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Why were Finnish schools so successful with distance and in-person learning during the pandemic?

On 18 March 2020, schools in Finland closed. On 14 May 2020, they reopened successfully. Why was Finland successful in transitioning to distance education and then back to face-to-face learning and teaching?

There is an a priori answer. Finns have a view of education and learning that often contradicts common wisdom (such as worrying less about the standardized performance of children and teachers’ accountability) to truly serve the wellbeing of children by empowering the highly selective and trained teacher force with trust.

Finns are passionate about face-to-face education even in the age of technology-driven educational services. They have invested heavily in new or refurbished twenty-first century superschools, which create superb and highly resourced teaching and learning environments that facilitate the face-to-face and digital interactions between teachers and students. Together with a serendipitous policy mix of national, local, and school decisions, the school is no longer only a place to teach and learn subjects but also a phenomenon where the whole learning experience and children’s growth occur. They put a lot of effort into making sure that the children feel safe under a relaxed culture of interaction between students and teachers.

The Finns have invested in two structural foundations to facilitate the pedagogic interaction: a powerful teaching force and a technological infrastructure (sound broadband internet access and educational tools so that teachers can navigate different pedagogic proposals and environments). They have reduced the number of smaller, less well-resourced schools, and instead, they have established large superschools to house more resources for many students. Fewer, well-resourced schools, rather than many low-resourced schools, is one of their key ideas.

Digitalization in schools followed digitalization in life—but schools went one step further. More screen time is not learning. Therefore, Finnish schools decided to provide digital access for everyone and train teachers and students with skills on how to use this technology for learning and wellbeing. They don’t force digitalization but make sure that if teachers and students want to explore digital means, all the schools are ready for them.

Since collaboration among all school agents (teachers, students, and parents) has always been essential in the Finnish model of education, and since the society and parents have a high value of education (for example, the teaching profession is one of the most highly demanded fields of university studies by high school students), it was not very difficult for schools and teachers to communicate with parents and students during the pandemic.

The pandemic accelerated the turn-of-the-century trends: more digitalization, flexible technology, teamwork, and a focus on the wellbeing of students and teachers. So, what should we expect in the future? In the short term, new spaces for outdoor activities, more digital skills, more constant formative evaluations for students, and more strategic planning for future crises in the long term.

Here are the key learnings shared by Finnish teachers, experts, and principals during the pandemic:

  • The need to keep the information and communication channels open and frequent among all people.
  • The need to bring the newly acquired skills into daily lives, perhaps with remote sessions once a week or per school term, as modern technology companies do.
  • The knowledge that we are living, in part, the normality of the future.
  • The pandemic is a phenomenon with solid consequences: loneliness kills.
  • A school is a place to learn academic skills and, perhaps more importantly, grow and share with others. A school is a place where one can safely fail and recover.
  • Teachers took a tremendous digital leap.
  • The majority opinion seems to be that closing schools hurt students.
  • Face-to-face teaching and learning is the correct form of education and deep learning.
  • Although the pandemic has driven the digital leap at all educational levels, the coronavirus will not change school curricula. The issue is how to approach rather than change the school curricula.
  • Education has been, and continues to be, the number one priority in Finland.
  • When everyone (students, parents, teachers, community) works together, we can get the best results.
  • Lifelong learning is not just a phrase; it is a necessity for every one of us.

Face-to-face education is so important to achieve. Digitalization is an instrument, a means to an end. Digital technology complements the work of teachers. The dual vision of digital preparedness and children’s wellbeing, backed by the already-in-place teachers’ pedagogic command, facilitated the successful transition back and forth between distance and face-to-face learning during the 2020-2021 coronavirus crisis.

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