I've been in Jyväskyla for less than two weeks and have yet to delve deep into Finnish school culture. I feel like I'm skimming the surface and dunking my head under the surface when I can.
I can write with certainty that I cannot make any generalizations or declarations about the Finnish education system, and I doubt I will be able to once I leave in June. I have my eyes and heart open, and I have so many questions. My visits, observations and photographs are very much snapshots of incomplete stories of schools. For now, it's rather one-dimensional, and that's OK. I know I'll have stories to hear and stories to share over the next 3.5 months.
A Primary School
Primary schools in Finland include grades 1 - 6. As I understand, compulsory kindergarten will soon be added. Students enter first grade at 7 after many students have attended pre-school and kindergarten. This primary school is unique in that it is a teacher training school through the University. Education students are here observing, learning, and practicing over several years. All teachers in Finland are required to have a Master's degree and there is a strong sense that upon graduating from the university, students are ready to assume life as a confident, skilled teacher.
We were met by two charming sixth grade students who served as our tour guides. They both have been studying English for a couple of years and they are impressively fluent.
Here's a bit of the tour...
Compulsory education includes grade 1 - 9 in Finland. In their 9th grade year - at this time of the year, actually - students start applying to post-basic education - vocational education or upper secondary school. Vocational school can include academic course work, but the focus is career readiness through trades like culinary arts, technology, business and administration, tourism, natural resources, and health and social services.
Students who choose to apply for upper secondary school must have a high grade point average and a commitment to rigorous study. Typically, students between the ages of 16 - 19 study for three years while some do take four years to complete upper secondary studies. At the end of their studies, students take the Matriculation Exams to enter university, polytechnical universities, and/ or vocational schools.
On the day we visited - February 11 - 3rd/ 4th year students were celebrating their last days of school before they take three weeks for final study before the Matriculation Exams begin. That evening, across the country, students were participating in something like a "kick out day." I stayed for a bit to see a few of the presentations in the gym for students, teachers, and parents. Our primary purpose of this visit was to meet with the principal who, as a Fulbright Teacher, was in the United States. He gave us an overview of the Finnish education system in addition to some of the reform initiatives. For example, this school was just combined with another upper secondary school in efforts to consolidate and save money.
After the assembly, the graduates boarded trucks decorated with their banners. They took a ride through town, throwing out candy. Again, this was an event happening across this lovely nation.
Within three days, we observed traditional events for upper secondary students across Finland. Today - February 13 - the new upperclassman had their Vanhojen tanssit - a sort of senior ball. This involves students learning various dances - polka, tango, and others - through Sports class to be presented to the community. It was lovely and extraordinary, really -- 90+ high school students dancing formally with grace. It was such a unique sight to behold.