Almost exactly a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit two schools in Finland with my husband and two colleagues. We went to Finland hoping to find the “secret sauce” as my principal referred to it. What were these schools doing that was working so well? What could we replicate? We expected to see something special going on in their schools and classrooms; Perhaps something we could teach our own faculty.  

We are an observant crew. My husband and I went several days ahead and we saw unlocked bikes all over town. We saw a parade of dogs. We saw a history of quality products made in Finland. When my colleagues arrived, we rode the city bus to our first school visit with a woman and her dog. Several first graders rode the city bus by themselves to and from school. We were the loudest people at the local pub.  

I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t pay especially close attention to these first observations in the moment that they were occurring. At our first school visit, we expected to see something especially different happening in the classroom and I suppose our first insight was just that. We saw extensive use of art in every classroom during our first school visit. The space was innovative and the food was good. As questions began coming up for us and we started getting answers, we started questioning our preconceived notions that the Finn’s were doing something radically different in their classrooms. Our first visit was at a Waldorf school (while open to anyone, the Waldorf philosophy was definitely apparent) so of course we wondered what we would see at a traditional public school.  

The traditional public looked at first glance, like most public schools in the United States. At this point, I remember feeling like I was just taking everything in. I wasn’t making too many judgements, just observing. We went from class to class where we saw desks and students working on worksheets or out of textbooks. Math concepts taught at the front of the room with practice afterward. We went to recess just like in the United States.

As we ate lunch that day, I remember noticing that our lunch was equally as appealing as the lunch we had at the Waldorf school. I did start to get nervous that we couldn’t learn anything from these people and maybe this extremely expensive trip, that took us all out of the building for a week might be a bust. When we began to really slow down and process what we had observed…and what we hadn’t seen as well, we really started to learn. It wasn’t what we expected but it was really important.

After we put all the pieces together, here is what we realized the Finn’s were doing differently. As a culture they have a growth mindset about achievement. This is apparent in their late school start and their focus on play and the arts in every class. When we asked about special education, the teachers told us that they don’t worry when a child doesn’t read right away. They provide services to anyone who needs it and they believe that students will learn when they are ready. As a culture, these people trust each other at every level. The administrators trust teachers; teachers trust students; students trust teachers; people trust their community. Remember the unlocked bikes? 

Probably the most important realization was related to this trust issue. First grade students went to the bathroom without asking an adult. There were democratic systems in third grade classrooms for making decisions and dealing with issues. In one woodworking class, a 5th grade student was instructed to go to the back room, unsupervised to use a lathe. I remember my colleague who has 4 very bright children whispering that he would never think to teach his 5th grade son to use a lathe. At recess, there were about 60 kids all over the yard with one adult. Remember the kids riding the city bus alone? 

I think this lack of adult intervention in every student event really resonated with me. As a special educator, much of my job has been about “helping”. I have always questioned the necessity and consequences of the helping I had been doing. This insight confirmed for me that these students learn a ton when they are left to solve problems on their own and when they are given the responsibility to do this. The Finn’s don’t have high Pisa scores because of what they do in their schools at all. They have high test scores because their culture believes in student success and they place a very high value on personal relationships. It is an expectation that each member of the community is taking care of one another. Even their dogs are considered community members.

At first, we were a little depressed since it seemed unlikely that we’d be able to change our culture. As we processed all of this though, we realized that our schools could look like mini Finn communities. Structures like advisory and systems like restorative justice support relationships. What other systems and structures could be put in place to support relationships? What types of instruction and policies could promote independence? These are the questions we have been grappling with for the past year. I suppose we will continue to grapple with these issues for many years to come.


Guest Blogger Biography:

Gabrielle Marquette received her M.Ed. from Saint Michael’s College in 2003 and her C.A.G.S. through Southern New Hampshire University with a focus on collaborative leadership.

She is the Innovation coach at Enosburg Falls High School working to support teachers and administrators in implementing Vermont’s Act 77 and proficiency based graduation requirements. She has been teaching at The Community College of Vermont for ten years and offers original graduate courses through Castleton University. She was awarded a Rowland fellowship in 2015 to pursue research on implementing personal learning.
“I am committed to helping educators transform learning environments in public school settings so meaningful learning is accessible to all students.”