Why Finland Is Breaking Down Barriers – Literally!

Reading time: 4

Hollie Jones

Hollie Jones is a History teacher, currently working in Birmingham. Prior to earning her PGDipEd from the University of Birmingham in 2016, she worked in a range of schools from inner city comprehensives in some of the most deprived areas of the Midlands, to exclusive...
Read more about Hollie Jones

Should we abolish walls and open up learning?

Daring to defy educational norms, Finland are blazing a new trail by removing another perceived barrier to academic flourishing – but this time it’s a physical one!

Yes, those canny Finns are at it again. In a major redesign plan involving 4,800 schools, the fixed walls between classrooms are being brought down, with moveable partitions being used for private or smaller group work.

Similarly, traditional classroom furniture such as teacher desks, rows of tables, and plastic chairs are being replaced with cushions, sofas and group collaboration spaces. These aren’t the only barriers being eliminated. Divisions between year groups and subjects are rapidly being removed in favour of a more seamless, multi-disciplinary approach to schooling known as phenomenon-based learning, which too favours maximum collaboration between students.

Finland has long been known as one of the greatest educational masters in Europe and the wider world, a fact made more intriguing by their refusal to conform to educational ‘norms’.

In stark contrast to many education systems, particularly those in the UK and USA, when it comes to schooling less is more. Finnish children start school at age 7 and their days are shorter, beginning between 9-9.45 and finishing as early as 2.45. There are breaks of 10-20 minutes between lessons, with teachers teaching for 4 hours or less per day in order to maximise the quality of their lessons as well as the delivery.

Students are not grouped by ability, and while homework and assessments do exist, they are few and far between, and certainly not the focus of the educating process. In spite of, or perhaps because of this system, Finland’s routinely excels far beyond most of its European peers in the maths, reading and science.

Yet time and again those at the helm of Britain’s crippled education system look to these shining success stories and continue to do the opposite! (Consider the unmanageable marking policies, extended school days, and content heavy examinations) Instead, shouldn’t we be looking to ‘magpie’ some of their key tips and techniques?

3 things we can learn from Finland

1. Abolishing walls and maximising comfort

This may seem a radical idea, and upon hearing the concept my immediate thought was the sheer chaos and impracticality of a school without walls.

Then I considered the layouts of many professional workspaces and once again it occurred to me how ludicrously out of touch and at odds our Victorian era school environments are with our 21st century workplaces.

Not long ago I visited the head office of a large tech company in London and I was blown away by how far the design and architecture facilitated progress and innovation. Opaque glass walls and surfaces littered with markers allowed brainstorming, meetings, and ideas sharing to take place literally all over the space. There were large open spaces, indoor and outdoor, which were filled with various types of furniture, an abundance of natural light and artwork to maximise comfort and inspiration, workspace ‘pods’ enabled smaller groupwork to take place and secluded nooks allowed for quieter independent work.

When we think of how differently children learn and how essential variety is in maximising enjoyment, engagement and productivity – changing the physical architecture of a learning space may have a bigger impact than previously thought! All children deserve to learn in ‘Clever Classrooms‘.

2. Separating students by age

One could argue there is a degree of practicality in dividing students by age, but could this be less rigid? We know children progress at different rates for a number of reasons.

  • Could those students excelling be stretched and challenged more effectively if allowed to collaborate and learn from older students at similar levels?
  • Could those students struggling be better nurtured if they weren’t swept along with the tide and pace of a standardised curriculum?
  • Could this vertical style of learning lead to increased peer mentorship and personal leadership skills, and in turn more effectively nurture confidence and a more genuine feeling of community in schools?

Is it a ludicrous idea that we might have just a slightly more fluid system, involving subject classes within key stages perhaps rather than strict year groups?

3. Phenomenon based learning

Also known as Project Based Learning, this the process of taking a single concept and studying it from a variety of educational perspectives and approaches, from mathematically to historically, to creatively to scientifically. This is something which has already caught on in numerous schools worldwide, including some in the UK.

Those who have implemented it have commented on the huge benefits of this more authentic approach to learning such as increased interest, engagement and confidence from students with the subject material, which in turn has led to an increase in creativity, problem solving abilities, inquiry and collaboration as students pool their different skill sets and work together towards a common goal.

At present, there exists education as we currently know it and education as it could be. Regardless of how far this ‘no-walls’ endeavour succeeds, I admire Finland’s courage and innovation in trying to bridge that gap.

As outlandish as some of the above methods may appear, I have far more confidence in these than I do in demands for increased marking, green pen feedback, learning walks and funding cuts that sadly characterise many school environments in the UK.

4 thoughts on “Why Finland Is Breaking Down Barriers – Literally!

  1. Hi, We have had open plan teaching in the UK since the 60s. It does not work. What works for adults in the workplace, where the adults are not learning but applying learning, does not work for children, who are not experts but novices. The way that novices work requires explicit teaching, experts however tend to use some problem solving along with explicit learning – that is they look things up that are related to what they already know a great deal about. Project based learning means some children learn a lot, some learn little – and those who are most disadvantaged learn the least.
    Dividing information into subject areas is better for children trying to learn about it. Much later, when a person knows a great deal about one subject or about several subjects then it becomes possible for them to make jumps across subject boundaries. If you take away subject boundaries for children being educated then what you get is a mish mash of information with those least advantaged getting the worst deal. I see you are a history teacher, like me. Perhaps you have been taught to teach thematically as I was. I found this did not work – it’s is not engaging for children to do things like ‘change’ – much more engaging is actual interesting history. Discovery learning also palls on children I have found. They get bored, and lose motivation.
    And Finland is not that great. The PISA scores which amazed everyone some years ago were for children who had been much more traditionally taught. Finland’s PISA scores have since been going down since.
    Also, Finland is a very small country, with parents very motivated towards education, and a great respect for teachers, who are qualified to masters level. Though children do not go to school until around 7 they are in kindergarten before that. Many learn to read at home, too, as Finnish has a transparent phonetic system, the English phonetic system is opaque and needs to be explicitly taught, and needs quiet.

  2. Interesting research. It’s a shame though that it did not mention the huge cuts that the current and previous government have done. OECD and i.e Noam Chomsky recently critisized Finnish politicians for cutting from where it hurts the nation most. Education should not be a competition and just about test results. However, considering all the cuts, Finnish kids and schools are doing fine and concentrating on what matters most. Preparing children for life, not tests.

    1. Wonderful. How do you prove that schools are ‘preparing children for life’? It sounds like a carte blanche for every fad to come down the pike, with no accountability. Life outside schools isn’t like that. Even worse, the sort of teacher assessments designed to avoid any objective measure of pupil performance just piles on the workload, without giving us any reliable information on what children are learning.

      There was a time in living memory when all teachers used weekly tests as a routine part of teaching and learning. Back then, the term ‘formative assessment’ hadn’t been coined: when kids are tested routinely, we know exactly how well they are doing, and we can adjust our teaching accordingly. What is more, tests both motivate pupils and secure learning in long-term memory. Believe it or not, pupils want us to teach them–they value proof that they’re learning and achieving.

      When we satisfy this need, the social and emotional aspects of education fall into place. Trying to instill life skills directly doesn’t work–the official evaluation of New Labour’s SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning initiative found that it “failed to impact significantly upon pupils’ social and emotional skills, general mental health difficulties, pro-social behaviour or behaviour problems … Analysis of school climate scores indicated significant reductions in pupils’ trust and respect for teachers, liking for school, and feelings of classroom and school supportiveness during SEAL implementation.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.