Finland has won world renown for its rejection of marketised education.
But while the country’s non-competitive ethos can mean collegiate approaches to running schools, experts say that – at classroom level – collaboration between teachers is rare.
Kalasatama School in Helsinki is at the forefront of attempts to tackle this Finnish paradox. It serves a rapidly regenerating former industrial area used by the capital city to test-drive innovations such as shared electric cars, and rubbish collected from homes through vacuum-powered pipes instead of trucks.
The school is no less forward thinking. Its modern building, lined with vertical panels in muted yellow, pink, turquoise and brown, catches the eye among the half-finished apartment blocks, cranes and empty streets.
But it is what goes on inside that could really make a difference. The school, which currently has 80 pupils aged 6 to 8, has two teaching areas, each with an open, circular learning space in the middle and classrooms around the outside.
The central space has curved red benches and beanbags, and teachers can use a projector and a screen while children sit in a semicircle. Crucially, teachers have to share the space – and that represents a big change.
“What is normal in Finland is to have your own classroom, a teacher’s desk and 20 desks for kids,” explains teacher Arto Lassila.
“I like this [different approach], but it requires more co-working with the other teachers. In your own classroom, you can decorate it how you want to.
“Here you can’t do it. You have to discuss with the other teachers if you want to put something up.”
The classrooms have various combinations of desks and chairs, and large windows so that what is going on inside can be observed.
Competition is alien
This is in a country famous for the status and trust that it grants the teaching profession, where questions about rating individual teachers are met with a puzzled shrug and the idea of competition between them is alien.
But as Pasi Sahlberg has explained in his book Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland?, that does not mean that the national character encourages collaboration between teachers.
The visiting professor at Harvard University, makes his point with a joke: two men, who were close childhood friends, meet unexpectedly and go for a drink. They finish three drinks in silence, before one says, “Cheers!” The other looks puzzled and asks, “Have we come here to drink or to talk?”
When asked in a poll if they had ever observed other teachers’ classes and provided feedback, just 36 per cent of Finnish primary teachers said they had – compared with a 51 per cent average across all 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis).
There is now a growing concern that, while Finland’s maths, reading and science results remain high internationally, that is not enough. Many say that, in order to prepare students for the future, the country’s teachers must learn to work together.
At Kalasatama School, that also means big changes for children – if teachers have to get out of the habit of sitting in their own space, then so do their pupils.
I like this different approach – but it requires more co-working among teachers
It has been described as “deskless”, a school where new portable ways of teaching and learning mean desks are no longer needed.
But there are, of course, desks. Where else would children put their laptops? What has been abandoned is children and teachers having their own desks.
“The idea is that in the school there are different places for different kinds of education, and every pupil has the right to study in the optimal place – depending on the aim and studying methods of the particular lesson,” says Kalasatama’s principal, Marjaana Manninen.
Teachers have a choice of areas to work in, including classrooms with individual desks and chairs, classrooms with larger shared desks and stools to perch on, or the open lecture-style areas.
Without their own desk, the children keep their items in one of the small wooden lockers which line the central area, and for staff there is a large, shared office – where resources can be kept and planning meetings are held.
Kalasatama is taking the idea of working together to extremes for Finland. But it seems there are plenty of teachers willing to give it a go – a recent vacancy for a classroom teacher there attracted 169 applications.
Collaboration is being encouraged across the rest of the country through a new core curriculum, introduced in August 2016, focusing on cross-curricular learning. But at Kalasatama School, these ideas are built into the physical design.
This might make it easier for teachers to co-operate – but for such changes to be successful in Finland, it is recognised that they must be introduced in a way that still respects teachers’ cherished autonomy.
“At the moment, pupils usually stay for two 45-minute period in each room,” says Ms Manninen. “Of course, it is possible to stay in one classroom all day, if the team of teachers decide so. Teams have the freedom to decide the best ways.”
The plan is that by 2020, Kalasatama School will have grown to accommodate 700 mainstream pupils up to age 16, and a further 88 students with special educational needs and disability, as well as speech and language difficulties, will be included within mainstream lessons wherever possible.
Right now, it is too early to ask for results. But 10-year-old Randel is happy.
“I have friends here. And the teachers are quite good. I like them,” he says.
“But the best thing is the bean bags.”