It can be a hugely jarring experience for students to return to school after several weeks of blissful freedom.

Aside from new teachers, new classmates and new curriculum (ugh), there’s often a daunting new locker/hallway situation and, perhaps most unsettling, an entirely new social landscape in the lunchroom requiring careful navigation. Where to sit this year … and with whom? Needless to say, it can be a lot to deal with.

In Finland, many students who recently headed back to class from kesäloma — summer vacation — were left in an even more disoriented state. While the actual buildings that many pupils returned to remained the same, the interiors of said buildings had been dramatically revamped: walls torn down, desks and chalkboards hauled away and the entire notion of what students thought an academic setting should look like turned on its head.

You see, while a plurality of students — and not just in Finland — are encouraged to think outside of the box, school design has traditionally been less exploratory, less adventurous. Teachers can strive to make their classrooms as inviting as possible but at the end of the day, division and segregation is what dictates the interior layout of schools. It’s a rigid arrangement that places students in literal boxes and keeps them largely separated — by grade level, special educational needs and sometimes by gender — until graduation day. It’s been this way forever.

As part of a pointed leap away from traditional classroom arrangements, a handful of Finnish schools were redesigned over the summer to better reflect a new national core curriculum. In fact, Finnish education officials are loath to refer to the things-formerly-known-as-classrooms as such. Instead, they’re now called “learning environments” as they only scantly resemble the neat-rows-of desks-and-chalkboard set-up found the world over.

Learning without walls

As Finnish national public broadcasting company Yle Uutiset reports, “flexible, free-form arrangements to bolster learning” are the new norm. Even the National Agency for Education no longer has a hand in choosing classroom furniture or establishing classroom size. Instead, it's up to individual school administrators to “rearrange and re-equip facilities as they see fit.”

Although newly built and not recently revamped, one such new-model school is the Jynkkä School located in Kuopio, a sizable city famed for its fish pastries and scenic lakeside setting.

As Yle Uutiset describes, the Jynkkä School is free of “standardized classrooms” and instead features “plenty of open space, colourful seating and portable display screens.”

Adaptability is key including movable walls that can be used to easily form new spaces for small groups or specific activities. Learning takes place in varying groups including kids of different ages, abandoning traditional grade divisions. There are also efforts to encourage children to be physically active and collaborative during the day.

“In the life of a school, situations change and we have to focus on different kinds of things, even within a school day. Now we change group arrangements and give pupils special support,” head teacher Jorma Partanen explains.

Completed in 2013 in Espoo, Finland’s second largest city, the stunning Saunalahti School also is often mentioned as a modern Finnish school with a daring and gloriously nontraditional layout. “Some students don’t feel comfortable in a [traditional] classroom,” says Ilkka Salminen of Helsinki-based Verstas Architects. “Every interior and exterior space is a potential place for learning.”

A Finnish classroom Traditional desks in many Finnish classrooms are now a thing of the past as the country moves toward a more flexible open plan model for classrooms. (Photo: Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

About that noise ...

Yle Uutiset notes that while "learning environment"-centric buildings like the Jynkkä School and Saunalahti School are gradually becoming the new norm, Finnish schools that eschew traditional classroom set-ups have existed in this innovation-minded Nordic nation for some time. Opened in the late 1990s, a pioneer in the nontraditional school movement is Heinävaara School, located in the college town of Joensuu in the east of the country.

“[Heinävaara School] opened the discussion in a way, but it also aroused criticism over acoustical problems,” Reino Tapaninen, chief architect at the National Agency for Education, explains to Yle Uutiset.

As for the schools following in the Heinävaara School’s vaunted footsteps, Feargus O’Sullivan reports for CityLab that out of all 4,800 schools spread across Finland, 57 of them were built in 2015 and 44 in 2016; many more have undergone interior overhauls over the past several years. All, whether newly built or recently refurbished, sport open-plan designs where sliding partitions outnumber permanent walls. Still, a majority of Finnish schools have traditional layouts, although they’ll eventually be converted on a facility-by-facility basis.

As for those aforementioned acoustics, which obviously can be problematic in a place of learning with few walls, Tapaninen explains to CityLab that minimizing noise is a top design consideration.

“We are using more acoustic materials on the ceilings, while textile flooring has become more popular — the materials are much better than they used to be, and now far easier to clean,” Tapaninen says, noting that an acoustic designer is involved with each school construction/remodeling project. “We now have what we call ‘shoe-less schools,’ where pupils either change into softer shoes or simply wear socks when they come indoors.”

Tapaninen goes on to note that Finnish society, as a whole, is far less hushed than it used to be, which has made the idea of open classrooms a bit more palatable for typically reserved Finns. “It's possible that society itself wasn't ready during the 1950s and '60s for the open classroom experiments that took place. Now, conditions and attitudes are different, and the idea that a school needs to be entirely quiet is disappearing to an extent.”

Finnish education: Top-notch and impossible to replicate

A Finnish student working on math Finnish students' test scores are among the highest in the world despite being enrolled in an education system that's more laid-back and cooperative than militaristic in nature. (Photo: Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

Can the United States even begin to emulate the wholesale transformation of schools and classrooms in Finland, a small but big-brained nation with a total population (5.2 million) that's less than the Atlanta Metro region?

While individual schools certainly have attempted to veer away from traditional classroom layouts and toward an open plan model, the likelihood of the U.S. Department of Education embracing a scheme that’s so unorthodox is unlikely. This is largely because private-school-less Finland — frequently at the top of the charts when it comes to global education rankings — approaches education in such a fundamentally different — wholly contrarian, even — manner to begin with.

As Chris Weller writes for Business Insider, the well-funded Finnish education system has transformed itself to place utmost value on flexibility and integration between disciplines and grade levels. Comingling and cooperation between students of different ages and academic capabilities is encouraged while greater emphasis is placed on creative thinking and the arts in lieu of lieu standardized testing.

Homework is minimal so that kids can, well, enjoy being kids when not in school, and ample playtime is compulsory. As William Doyle writes in a 2016 op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, in Finland “fresh air, nature and regular physical activity breaks are considered engines of learning.”

And remember those countless hours spent learning to write in perfect cursive? In 2015, handwriting courses were phased out entirely in Finnish schools and replaced with keyboard typing.

To reiterate, Finland — where playtime is heavy, homework is light, creativity is encouraged and standardized testing is a rarity — is home to one of the sharpest (the most geniuses per capita) and the most literate populaces in the world.

What’s more, unlike in the U.S. where teachers are woefully underpaid, Finnish educators are as generously compensated — and respected — as typical white-collar workers such as doctors and lawyers. Teaching is a highly prestigious gig. “The kind of freedom Finnish teachers enjoy comes from the underlying faith the culture puts in them from the start, and it's the exact kind of faith American teachers lack,” writes Weller.

As Doyle, an American who enrolled his child in the Finnish education system for five months while living abroad, explains, politics have no place in the Finnish education system. “Our mission as adults is to protect our children from politicians,” a Finnish childhood education professor tells him. “We also have an ethical and moral responsibility to tell businesspeople to stay out of our building.”

Refreshing right? It’s certainly a far cry from how America’s underfunded, bureaucracy-dominated public education system functions.

This all being said, the U.S. has plenty of other walls to knock down in the realm of public education before we can get to actual classroom walls. But Finland, land of saunas, death metal and Marimekko, has provided us with an excellent template if we ever get there.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.