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Finnish schools begin term, many with redesigned buildings

Many Finnish school buildings are being redesigned in line with a new national core curriculum launched a year ago. It encourages thinking out of the box, abandoning traditional classroom set-ups in favour of more flexible, free-form arrangements to bolster learning.

Oppimisympäristö.
Kuopio's new Jynkkä School features flexible seating arrangements. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

Schools open on Thursday in many areas of Finland, including Tampere, Oulu and Kuopio and most Finnish-language schools in the capital region. Youngsters in Jyväskylä, Rovaniemi and Kouvola started school on Wednesday.

On holiday until next week are children in Lahti, Turku, Mikkeli as well as Swedish-language schools in the Helsinki area, among others. The school districts where the term begins later make up for the longer summer break with shorter autumn and/or Christmas holidays.

Thinking outside the box

Many kids will find physical changes at their schools. Buildings are being redesigned in line with a new national core curriculum launched a year ago. It encourages thinking out of the box, abandoning traditional classroom set-ups in favour of more flexible, free-form arrangements to bolster learning.

At many schools, the familiar rows of wooden desks, chalkboards and overhead projectors are gone, replaced by a variety of seating and room division options as well as electronic "smart boards".

Koulurakennus.
The Jynkkä School Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle
Parents visiting the new Jynkkä School in Kuopio this week were surprised by these changes.

"There was great amazement. They had a lot of questions about soundproofing, for instance," the school's head teacher Jorma Partanen tells Yle.

His institution is an example of what is now being described as not just a school, but rather a learning environment to support the new curriculum. It emphasises flexibility and aims at shared learning and creativity among pupils of different ages. This calls for more adaptable physical settings.

Decentralised decision-making

Details such as room size or furnishings are no longer decreed by the National Agency for Education in Helsinki. Rather, each school's administrators will have a free hand to rearrange and re-equip facilities as they see fit.

A pioneer in this regard is the Heinävaara School in Joensuu, eastern Finland, which was built as an open learning environment in the late 1990s. It did away with closed classrooms, instead featuring a large central learning area surrounded by open "learning nests".

"It opened the discussion in a way, but it also aroused criticism over acoustical problems," says Reino Tapaninen, Chief Architect at the National Agency for Education.

Now, nearly two decades later, there are more than a dozen such new-built or completely redesigned schools around the country, with more on the planning board.

Goodbye to standard classrooms

The Jynkkä School, where 380 pupils begin their fall term on Thursday, features plenty of open space, colourful seating and portable display screens. There are no standardised classrooms.

Istuimia.
Moveable seating in Kuopio. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle
Along with the physical re-shaping, educational administrators are aiming for a renovation of terminology. Instead of classrooms, they talk about learning environments.

Adaptability is key, including movable walls that can be used to easily form new spaces for small groups or specific activities. Learning takes place in varying groups including kids of different ages, abandoning traditional grade divisions. There are also efforts to encourage children to be physically active and collaborative during the day.

"In the life of a school, situations change and we have to focus on different kinds of things, even within a school day. Now we change group arrangements and give pupils special support," says Partanen.

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