Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The country’s educational successes are undeniable, but simply demolishing school walls alone won’t necessarily replicate them.
Children in Finland may have difficulty recognizing their schools upon their return from summer vacation.
The country is currently undergoing one of the most ambitious school redesign projects in Europe, exchanging traditional walled-in classrooms and rows of desks for more flexible and informal open-plan layouts. Finland is currently going through a wave of school construction and refurbishment, following a new national curriculum introduced last autumn. Out of a total of 4,800 schools nationally (a small-sounding number because most teach students from age 7 to at least 16 in one institution), 57 new schools began construction in 2015 and 44 the following year. All of these new schools—as well as recently refurbished ones—incorporate open-plan principles. This still leaves most schools with more traditional layouts, but the overall ambition is to steadily replace or adapt these as their facilities come up for renovation.
Schools across the world have been experimenting with more open layouts—and teaching techniques that suit them—since at least the 1950s. But such efforts, even in Finland, have not always proved successful because open-plan schools can suffer from distractingly high levels of noise. So how has Finland learned from the problems of the past to create a more effective model?
The contemporary open-plan Finnish school is an altogether softer, calmer space, one that rarely has a block-like rectangular layout. According to Reino Tapaninen, chief architect at Finland’s Department of Education, what’s striking about contemporary Finnish school design is partly the sheer variety and flexibility of furnishings. “We've given up the old type of school desk and chair and have a real diversity now,” he tells CityLab. “[In a redesigned school] there are a lot of soft chairs, big cushions, rocking chairs, sofas as well as moveable walls and partitions behind which you can hide yourself for private discussions." Tapaninen continues, “[In a contemporary school] you will see lots of different kind of furniture, lots of colors and, I would say, a lot of happy people.”
To make sure noise disruption is minimal, an acoustic designer now works on the layout of every new or refurbished Finnish school. Part of this new approach, Tapaninen says, is about both using better surfacing materials and promoting noise-reducing habits. “We are using more acoustic materials on the ceilings, while textile flooring has become more popular—the materials are much better than they used to be, and now far easier to clean,” he says. “We now have what we call ‘shoe-less schools,’ where pupils either change into softer shoes or simply wear socks when they come indoors.”
“In order to create teaching spaces that encourage focus,” adds Tapaninen, “we also provide movable sliding walls that can be drawn across to create separate reading spaces.”
There’s more to managing noise than soft floors and sound-absorbent ceilings, however. A school with a broadly open classroom plan doesn’t have to be a vast communal hall. Many new school designs feature curved or elongated footprints so that louder areas for assembly are concentrated at one end. And rather than dispensing with internal walls entirely, they can be used more sparingly so that, say, three classrooms are grouped together behind a wall with a closing door but are divided from each other only by movable partitions.
This flexible layout is the expression of an educational philosophy that promotes a high level of autonomy for teachers and students, who are being given more responsibility in organizing their own learning that—like the school’s layout—can vary from week to week. Indeed, the role of students in helping to shape what they focus on from day to day now starts as early as kindergarten.
“We are experimenting with schools with no divisions between ages so that different ages can make teamwork together with teachers working in pairs and groups,” says Tapaninen. “There is a lot of variety in learning situations, and the schools, teachers can decide at the beginning of the month or week, or even at the beginning of the school day, how they want to work.”
It may also be the case that the open school concept’s acceptance in Finland relies partly on changes that have happened off school grounds. Over the past few decades the country has been moving steadily towards a more informal culture where slightly higher levels of noise are tolerated. “It's possible that society itself wasn't ready during the 1950s and '60s for the open classroom experiments that took place,” Tapaninen says. “Now, conditions and attitudes are different, and the idea that a school needs to be entirely quiet is disappearing to an extent.”
Backed up by a well-funded education system where teachers have an unusually high level of pay and prestige, this situation sounds healthy, even utopian. Finland is nonetheless subject to many of the pressures found in other countries—sometimes tragically so. The country suffered school two shootings in 2007 and 2008, one by a still-enrolled student, in which 20 people were killed and more injured. This led to a wave of soul searching about all aspects of the country’s education system. Tapaninen tells CityLab that the shootings caused an initial panic that “we were building our schools the wrong way, that we needed to put in walls of brick and bulletproof glass.” But open-plan schools, he says, typically offer more escape routes. Finland’s schools now also have a safety plan that they rehearse.
“We need to keep our schools transparent and inviting, that this in itself helps keeps schools safe by creating a culture of openness,” says Tapaninen.
So should Finland’s approach be a model for others? The country’s educational successes are undeniable, but simply demolishing school walls alone won’t necessarily replicate them. Finland’s desire for less rigidly structured school buildings is in fact a direct reflection of its national curriculum, which rejects traditional academic silos and instead favors a multi-disciplinary approach.
As detailed in an October 2016 Education Week article, this could mean taking a subject such as climate change and addressing it through mathematics or biology, rather than sitting down to an hour of pure, abstract math. The open classroom concept thus fits neatly with an educational ethos that favors student autonomy and making cross-curricular connections, eschewing such internationally common assessment markers as standardized tests. Fitting such a layout to the teaching of a more obviously traditional curriculum might prove more difficult.
There’s another vital factor that lies behind the open classroom’s success in Finland that isn’t automatically that easy to replicate: investment.
This investment isn’t just a case of high specifications for buildings, it means using more funds on training teachers in methods that suit such layouts, paying them well, and empowering them to pilot the day-to-day use of these skills. The effectiveness of the flexible smaller spaces that contemporary Finnish school design creates, meanwhile, depend partly on low student-to-teacher ratios (13.2 students to every teacher in 2013) that make it easier for classes to break up into smaller groups without entirely foregoing supervision.
Finland’s generally high educational standards prove that their approach works, but their combination of consistently high investment and constant curricular innovation might prove politically and practically difficult for others to emulate.