The Dream School in Kauniainen, Finland

by Sirkku Nikamaa

What is wrong with the school today? What are the skills and competencies that will best serve our students and the society at large in years to come? How do we acknowledge the creativity, skills and different talents of our students? Education authorities in Kauniainen, Finland asked these and many more questions when they saw that the school was no longer in touch with the world our students live in.

They decided that repeating old patterns just would not work anymore. They wanted to address the isolation of the school from the real life of the students and stop the city schools from turning into museums. The Dream School was born.

“What you learn without joy you forget without grief”

This old Finnish saying summarizes what the Dream School is all about. We needed to bring back the joy to learning. A route map and a longer list of key points that help us achieve that goal includes the following aspects.

Student centricity and multi-professional learning support
Redefined role of the teacher
Assessment for learning
Open source technology
An organization that learns and is well connected

Student centricity and focus on learning and growth
The Dream School aims to provide an open and inspiring atmosphere, which together with an individual learning track fosters the pupils’ positive self-image, inner motivation, joy, passion and curiosity.
Every student is different and their needs and learning paths are unique. The Dream School sees the student as an active and responsible member of the learning community whose learning path is supported by a multi-professional staff. In case of any difficulty with learning or motivation the students own teachers are responsible for identifying the needs and starting the process of appropriate support measures, which is provided by teachers, SEN-specialists, the social worker and the school psychologist – according to the specific needs of the student. As a consequence, we are attempting to fade out the concept and the “label” of SEN. Instead, we aim to provide a host of learning support services that can be more of less intensive, they can be of long or short duration and possibly include services by the above mentioned specialists.

Teaching redefined
If the task of the teacher is solely to transfer the knowledge from the teacher to the student, then teachers can easily be replaced by web-based programs or educational games – even books will do. In the Dream School teachers are learners as well and guides who engage in the interactive and collaborative learning process with the students. Our students bring a lot of real world knowledge and a variety of talents to school. Cross-curricular projects and individual learning helps recognize and build upon the student’s existing skills, knowledge and interests.

Assessment for learning
The Finnish education system in general is based on trust on schools and individual teachers. It does not rely on high stakes national testing or competition between schools. We do not stream or group students according to ability – in fact, it is illegal to do so. Teachers can test their own students and do quizzes along with assessing project work, learning portfolio work, peer assessment and self-reflection. Versatile and appropriate assessment can have a powerful, positive impact on learning. Report cards are given twice a year. Before the grades are given each subject teacher (or class teacher in primary) organizes a private development discussion with each student. During this discussion the student and the teacher reflect on the work and learning, achievement and set goals for the next term and outline a plan how to achieve those goals. These discussions and all other assessment is encouraging and supportive. The goal is to guide the learner to develop a realistic opinion of his learning and knowledge and to increase his/her ability for self-adjustment and responsibility for own learning and to make learning a happy and a positive experience.

Open source technology, open for learning
The Dream School Learning Platform is based on open source software that saves us in license fees and is more open for development and innovation. The Linux- based platform and some of the ICT tools are jointly developed by the Dream School staff and our partners. In ICT, the best journey is the one with the fewest steps. With this goal in mind we developed a reliable, single sign on, cloud based solution that is both economical and ecological. An independent study by the Finnish technical research Centre confirms important savings of energy, lower maintenance cost as well as longer lifespan for the hardware. Our systems and tools are user centered, partly user developed and they are all serve our central task: the support for growth and learning. ICT tools and services are useful, but we believe that the most important interaction always happens face-to-face.

A learning organization
In Dream School everyone is a learner and that includes the organization itself. We research and evaluate our work continuously and improve our performance along the Deming principles: Plan – Do – Study – Act. The Dream School collaborates with a few university researchers and small and medium sized companies whose work with our staff and students in turn helps support our goals.

We have established a positive dialogue and multiple ways to engage with the parents and our local community.

The Dream School could be described as innovative, but it is not an experiment. The concept is founded upon solid organizational and pedagogical research and known best practice. Part of the initial project was funded by the Finnish Board of Education and through public private partnerships. Universities and other partners have conducted and continue to conduct research at the school and they continue to develop tools and practice in collaboration with the Dream school staff and students.

The key is to pay attention to what works, to value and care for all learners i.e students, teaching staff and supporting staff, and to keep the focus on learning and growth. As a learning community the Dream School continues to develop, grow and learn – just like our students, the life long learners that our school has had the opportunity to guide and support on their learning journey for a while.

This article was originally written for the Finnish Institute in London, and was first published here.

The writer is Finnish an educator and a teaching and learning consultant with teaching experience from schools in Belgium and in Finland. She is currently based in London and running a consultancy that builds links between best practice in Finland and in the UK. For more information about the Dream School and the Finnish education system and practice contact: