It is lunch time at the University of Eastern Finland’s teacher training lab school in North Karelia, a lush forest and lake district on the Russian border.
Fourth-grade children race to the cafeteria in their stockinged feet, laughing, hugging, practicing dance steps and cavorting as they head for the cafeteria. One girl does a full handstand in the hallway. A distinguished-looking professor beams at the procession and doles out high-fives to the children. He is Heikki Happonen, head of the school and a career childhood educator.
As chief of Finland’s association of eight national university teacher training schools, he is, in effect, the Master Teacher of Finland, the country which still has, despite many challenges and a recent slide in global test scores, the No. 1 best primary school system in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017.
According to Happonen, the hallway scene reveals one of the secrets of Finland’s historic success in childhood education.
Children’s brains work better when they are moving, the master teacher explains. Not only do they concentrate better in class, but they are more successful at “negotiating, socializing, building teams and friendships together.”
Finland leads the world in its discovery that play is the most fundamental engine and efficiency-booster of children’s learning. The nation’s children learn through play until age 7, and then are given guaranteed 15-minute outdoor play breaks every hour of every single school day (regardless of the weather) until high school.
Another crucial secret: the learning environment, both physical and emotional.
“Children must feel like their school is a home for them, it belongs to them,” says Happonen. “They are very clever, they feel and appreciate an atmosphere of trust. We offer them an environment where they understand, ‘This is a place where I am highly respected. I feel safe and comfortable here. I am a very important person.’ My job is to protect that environment for children. That’s why I come to work every day.”
Happonen designed much of the Nordic-modern school building himself, a network of traditional classrooms linked by spacious hallways, cinematic soft lighting and warm colors, a palatial (by American standards) teachers lounge for coffee and collaboration (complete with a sauna for teachers), and comfortable scattered nooks, crannies and couches for children to relax and curl up in with a buddy or a book.
Connecting all the pieces, flanked by the high-tech science lab, a fireplace and plush sofas, is a modular, wide-open library of books and magazines for children to enjoy.
It is the focal point of the school. On a recent visit, a teacher from Spain was nearly speechless after a few minutes inside the school. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “In Spain, our schools feel like prisons. But this – this is like a dream.”
Happonen points to a colorful assortment of hand-carved wooden boats mounted on his office wall, featuring different shapes, sizes and types of vessels.
“I saw those boats in a shop,” he recalls. “They were so beautiful. I decided I had to buy them, but I didn’t know why. I put them up on my office wall so I could see them all day.”
“Then I realized what they are,” he continued. “They are children. They represent the fact that all children are different, they start from different destinations and travel on different journeys. Our job as teachers is to help children navigate their journeys through storms and adventures, so they move safely and successfully into society and the world.”
Some aspects of Finland’s primary schools may be culture-specific and non-transferrable to other nations. But many other features may in fact be minimum “global best practices” for childhood education systems in Harlem, Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, Los Angeles, Dubai, Mexico City, South Africa and elsewhere.
These practices include early learning through play, equitable school funding, highly professionalized teacher training, a research-based and whole-child approach to school management, warmth and respect for children and teachers, learning environments of low stress and high challenge, strong special education, and treating all children as gifted and cherished individuals without sacrificing their childhoods to overwork or cram schools.
Why would any of our children, especially those from high-poverty backgrounds, deserve any less?
In the United States, decades of botched attempts at education reform have led to little or no improvement in our schools. As one of the founding fathers of the education reform movement, Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently declared, “If you look over the past 25 years at all the reforming we’ve been doing and all the spending we’ve been doing and still see flat [achievement] and slow slog as the main outcome, it’s pretty discouraging.”
For any parent, teacher or policymaker looking instead for inspiration on how we can work together to actually improve our children’s education, they can start by coming to Finland’s dream school in the forest.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
William Doyle is the executive producer of Transition of Power: The Presidency, which premiers tonight (Sunday, Jan 8 at 9 p.m. ET) on The History Channel. Doyle is also a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar and 2017 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Resident Fellow.