children were on the playground with just two teachers keeping an eye on them, but no one notably misbehaved.

A great lunch and nothing wasted

Then to lunch. The dining area was laid out partly in a traditional school-cafeteria system, and partly in alcoves each with its own table. Students and teachers served themselves from the same courses (green salad, beets, a good turkey stew, rye crackers) and cleaned up after themselves.

The meal was free for the kids. Teachers paid a nominal fee and ate at their own table. Tim pointed out how little the kids wasted -- after scores of kids had handed in their plates, the compost bin had just a little in it. Trays, plates, utensils were handed in ready for the dishwasher.

After lunch I sat down with Leena Liusvaara, the school's new principal. (A few days later she successfully defended her PhD dissertation on school leadership.) She spoke frankly about local and national educational issues. One surprising point: despite their success for the last twenty years, Finland's schools are about to take a new direction.

"Finland is about to renew its curricula for the whole of comprehensive education, from Grades 1 to 9," she told me. "The high school curriculum is next in line, but the new lesson distribution for all subjects and the draft text for the new core curriculum is already available for schools. Next year schools will rewrite the subject curricula, and the new normative document will be in use from August 2016 onwards.

"There will be new aspects in teaching -- especially inquiry-based learning, finding the future tools for learning, learning and teaching technology, and collaboration. Participation will also be taken to the next level: it requires new approaches of participative collaboration with colleagues, students and parents, and within multi-professional working groups that serve the schools' purposes."

'Finnish schools have to improve'

"Future Schools is a project launched by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the National Board of Education," she went on. "The project is planned in co-operation with universities and economic life. It tries to find concrete steps and solutions to better leadership, staff development, student learning and school well-being.

"The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are not there to stay. Finnish schools have to improve, face our future needs and act accordingly. Student well-being has not been high in Finland, and the new participative learning environment is seen as one solution for this. Curriculum change, future-oriented thinking and staff development all walk hand in hand -- this might be the key factor to the next giant step to something better... but only if the steps are written out in a concrete way."

Dr. Liusvaara's comments put the morning's events in a new perspective. I'd just spent time in two classes any B.C. teacher would be ecstatic to have. The students were calm, alert, on task and working well whether independently, in small groups or as a class. At recess they burned off enough energy to threaten Finland's carbon emissions standards. At lunch they ate delicious, nutritious food -- at no cost to their families.

And it wasn't good enough.

Finland has swung between Swedish and Russian rule for centuries. It fought two wars with the Soviet Union and still kept its independence. That experience, plus its sub-Arctic climate, has created a tough, realistic people who enjoy their summers while planning for winter. After deciding an egalitarian school system was their best bet, they created it in the 1970s and '80s, step by step.

When that system beat the world in the PISA exams, the Finns were as surprised as anyone. That hadn't been the point. What they wanted was a country that could compete in a world of giants, and that meant getting the most out of every kid. If anything, the PISA scores annoyed many Finnish teachers who want universally competent graduates, not individual superstars.

The country is running into tough economic time. Nokia has been sold to Microsoft and then suffered layoffs. Other high-tech industries are scaling back too; even Rovio's Angry Birds aren't doing so well.

But Finland's response is to double down on its schools, not pass along its current industries' losses to the kids.

The world has had a decade to try to catch up to Finland's educational success. Meanwhile, the Finns -- with next winter's cold breath on their necks -- are putting on more speed. They're likely to lap the whole pack of us yet again.  [Tyee]

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