Finnish schools are some of the highest-performing in the world. Their success is often attributed to rigorous teacher training, respect of the teaching profession, and an education system focused on reducing inequality. Yet there’s another, often overlooked, aspect of the Finnish success: classroom design. The Finn’s take the learning environment seriously, and they’re revolutionizing the school day as a result. A local Pittsburgh principal got a first-hand look.

In April 2014, Yarra Howze, then a teacher at Pittsburgh Sterrett 6−8, was selected by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to join a delegation of US educators visiting Helsinki, Finland, classrooms. Since her return, she has stepped into the role of principal at Pittsburgh Allegheny 6−8. We spoke with Howze about her trip and what aspects of the Finnish model she’d like to bring to her new school.

Remake Learning: In the United States, we still have classrooms designed to create future workers in an industrial world. Kids sit at desks working on assignments, the bell rings to signal the end of the “shift,” etc. How has Finland updated the classroom to reflect how kids learn today? 

Yarra Howze: Finns are big on collaboration and build with collaboration in mind. To promote that, nothing in the school had just one function. The cafeteria was also the auditorium and the gym. The classrooms I saw had curtains, foam floors, lot of color, and lots of space for displaying work on the corkboard walls in the hallways, everything had multiple uses.

The classrooms had big windows so you could be in the classroom and look out into the collaborative workspace. One particular school space in an elementary had grade level pods (K-2, 3-5) in the middle of the classrooms. Instead of what we’d call a hallway, there was a collaborative workspace. Kids could take off their shoes, sit on beanbag chairs, and lie on the floor. There were also tables in the classrooms so kids could work in groups with their peers. The desks could be moved easily for independent work or group work. The students had a lot of choice of where to work.

All of the technology was state of the art. Teachers had Smartboards, ceiling projectors, and sound systems in the room to make the environment more enriched and interesting for kids.

How else did the design make learning more engaging?

For starters, there were a lot of nonverbal signals—they just set a tone for the environment and school culture. There were a lot of themed classrooms. One school’s French classroom had chandeliers, mirrors with gold frames, and old, decorative furniture—heavy, solid wood tables. It looked like a little French boutique. At the same school, the math classroom was like a diner—with a black-and-white checkered floor, a Coke machine in the corner, and old-school bar stools with red desks and red chairs.

The kids felt like they owned the space, like it was intentionally set up for them to be inspired.

It made you feel like, “I want to go in there and learn something.” I thought that was absolutely awesome. It was visually stimulating and interesting. The kids felt like they owned the space, like it was intentionally set up for them to be inspired.

That’s great for kids. What about teachers? Was the space designed with them in mind, too?

Yes, the classrooms are designed so that teachers can have different vantage points to see kids in various workspaces, so you might have three different learning environments under one instructor. Having those different levels

allows them to tier [instruction] and meet students where they are academically—the spaces are designed for that. They’re meeting the needs of several different learning styles at once.

What else is different about the Finnish model?

Finnish kids start school later—at age 7 or 8. The elementary kids only go to school for four hours. Afterward, there are activities and clubs. Kids are very independent there. They take subways and buses at a very young age. If they have guitar lessons or gymnastics, they’re able to transport themselves.

This goes along with the level of autonomy that teachers have. They come in when their first period starts, and that may start a half an hour later than their colleague depending on their grade level. There’s flexibility in their schedules.

That’s interesting. So different from the “factory” model. How does that autonomy shape kids’ view of learning?

There’s a different way of viewing school there. It’s not presented to them as work in isolation. It’s just a part of life. They don’t get the idea that learning is only done in classrooms.

Walking through the hallways, I saw flat-screens with movies playing with captions from different languages. In the student lounge, there were posters and media spaces. Students are allowed to use their phones. Instead of pulling their phones out to text or use Instagram, they actually used them for their assignments. I asked a group of students why they’re not just talking to their friends instead of working, and they said, “My teacher trusts me, so I feel like I should respect that and get my work done.”

Then when they leave school, the phones are used more like a computer in their pocket. It is viewed as a learning tool.

What about test scores? Do they have the same pressures as here?

In Helsinki, you have a better chance of becoming a doctor or lawyer than becoming a teacher. It’s a rigorous process.
Over there, all schools are equal. They don’t publicize test scores. It’s truly a union of schools, if you will. The thinking is, “Let’s present all of our schools as the best schools.”

How about the teaching profession itself? Does that differ from the US?

In Helsinki, you have a better chance of becoming a doctor or lawyer than becoming a teacher. Universities only accept 10 percent of applicants to teacher programs. It’s such a rigorous process. Teachers are highly regarded and respected as part of the process of changing education instead of being assigned to a classroom and not really having a voice. Rigorous teacher preparation has a lot of impact on the quality of the education system, and it was very refreshing to see.

What changes, if any, will you be implementing here in Pittsburgh at your own school?

As a principal I have certainly taken note of what I experienced in Helsinki and have brought some of those ideas into my building. We have two collaborative workspaces now. We had the lockers removed and tables and chairs put into use for classes to work across the curriculum and across grade levels.

The first things students see when they walk into school are tables, chairs, and positive posters on walls that are setting the academic tone of the learning environment. These elements are telling students that learning is happening here. We have the ability to make warm educational spaces so kids feel like, “I can learn something here. I can be successful here.”

One of the most important aspects of my job is to create a positive educational space, for students and teachers.

What else? How can we do a better job here of supporting teachers so they can do their jobs well?

In Finland, I felt that when I went into those buildings and spoke with those teachers and school leaders, that there was camaraderie there, a level of trust and professionalism, high expectations for performance. Those are all certainly aspects I’ve brought with me in my new role as school principal.

This interview has been condensed and edited.