Part of me was expecting to visit Finland and immediately be blown away by a radically different approach to education. I visited several schools in Helsinki and Espoo, and that wasn't exactly what I found. What stood out to me was how well Finland is addressing the basic things that you would expect from a school.
The first thing that struck me was the physical appearance of the schools. The buildings were beautiful and new. Outside spaces were vast with lots of room for students to roam. Indoor spaces were filled with natural light. The classrooms were clean, organized, and colorful.
I was impressed by the teachers. The teachers I spoke with came across as intelligent, serious, committed, and engaging, and they were enthusiastic about their work. I was also impressed by the amount of independence that the teachers possessed. Teachers were in charge of their classrooms without being accountable to a higher school authority, which I think promotes ownership. Since principals do not spend time monitoring their teachers in class, they can focus on broader school issues such as budget and development, which benefits the school and, in turn, the students. Teachers still obtain professional development throughout the year, but when it comes to their classroom teaching, they are trusted and respected as professionals and given substantial freedom.
I was impressed by the level of attention to each child. Teachers and staff meet frequently to discuss the needs of all students in the school - both general and special education. Based on those meetings, the school staff can respond to each child's needs in whatever manner is appropriate. For example, schools may provide extra academic support for students who need it, or reach out to social service agencies when children need the kind of support that would extend beyond the school day. Schools have designated special education teachers who move from class to class, and since they do not have their own classrooms to teach, they can provide varying levels of support to students from different classrooms, as needed. This allows school to be flexible about meeting students' needs as issues arise, and does not require a formal diagnosis or a complicated administrative process.
I also got the feeling that schools in Finland focus on the whole child. All students receive a free lunch, irrespective of family income, which has the positive benefit of (1) making sure that no students go hungry, and (2) not singling out students who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford lunch. In addition to the regular academic curriculum, students must fulfill demanding language requirements, which require them to master Finnish, English, and Swedish. Students also benefit from non-academic specialties such as sewing and woodworking. In general, the schools were warm and nurturing environments, and the students seemed happy, well-behaved, and engaged.
I think it's also worth noting that I did not detect concerns about onerous accountability standards or compliance requirements.
All in all, the schools I saw seemed like nice learning environments that were committed to their students' success.