DesignShare Logo


Our Current Featured Education Group:
Directory Case Studies Articles Awards Program Language of School Design
Membership E-Newsletter Events About Contact Home
Learning from Helsinki

Learning from Helsinki

by Greg Stack, AIA, LEED AP, Principal NAC|Architecture
K-12 Thought Leader

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a conference on school design in Helsinki, Finland. Architects and school planners from all over the world were there for the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education “Schools in a Flat World” conference. One significant thing about the location of the conference, other than the moody Finnish atmosphere and weather that reminded me more of November than September, is the fact that Finnish students are ranked number one in the world year after year in test scores. The conference was aimed at considering how the architecture and planning of Finnish schools might be different from those built in the United States and other parts of the world to see if these differences were contributing to this testing success. The conference also had a variety of international speakers to allow us to compare what is being done in other parts of the world to what is being done in Finland.

The schools we saw were fantastic. They celebrated light and open space and were typically arranged to break down the size of the school into smaller learning units using houses, or pods, but more on this later. The conference was a “rolling” conference with us moving from school to school where presenters like Yong Zhao, Director of Teaching and Technology at the College of Education at Michigan State University, told us about globalization and the “virtual world,” and Annalise Gehling talked about schools in Australia where they have abandoned classrooms and have gotten down to essential learnings by organizing students into Personalized Learning Communities. Ty Goddard from the UK told us about that country’s ambitious school construction program. We also learned about schools in Laos and Jordan.
Some of the most interesting presentations were by the Finnish educators and architects who were responsible for the schools we visited. Conferees were vitally interested in what the Finnish educational system is like, how their schools are planned and built, and how they operate their schools. We were all searching for that elusive idea that would be the silver bullet, the thing the Finns were doing to have such wonderful success. The answers we discovered turned out to be complex and cumulative, definitely not a silver bullet.

Dispelling Biases

First though, let’s dispel some biases that I had, and perhaps you have, as you are reading this.

• Bias # 1 – The Finns are such a homogeneous society that the educational task before them is easier than that faced in a multicultural society such as the United States. While it’s true that the Finns are more homogeneous, with foreigners making up only 2% of the population, this bias was proved wrong. Even though they are primarily of Nordic heritage that by no means indicates that they are all the same. One third of the population is rural. In visiting the schools, we saw kids that you would see in a variety of American schools, and although generally blonder, we also saw kids wearing leather, with piercings everywhere and multicolored hair. Some of the middle-year kids, probably like kids everywhere, were testing their grasp of English using language that would make a “gangsta rapper” blush. In questioning the educators, they have problems similar to those we face in the United States, although in socialist Finland, homelessness and weapons concerns are less, but the rate of alcoholism is much higher and it brings with it its own host of social ills. The kids though, have every kind of personality you can imagine and the corresponding interest or disdain for education that American kids have.

• Bias # 2 – The Finns have a different relationship with their teachers than exists in the United States; their unions aren’t as strong so it is easier to change your educational system. Wrong again. Teachers unions are very strong in Finland and teachers are not well paid relative to other professions. A key difference though, is that most teachers have master’s degrees and are more highly respected than teachers are in the United States. Teachers are considered pedagogical experts and are given considerable autonomy in the classroom. Keep this in mind as we go forward.

• Bias # 3 – The Finns spend more money on education than we do in America and this translates into more teachers, more contact time, more planning time. Sorry, wrong again. In 2005 the Finns spent $5,090 per student in grades 1 - 6, $8,200 in grades 7 - 9, and only $6,460 in grades 10 - 12. This compares to the $9,138 per K-12 student spent on average in 2005/2006 in the United States according to the US Census Bureau. Making up this average, New York spent the most at $14,884 per student, while Mississippi spent $7,221, and Idaho spent $6,440.

• Bias # 4 – The student-teacher ratio is better in Finland, allowing each student to have more personal attention from the teacher. Not always the case. The OECD Education at a Glance guide for 2005 shows the following:

Ratio of Students
to Teaching Staff
Primary Lower
Finland 16.6 9.8 15.9 12.9
United States 15.5 15.6 15.9 15.5

Primary classes have more students and high school classes are the same. Only in middle school/junior high classes is there a significant difference.

