Lessons from Finland – A culture shock by @jonnyade

worked for two years as a teacher in England before moving to Finland. I worked in a good school. I had supportive colleagues, especially the experienced subject leaders who team-taught with me, and my partners in my year group. I worked with a great bunch of kids and felt I was making a difference with them. The head had enough faith in me to give me a subject leadership in my second year in teaching. I felt supported and I enjoyed my work. I didn’t want to leave, but the pull of ‘home’ for my Finnish wife was too strong, especially after having our first child and she was pregnant with the second, so I relented. I’ve been away from England for eight years now. I will never move back.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by John Hart and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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My first post in Finland was at a city school in Helsinki. The vast majority of schools in Finland are the responsibility of the ‘kaupunki’ (city or town) although now I work in one of the few state schools that are directly funded by the Finnish government. To begin to convey what makes schools in Finland different I thought I’d start with a series of anecdotes and observations from my own early experience. 

These observations are by no means representative of all ‘Schools in Finland’- indeed my current school is quite different from the last one. One thing that bugs me about people writing about ‘Schools in Finland’ is that sweeping statements are made such as ‘Schools in Finland don’t set homework’. In time, in a future post, I’ll get to that particular myth. Statements like these are based upon fairly limited experience or validating some other pre-conceived idea or agenda; the aforementioned Mr. Moore is guilty of this in his film. Having called him out on it I’ll probably go and do it myself now, but hey-ho, lets go.

1. The Staff Photo

I’m not sure of the exact timeframe of this, but it’s something that sticks in my memory. Early in the first year of teaching in Finland, it was time to take the staff photo. The teachers assembled together, we were moved about by the photographer, we struck our poses (one teacher lying across the floor in front ‘Michael Jackson on the cover of Thriller’ style). The photos were taken. It probably took 15 minutes. For that time not a single child in the school was supervised by an adult. When I was told about the timing for the photo I replied that I had a lesson then. I was told that many people did. ‘But who’s going to look after the kids?’ I asked (Mine were grade 2- aged 8). 

‘No-one, just leave them, they’ll be alright’ came the reply. And they were.

2. Security

Anyone could walk into that school from the street. The doors aren’t locked. There is no reception. No ‘Visitor’ name tags. No signing in or out. Nothing. You can waltz right in there.

3. Supply Teachers

Some of those people walking in off the street might just be going to substitute a teacher. Supply (or substitute) teachers in Finland don’t have to have any teaching qualification (there, I did it- my own sweeping statement. I’d love for someone to prove me wrong). Although it’s worth noting that many student teachers work as substitutes and they may have already had several years more formal training than I did when I was first let loose on my own class as an NQT. On the other hand someone I worked with sent in their mum to cover for them.

4. Assemblies

In the schools I have worked in, and to my knowledge this applies to other schools here, assemblies are few and far between. When they do happen don’t expect people to be quiet when they are coming in or even while it is going on. Looking back on this, it seems trivial now, but this did shock me. Having filed into a couple of assemblies a week in silence throughout my own schooling  in England (and being hoiked out of line when caught talking), I felt very uncomfortable to have an adult talking at the front while the older kids were openly having their own conversations. Of course we spoke to each other in hushed tones in secondary school in England but the closest we got to making overtly audible noise during assembly was synchronising our watches to beep at different times during proceedings to provide an almost constant backdrop of beeping. Heady days.

5. Forms & Trips

In the schools I’ve worked in there is no such thing as a risk assessment form (at least I’m not required to fill one in for trips). The chemistry teacher in my school, who is also from England, has never had to fill in a COSHH form. If I wanted to go on a trip, there was a cover-all permission given at the beginning of the school year for ‘local’ trips within the metropolitan area.

6.Start and Finish Times

In a city school, these are usually different for the kids for different days of the week. Indeed there might be half the class coming at 8:00 and the other half coming at 9:00 and then the earlier arrivers leave an hour before the later ones. In my first week of teaching in Finland I was told to tell the parents that school ended at 12:00 every day for that week. Just because. Last year I finished teaching my last class at 11:10 on a Friday (this year I have to slog on until 12:45 with my group of 5 kids from a class of 11). When you’re done teaching you are not required or expected to be at school. 

7. Extra-curricular activities

Teachers are (again generally) not involved in these. I don’t know of a qualified teacher who takes an after-school club, but I am aware that it can happen. I actually wanted to when I first came to Finland but I was told it would be too expensive to pay me the overtime and it was illegal for me to do it for free.

8.Staff Recreation

There is actually a part of the school’s budget devoted to this. The christmas parties (pikkujoulut) are catered for (including alcohol), trips are organised, events are planned and paid for. All at the taxpayer’s expense. At the last staff meeting I went to we were told the school would be matching our money to buy tickets for sporting, music or cultural events- if the ticket is €50, they’ll pay €25.

I could go on, more things keep popping into my head as I write, but I should probably stop now. Now, maybe I’m wrong to generalise but I couldn’t imagine a single one of these scenarios being acceptable in England. Some of you might not want them to be acceptable, you may perceive them as undesirable, rude or even negligent. Some of them might well happen where you are, despite, at the very least, being frowned upon and at the more serious end possibly being cause for litigation. My question is why?

None of this is detrimental to outcomes for children in Finland, in fact I would argue that they are a part of the pervading feeling of trust which underpins the whole system. The parents respect and trust the teachers (on the whole – again I have to be mindful of sweeping generalisations) and don’t mind taxpayer’s money being spent on teachers’ wellbeing and recreation. The teachers trust the kids not to harm each other if they’re not in the room (if it’s going to happen, and it will, is it somehow better or worse if an adult is or isn’t present?). Society is trusted to not come in and kidnap or harm the students (or steal the resources) even following three school shootings in the last thirty years, all of which were perpetrated by students who attended that school or college. Young adults are allowed to talk when filing into an assembly hall, just like adults are in the ‘real world’ and the onus is on the adult at the front to provide them with something worth listening to. 

Think about the anecdotes and observations above and how they go against the grain (and even against the law) of how things are done elsewhere. Think about what the Daily Mail would say if tax-payer’s money was being spent to pay teachers’ bar bills. How would the parents at your school react if they were told that school would finish at 12 every day this week? I chose to start by sharing these ‘culture shocks’ because they are relatively trivial. If it’s difficult to imagine these becoming acceptable, how difficult will it be to get the really important stuff- like trusting teachers to know how to best run schools and teach children- accepted? Most articles or blog posts about why education in Finland is successful focus on other areas, which I will get to in future posts. I thought it important to start here because to understand education in Finland, you need to first understand the sphere in which it exists because many of the things that do make it successful just won’t work in other countries- the whole ethos of the society would need to change.

It’s important to consider this restriction because there is now this idea that Finland’s way of ‘doing education’ can be transplanted into another country. Policy makers and now film makers come from around the world to find the magic formula. The silver bullet. The quick fix. Read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, ‘Finnish Lessons’; it’s taken 40 years for Finland to get to where it is now. It didn’t happen here by accident. Indeed, professor Sahlberg warns; ‘British politicians and policymakers should be careful when borrowing education ideas from other countries, be they Singapore, Canada or Finland. What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Policymakers should also beware of the myths about these systems and what has made them successful.’ 

The thing is, the Finnish education system doesn’t exist in a bubble; the conditions are right in Finnish society and the national psyche for a system such as this one- which as I said, is underpinned by innate trust, to flourish. However, some ‘Finnish Lessons’ can be learned. In my next post I’ll be starting to delve into what they are.

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