Over the next several years, my school will be hit with a huge increase in enrollment, and there is a bit of anxiety about how we’ll expand to accommodate everyone in time. Some of the Finnish schools I’ve visited are having similar issues. One is the Metsokangas School in Oulu, which educates 800 students in grades 1 through 9. The campus started with one building, expanded to two, and is now building a third. I spent two days touring the facilities, observing classes, and talking with the vice headmaster about the expansion plans. I wish I would have had more time, as I feel like I only got a taste of all the happenings there. The teachers and kids had such positive energy and everyone seemed to enjoy being there. This super music video made by some of the kids (in English) gives you a taste of what it’s like. The song will also stick in your head for ages.
I spoke to a few classes about school and life in the US, and then the students practiced their English by asking me questions they had prepared in advance. My favorite was whether I had visited Springfield, home of the Simpsons. Students start studying English in 3rd grade, and I was impressed by how well the 4th graders could speak. They put me to shame when comparing my Finnish to their English!
The photos above show two classes that share one large room, something that is done by quite a number of classes in the school. Teachers are given the freedom to choose how to organize their classes, and some choose to combine groups from the same grade level, while others have separate classes. Partly this choice is decided by logistics; not all rooms can be combined into a larger space. And some teachers prefer to work alone with a smaller group. The fact that teachers are given the freedom to teach the way that works for them and their students is evidence of the trust given to Finnish teachers.
Students in the combined groups sometimes have lessons as one large class with two teachers (and possibly also an assistant), and at other times the classes split into two. This is an efficient way of working, especially when students are being given direct instruction or a project is being explained. Students can then do individual or group work while both teachers circulate. I suppose it wouldn’t work so well in a lesson that required students to be answering questions, as each student would have fewer chances to participate.
I also saw a combined group of second graders that included a mainstream class and a special education class of students with significant needs. This is the second year that the same students and teachers are together. While I visited, students were studying money and the class was divided into two groups. On one side of the room, the large group was working with decimals. On the other side, a small group was taught by a special education teacher and an assistant; they were learning about different coins, and students were practicing going up the the cash register and buying stuffed animals in a store. Some of the special education students have math lessons with the larger group, while others are always in the small group.
I love how the teachers were able to find ways to have students work on learning similar material but in differentiated ways. Early in the year, students cut out their profiles and decorated them with descriptors of their personalities and hobbies (see below). For most of the students, the goal was to practice using English words. But the assignment was different for the student in the top row, second from the right. He is still working on learning vocabulary in Finnish, so his profile was decorated with Finnish words and accompanying pictures.
When I asked how the arrangement of joining classes came about, the teachers said they though it would be a good idea that would benefit all of the students, so they decided to try it. I love how teachers here are given so much freedom to implement new methods.
The combined-class model is being incorporated into the design of a new building that is being constructed adjacent to the two buildings on the campus. The new building will house 400 third and fourth grade students. Rather than constructing smaller individual classrooms, the school will contain very large rooms that accommodate 70-80 students and four teachers. The space will contain one quadrant with a hard floor, useful for art class and science experiments that may be messy. The rest will have sound-absorbing carpet and will have an area for gathering all of the students on soft furniture and collapsible stadium-type seating. The center will have a reading area with privacy provided by movable half-height walls.
I’ve noticed many creative uses of space in Finnish schools. The hallways are not simply spaces through which students move from class to class. They are usually filled with tables and chairs for independent or small group work, beanbag chairs for lounging, and computer workstations. In my school, students also use the hallways during their free periods, but they have to choose between sitting at the few available picnic tables and sitting on the floor.
Other creative uses of space included a room with comfy furniture (below left) that can be reserved by any class or club, reading nooks within classrooms, and combined cafeteria and gathering spaces.