Distinguishing Features of the Finnish System

Now that we have dispelled some biases, how is the Finnish education system different? One difference is how students progress through school. In Finland, children are required to go to school through grade 9, usually in a “comprehensive school.” The focus is for them to successfully complete a basic education syllabus, which is a sort of national curriculum that each local school is free to interpret and accomplish in its own way. At the end of grade 9, 5% of students leave school, but the rest must decide on one of two tracks: Upper Secondary School, which is a college prep program, or Vocational School, which is intended to provide students with the skills and knowledge necessary for obtaining vocational competence. Students are also permitted to spend an extra year at comprehensive school before they must make this decision. A vocational school we toured was the AV Media School at Helsinki City College of Technology.

av media
Students at this school are between the ages of 15 and 20 and are trained for the movie and media industry. When touring this school, someone asked the architect what the students were being trained for. He said: “You know that long list of names at the end of a movie? That’s what they are being trained for.”

Students in upper secondary or vocational school are not graded. The idea is to complete the education syllabus in three years, but a fourth year is permitted. Student progress is assessed in a variety of ways: through exams, discussion, and through student demonstration of their knowledge. Upon the completion of the upper secondary/vocational syllabus, students take a matriculation exam to prove their proficiency. Successful passage of the exam allows students from either track to go on to university, which incidentally is free in Finland. This system differs from the much derided German system recently described in the October 18, 2008, issue of The Economist, “German Education - From bottom of the Form,” which tracks kids on a college, regular, or vocational path based on test scores when they are 10 years old. In Finland, the choice is up to the student. Keep this in mind as you read on.

Another difference is that Finns spend more time getting kids ready to learn in the preschools and daycares used ubiquitously throughout the country. 98% attend pre-school where no academics are taught, but instead, children are taught social skills through play. The Finnish National Board of Education says: “from the educational point of view, working methods that accustom children to teamwork are of the utmost importance. Another central consideration is to promote the child’s own initiative and to emphasize its significance as the foundation for all activities.” They believe this approach gets children ready to learn when they get to school at age 7. This is important.

But what do the Finns say about their educational system? Well, they are certainly not complacent. Riita Lampola, Head of International Relations for the Finnish Board of Education, says the Education Ministry is continually looking for ways to improve their schools. She says: “Finns value education. There is a ‘learning culture’ in the country.” They are concerned about keeping test scores up but are also concerned that test scores don’t tell the whole story. This coincides with the case advocated by Dr. Yong Zhao of Michigan State in his opening remarks at the conference, which is that entirely too much emphasis is placed on test scores. In support of his point, he quoted Einstein: “What counts may not be counted; what can be counted may not count.”

The Finns are continually trying new things and doing common-sense things that can only leave us wondering why we don’t try these ideas in the United States. At the University of Joensuu Teachers Training School for instance, a teachers college is integrated right into the school. New teachers are getting on-the-ground experience of how to teach from experienced teachers, while at the same time bringing the latest pedagogy to their mentors. They are interacting with kids right away and getting to see what works and what doesn’t. And key from my perspective, they are learning how to interact with their teaching environments from the very beginning of their teaching experience. This is important.

Mixing Architecture and Planning into Student Achievement

This gets us back to the architecture and planning of Finnish schools and how that is mixed into the achievement we see. There are certainly many schools in Finland of the double-loaded corridor style so prevalent in the United States and most other parts of the world. The schools we visited in Finland were not of this type and were certainly exemplary models of the new schools being built in that country. Classrooms were generally smaller than the United States average. They all exhibited shared learning spaces – spaces outside of classrooms. These spaces can be used for pull-out instruction, small-group work, or individual projects.

shared space
Shared spaces were sometimes not directly supervisable from the classrooms, something that would not even be considered in the United States. Shared spaces and classrooms all had plenty of internal and external windows, making the rooms bright and cheerful. They were also generally arranged so that four classrooms formed a cluster or house around a shared learning space that acted as the “living room” of the house.

The schools were generally on small sites. There was minimal parking for cars and buses. Sites were thoughtfully landscaped, creating park-like settings with copses of tress forming places of reflection for students and the community.

The use of native plants made the sites feel very natural. Many of the schools did not have athletic fields, or if they did, the fields were minimal in size and number. Contrary to the United States, sports are a club activity in Finland not associated with school.

