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How Finnish Innovators Are Making Bold Changes To School Culture

27.7.2018 | BY LAUREN WILSON

Finland has long been synonymous with outstanding education, in large part due to its recurring top 10 status in PISA rankings and its reputation for having some of the world’s most happy and secure kids. But that's no reason to be complacent, even the best education systems in the world will be left behind if they don’t continue to innovate and evolve.

Luckily, experimentation, evolution and fine tuning are some of the things that the Finnish education system does best.

Sir Ken Robinson explains, “The heart of Finland’s success to date has been a sense of professional discretion and professional responsibility, but with a deep vein of innovation coupled with fundamental principles of teaching and learning.”

The education specialist cites the highly personalized and collaborative system, which places trust in teachers to use their “professional discretion”, as some of the keystones for Finland's education success. He adds, “I think that’s why Finland has become an exemplary education system for many people around the world - far more effective across a range of measures than most other systems and certainly more so than most school systems in North America.”

But with the world changing so rapidly, “there will be fresh challenges with the curriculum, fresh challenges for teachers in evolving their pedagogy and the country itself will continue to evolve, culturally, and technologically,” Robinson warns.

The Finnish education system is constantly innovating, one example being the recent curriculum changes which took the bold move to shun traditional subject-based learning in favor of a more multidisciplinary approach to learning.

Innovation also happens at the municipality level. In 2008, Lappeenranta city made a bold and strategic decision to train all elementary school staff and students in the municipality in a positive, solution-based approach to interaction. A solution-focused mindset in the city

In any school, students and staff face challenges throughout the day. Whether it’s falling out with friends, clashing with colleagues or facing a steep learning curve. It’s just a part of being human. So why not include these valuable life lessons in schooling? Learning how to cope effectively with issues as they arise will stand children in good stead throughout their school career and well into adulthood.

Problem-solving skills could be learned as a side-effect of other curriculum objectives, but Lappeenranta city acknowledges the importance of these skills by specifically integrating these learning experiences into the curriculum and school culture. This way, everyday problems become learning objectives and the conversation around them becomes solution-focused.


Children learn to look for solutions together
Children learn to work together to look for solutions


As well as teaching effective models for conflict resolution, the model contributes to an overall positive school culture. Individual’s strengths are focused on and the whole community masters the art of positive communication. These schools know that the words we use matter and have the power to shape our reality.

This city-wide change in school culture sounds like a challenge – and it is – but one that Mari Routti, Head of The Department Of Education in the city, thinks is worthwhile. “Although the required investment for training and creating a new solution-focused working culture is quite substantial, the great thing is, that there are no additional costs. Just by changing our ways of thinking and socially interacting the quality and results of working practices will improve,” Routti explains.

Participating teachers have cited an improved school atmosphere and improved relationships between staff and students as a result of the program.

It’s not just top-down decrees that are changing the landscape of learning in Finland. With the relatively high levels of freedom, trust, and respect that Finnish teachers are afforded, there are plenty of educators taking the opportunity to try out exciting innovations for themselves.

Our global youth survey revealed that 56% of young people want their learning experience to be more personalized to themselves and their needs. Pekka Peura, a Finnish teacher, understands how important this is, saying that “Personalized learning is one of the most significant trends in education and pedagogy at the moment”.

Peura created Personalized Learning Paths for his students, a Finnish answer to the flipped learning movement.  It provides a theoretical framework for how each and every learner can be treated as an individual at a practical level, despite schools often having large and heterogeneous classes. The method is also easily applicable in different environments and subjects without significant financial resources.

The theory and practical application of this teaching model were developed by Peura in 2009, giving high school students a seven-week study assignment instead of the usual shorter learning objectives found in most curricula. This proved to be a hit amongst learners, improving learning skills and also school satisfaction.

These personalized learning paths provide students with a concrete, visualized and easily understandable list of goals. The paths are designed to guide students from their current level of knowledge towards a higher level of competence, with self-assessment and peer-review providing opportunities to reflect on skills, develop autonomy, and take ownership in learning.


Student Agents help their peers and their teachers to make the most of technology during class 


Ownership of learning is powerful. Our global youth survey found that student comments “suggest that their education could be greatly improved through greater autonomy, authenticity, and personalization. There is a strong sense in some of the comments that they do not feel valued or recognized as individuals, that no one pays attention to what they are interested in…”.

Student Agents, a Finnish approach to technology use in schools, empowers students by recognizing their interests and strengths and positioning them to share these with the school community. This model develops the technology skills of the whole school community by recruiting tech-savvy students as tutors for their peers and, crucially, their teachers.

The model involves a careful mapping of digital needs within the school, identifying student’s strengths when it comes to technology, and training the entire school to understand the benefits and purpose of Student Agents. Individual learning paths, either within the school or with another Student Agent school, help to ensure they are getting the most out of their experience.

This approach is certainly applicable to other contexts outside of Finland. In the US, for example, 86% of teachers consider it either important or absolutely essential to use educational technologies in the classroom, yet only 18% of teachers report using ed-tech tools on a weekly basis. Could having technology integration and support as a part of the everyday school culture see these figures creep upwards?

Student Agents is based on the understanding that when it comes to using digital tools in school, people often need help with them, but don't know how to ask for it. Implementing even small changes to the school culture could transform the way students learn and teachers work.

These represent just some of the Finnish innovations that made it on to our list of Inspiring Innovations in 2018. It just goes to show that no matter how effective an education system is, there should always be room for forward-thinking innovators to push the boundaries. 


Check out our HundrED 2018 collection to find out more about the innovations happening in Finland and around the world.