Compulsory schooling in Finland ends at grade 9, when students are 16 years old. At that time, students can apply to an academic high school (lukio) or a vocational school. Vocational programs last three years and include an internship. Course requirements in high schools are also usually completed in three years, but it is possible to finish in two or to stay for a fourth year. As there are no dead ends in the Finnish educational system, students may apply to a polytechnic or to a university after completing either type of secondary education.
This week I visited two schools that provide vocational education as well as an academic high school. Like many high schools, the one where I observed classes offers specialized programs in addition to the general academic curriculum. There are schools that allow students to concentrate on visual arts, performing arts, sports, media, languages, or sciences.
Vaskivuoren lukio, located in Vantaa, allows students to choose the general curriculum or to specialize in music or dance. While fewer than 20% of the 1000 students are in the performing arts programs, all students are exposed to the arts while attending the school. The building centers around a two-story open space with a stage, some comfy furniture along the walls, and a few ping-pong tables. The tables can be quickly wheeled away to provide a place for performances. On the day I visited, students gathered during the break between morning classes to hear the choir sing a couple of songs. The afternoon break featured a dance performance.
I observed a lower level math class and a more advanced one, as well as an introductory philosophy class. Unlike in the US, taking a course in philosophy is a high school requirement. Philosophy was taught by the illustrious Petteri Granat, one of the Finnish teachers who received the same Fulbright grant as I did. He spent last fall studying American education in Indiana.
In the higher-level math class, I met an American student from Texas who is spending her junior year here as an exchange student. She is one of nine students doing an exchange. The students take an introductory Finnish language class, but all of their content classes are in Finnish.
My next visits were to two campuses of the Helsinki Vocational College, which has 18 locations and serves 16,000 students. Approximately 9,000 begin their studies immediately after graduating from ninth grade. The rest have either just completed traditional high school or are adults furthering their education.
The Finnish National Board of Education publishes curriculum guidelines for more than 60 different fields of study. These range from more traditional vocational careers such as auto repair, hairdressing, medical careers and culinary arts, to circus arts, game design, and air traffic control. Enrollment in the programs is always free (including lunch!) whether students are high school age or adults. The programs are three years long for students entering at age 16 and two years for those who have already completed high school.
The first school specializes in health careers, including nursing, elderly care, emergency care, dental technologies, and pharmacy. I visited traditional physics and anatomy classes, as well as a variety of vocational classes. Pharmacy students were taking an exam in which they were calibrating digital scales and measuring (fake) drugs. Dental technology students were crafting partial dentures, something that is more like sculpture than anything else. And nursing students were in cooking class, where they were making gluten-free meals.
While at the health careers campus, another Fulbright teacher and I met some staff members from the other campuses who were there for a meeting. We shared that we’d like to visit some other locations, and the next day we got an invitation to visit the campus for students studying audiovisual communications. The students in the Games and Animation program would be spending two days learning from Tatu Petersen-Jessen, an art director at Rovio (famous for making Angry Birds), and we were invited to attend his introductory presentation.
Before the presentation, we had some time to ask questions about the school and its offerings. In addition to game design and animation, there are programs in filmmaking, digital communications, photography, audio-visual production, and sound engineering. Entrance is very competitive; only 19 applicants out of 1000 were selected for the Games and Animation cohort that began in the fall. Selection cannot be based on students’ prior knowledge of the content, as not all students have had the opportunity to take computer courses, and certain students can’t be given an unfair advantage. [Compare this to the situation in the US!] Applicants come to the school to do a writing task, participate in a group activity, and have an interview. While most are from the Helsinki area, it is possible for students from other parts of Finland to attend. Spots are allocated for students who have just completed comprehensive school and for older students; entrants to the latest class ranged from age 15 to 31.
Game design isn’t a topic I’ve ever thought much about, as my game playing is mostly limited to Words With Friends. But it was interesting to learn about all of the aspects of planning, aesthetic considerations, and usability. Tatu was a great presenter, and the students were full of questions after listening for two hours. I was surprised to see the audience split 50/50 between the genders, and I learned that the Games and Animation program has slightly more females than males.
After the presentation, we were given an extensive tour and popped in on some classes. The building is very well equipped, and the staff includes a special education teacher, guidance counselor, social worker, and psychologist in addition to all of the course teachers. I had to keep reminding myself that the school is completely free! When graduating, students are prepared to enter the workforce or can continue on to further education.