“I would die for [my students] and they know it.”
— High School Teacher at Elias-koulu lukio, Helsinki, 2018
When I visited the Finnish Waldorf school Elias-koulu lukio with undergraduate students from the University of Helsinki this past spring, I was struck by so much of what I observed in that school: the autonomy of both teachers and students, the deep commitment to community, and the overall trust in the system. In part, it was fascinating to see a Waldorf school in practice, but what was more striking was understanding all of the ways that the model fits into the broader paradigm of the Finnish education system, and their approach to assessment.
For those unfamiliar with the Waldorf model of schooling (also referred to as the Steiner model), it was originally developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The model focuses on reaching students where there are at along the three stages of child development: play is emphasized in early childhood, working up to the development of critical reasoning and empathy by the end of secondary education. What is perhaps most notable when one walks into a Waldorf school, though, is the lack of traditional “structure.”
When I was given a tour of Elias-koulu with the group of international education systems, we witnessed many hallmarks of the Waldorf model. We began by passing a mixed first and second grade classroom that had no desks and chairs. The teacher leading the tour explained that this was an intentional choice so as to not limit the movement of the students because they understand that, at their stage of development, not restricting movement is critical. Most of these same 5-7 year-old students will remain in the school through the end of their secondary education, so community building in these shared spaces is also prioritized.
We then continued our tour around the school, visiting a eurythmy class (another staple of the Waldorf model), as well as a number of other more traditional classroom environments. At the end of the tour, we sat down with the teacher and she shared more about her experiences teaching at the school.
In describing the Waldorf model to us, she described that her school’s basic pedagogy (what she described as a “pedagogy of love”) centers the teacher not as a “god,” but instead as an equal of the students. According to her, teaching is a form of art, so it only makes sense that teacher also be granted the same freedom exercised by traditional artists.
The Finnish education system has become known for its lack of national accountability measures–perhaps most notably, for its of annual standardized tests. Whenever I have visited schools in Finland, one of the first questions I have asked teachers and administrators is how they assess their students in the absence of such testing.
When I asked the teacher at Elias-koulu, she responded simply, “I am constantly assessing them.”
Having observed her teaching just a few hours before, it took me a moment before realizing she was right. I had not registered so many of her basic teaching practices as “assessments,” but she had embedded meaningful checks of learning throughout her class in subtle, yet powerful ways, whether it was little assignments and daily check-ins, self- and peer-evaluations, or full-group discussions, she was constantly making note of students’ individual growth and learning. It helps, of course, that the scale of her classes were small by American public school standards, and that she had previously taught her students before and gotten to know them more holistically.
At the end of the year, she asks her students to give themselves a grade, and then she has the option to decide if that grade is ultimately correctly assigned. I was surprised to learn that the student-assigned grades almost alway end up matching the grade she has selected for them.
Though most schools in Finland do not follow the Waldorf model explicitly, the core of the model is the same as what I understand to be the core of the Finnish system: trust.
So much of what have become known as characteristically “Finnish” education practices are built upon a deep sense of trust among teachers, parents, administrators, and students. Whether it is the small things–such as the national practice of 15 minutes of “break time” per hour of teaching, or the bigger things–like the lack of national accountability measures to control the ways schools are administered and teachers teach, the Finnish education system, in its best form, it built upon sense of trust.
This trust is not born without high standards, though: the high standards for educating and training teachers in Finland (i.e. the national requirement that all elementary and secondary teachers have at minimum a Masters degree in relevant content area) are a key piece in this puzzle. Understanding the dynamics between such high standards and the deep investment in building strong communities is, I think, ultimately at the core of building successful education systems.