The schools we visited all seemed to be organized around communal spaces that connected the various parts of the school in what we would call a commons. These spaces varied from being light filled and airy to being more internally focused, but always with views to the outside so that students could stay connected with the natural environment.

Students of different ages were encouraged to mix in these spaces and not often under the supervision of teachers. The spaces appeared to be used for project work, presentations, assemblies, and performances as well as dining.

The dining experience, which in many American schools resembles a stockyard, was much more celebrated in the Finnish schools with real tables and chairs and more of a café approach. These typical characteristics seem to be very common. Dr. Ulrike Altenmuller from Drexel University has studied the typology of Finnish schools and found four common characteristics among the schools: Volume and Form, Circulation and Sequence, Function and Use, and Visual Communication and Transparency. The schools we saw at the conference fit this typology well.

One of the most striking features of the schools was their quality and their condition. The quality we saw was in the thoughtful arrangement and use of space, but also in the extensive use of wood finishes, even in areas accessible to students. Helsinki is a harsh climate for buildings as well as people. At approximately the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, the days can be short during the school year and the winters are cold - the bay surrounding Helsinki usually freezes over in the winter. Nonetheless, the buildings that were between 5 and 15 years old were in very good repair. Aside from the use of wood, which has risen to the level of an art on buildings in Finland, the schools generally consisted of fiber cement, stucco, masonry or other materials we would use in the United States. There was some experimentation going on, but not with the exotic materials you might find on more expensive building types.

Designing Schools to Raise Student Expectations

There was little or no graffiti, even in central city schools, and the schools don’t have the “armored” appearance that many new American schools tend to acquire. The schools look like important civic structures but are not institutional. They do not have the “oversized house” look that many American schools aspire to. They are generally modern structures but rather than respond to the problem of facilitating education with an architectural style, they are crafted as unique responses to the program and environment at each individual school.

In talking about why it looked like Finnish students are better behaved than their American counterparts in terms of being left without supervision, I think that they treat their environments better because they feel better about their environments and what those environments say about how they are valued as students and individuals. For example, we tend to react negatively if the environment we create for a prison is seen to coddle the prisoner. We want to the prisoner to know how we feel about them by putting them in an environment that limits their dignity and says: “I don’t trust you.” We install cameras all over, use neutral colors, and try to strip prisons of aesthetic quality. How then is a student to feel if placed in a similar environment? In Finnish schools, student and staff know they are valued by the very nature of the environment in which they are asked to conduct their jobs of learning and teaching. Students know that the expectations created for them require that they behave better in those environments. The students have been empowered to be good by the expectations created for them by the very buildings they inhabit. This is important.


So what are the important factors that are producing the testing success enjoyed by the Finns? It’s not scientific, but by comparing my own observations of the hundreds of schools I have planned, designed, or visited with those I saw in Helsinki, I can say what seems different, and in my opinion, better. These are:
• Teachers are more highly respected than they are in the United States.
• In Finland the choice of how to continue their education is up to the student.
• Students are ready to learn when they enter school.
• Teachers learn how to interact with their teaching environments from the very beginning of their educational experience.
• In Finnish schools, student and staff know they are valued by the very nature of the environment in which they are asked to conduct their jobs of learning and teaching.
• The students have been empowered to be good by the expectations created for them by the very buildings they inhabit.

Academic success is made up of numerous factors, most of which cannot be measured empirically. To me, it only makes sense to learn from our collective experiences and try to improve our schools in every way we can. Empowering our teachers and students to succeed in environments that value them is a part of the answer to the riddle of improved academic success.

Greg Stack is an educational architect, designer, thinker and writer. He has planned and designed numerous K-12, college, university and specialty educational buildings during his 31-year career in architecture. As the K-12 Thought Leader for NAC|Architecture, Greg works firm-wide to develop deep knowledge in the planning and design issues of learning environments. He has authored articles on a range of K-12 subjects and has presented analytical perspectives on K-12 topics at a variety of conferences. Greg can be reached at:

June 23rd, 2009

DesignShare publications are submitted by designers, university professors, architects, planning consultants, educators, technologists, futurists, and ecologists. Publications include podcasts, detailed case studies, conference proceedings, interviews, original research, editorials, thesis projects, and practical design guidelines.


User Tools

Membership | Reprint Policies | About | Contact | Home
© 1998-2016. All rights reserved.