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Learning Activity 2: Co-Teaching - Inclusive Classroom Practice

Learning activity at Lukkari Primary School in Nurmijärvi, Finland 6th - 10th February 2017

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EiTTT partners and colleagues from across Europe gathered in Finland in February 2017 for the second Learning Activity of our project.  While we were based in Helsinki in southern Finland, our daily destination was Lukkari Primary School in Nurmijarvi, a rural municipality with a population of 41,000 people, located approximately 37 km north of the capital city.  For most of us therefore, it was a very different type of journey to work every day - through a pristine winter wonderland of deep snow and sub-zero temperatures (-14 -18)!  Our week-long learning journey about Finland, its people and its education system, was enhanced by the wonderfully warm welcome extended to the team by teacher and project partner Kirsi Lemponen, her colleague Satu Kastikainen, school principal Tiina Nordgren and all the pupils and staff of Lukkari school. 


With our Finnish partners and colleagues we comprised a project team of twenty people.  Our focus was a study of the school’s successful model of ‘co-teaching for inclusion’, whereby a mainstream teacher and an experienced special education teacher, supported by a classroom assistant, work on a full-time basis in mainstream classes. In each of these classes there are approximately twenty-four children, 7 – 10 of whom have special educational needs.  We were privileged with much opportunity to observe teacher / pupil interaction in a variety of classrooms and to be afforded time to discuss our daily observations with teachers and the school principal. Our learning was extended during teacher presentations and an Inclusion seminar and during our engagement with the students, teachers and the principal teacher of the special school, ‘Kivenpuisto’, which shares the Lukkari school campus.

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Lukkarin Koulu (Lukkari Primary School)

In Lukkari school, as in Finland generally, children commence their primary schooling at age 7 (or sometimes 6) and proceed through grades 1 - 6 before transferring to second-level school.  Like most primary schools in Finland, Lukkari school is, by European standards, a relatively small- to medium-sized school with a current enrolment of 278 pupils aged between 6 and 13 years.  Nineteen teachers and eight classroom assistants together with the principal teacher are employed there.  The school day extends from 8.00am – 2.55pm, and offers a staggered timetable of between 19 and 25 hours per week, depending on the age of the child.  Each lesson lasts 45 minutes. Other than in very exceptional (weather-related) circumstances, the children spend all recess periods (15 – 20 minutes each) outdoors.   

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As well as the mandated curriculum subjects, primary schools in Finland are required to offer a selection of elective subjects / activities during the school week.  In Lukkari school these electives are rotated weekly so that all children in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades can experience a range of learning opportunities in visual art, cookery, woodwork, dance, etc.  This structure to the school programme was of much interest to the team, as were the following facts:

  •     The population of Finland is approximately 5.4 million (i.e. just 18 inhabitants per square km).

  •     Non-national people comprise 4.8% of the population.

  •     There are two official languages in Finland;  Finnish and Swedish.  English is also widely spoken and a requirement of the national curriculum.  Children take English lessons from Grade 3 at the l  l     latest at primary school (from Grade 2 at Lukkari school). Most primary school children are also offered German lessons.

  •     In Finland education is free at all levels.  School books, lunches, all materials and transportation are provided at no charge.


  •     A revised primary school curriculum was introduced in 2016.  Teaching targets are outlined in the national curriculum.


  •     While education providers must adhere to the national core curriculum, within that framework teachers are afforded a high degree of independence, and in each municipality are free to draw up local curricula.
  •     National testing of school students is not compulsory.  Schools can make their own decisions about the testing of students.

  •     There is no school inspection to monitor performance or results.  Yet, Finnish school students have traditionally performed at or near the top of the international PISA performance scale.

  •     The status of the teacher in Finland is exceptionally high.  Entry to initial teacher education is very competitive with just 7% - 10% of applicants accepted onto programmes.  Teacher preparation is university based and extends over five years.  Most beginning teachers hold a master’s degree and have access to ongoing professional development,


The basic principle of Finnish education is one of equal access to high quality education for all citizens.  Hence, most children are educated in public schools, a school system developed in the 1970s. 



The provision of resources to schools aims to be of similar standard across the country.   Equality of educational opportunity is the aspiration, regardless of family background or place of residence.

For the project team, equality was palpable in every aspect of life in the school.  It was evident in the respect shown to each child and in the regard for their individuality and independence.  E.g. Transitions from classroom to outdoor recess were managed effortlessly, with children quietly leaving the classroom and happily returning without reminders about appropriate behaviour or stipulations to form rigid lines.  The school lunch time seating arrangement provided for a convivial atmosphere in which children, teachers (and project team members!) of all ages mixed and conversed.   Children from grades 3rd, 4th and 5th grades were also mixed for elective subjects.  As we observed, children in Lukkari school are held in high esteem by all school staff and this is thoroughly reciprocated.

Steps of Support

We learned that with a view to educational and social equality, there are steps of support in place in the Finnish school system to enable each child to maximise his or her potential.  A holistic concept of educational potential prevails, with an emphasis on providing for the balanced development of the individual. The level of support offered to each child must be clearly warranted and documented, with considerable justification required for separate specialised support in a special class or school.  The ‘step’ on which a child is placed is reviewed regularly, with much parental input in these decisions.  Children can be moved up or down ‘steps’ as necessary.

With a focus on providing appropriate support for each child at the earliest stage, the steps of support at primary school level are as follows:


  • General Support in mainstream classes (pedagogical discussion and evaluation; differentiation; guidance counselling; part-time learning support or special education; special needs assistance; student welfare; planning for learning).

  • Intensified Support (as above, with enhanced support, further testing and planning for learning, children must reach minimum goals in each curriculum area, goals are regularly reviewed).

  • Special Support With recommendation from student’s welfare team together with parental support (the highest level of support with multi-professional pedagogical discussion and observation, compulsory individual education planning, support may be provided in mainstream class, special class or special school).


Each municipality is required to report on a yearly basis to the national government on the numbers of students receiving intensified and special educational support.

Co-teaching at Lukkari school

In an alternative to separate special class provision, four of the five special education teachers at Lukkari school teach on a full-time basis alongside class teachers in mainstream classes.  A decision to introduce this co-teaching model in grades 1 – 4 in the school was taken some years ago as a consequence of dissatisfaction on the part of special education teachers with the performance and behaviour of children in special classes.  Following parental consultation, four ‘new’ mainstream classes were formed, each of which includes up to ten children who would previously have been placed in special classes on a full-time basis. In each of these co-taught classes there are three adults, i.e. two teachers and a classroom assistant available to all children. Co-teaching is a methodology which is highly recommended in Finland’s revised national curriculum.  The project team spent much of the week observing in these classes and considering the merits and challenges of this approach in the context of ‘inclusive education’.

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We observed:

  •     A variety of co-teaching approaches employed by each team of teachers (e.g. One teach – one assist; Team teaching; Flexible grouping; Station teaching).

  •     Seamless interaction and wordless communication between co- teachers and between these teachers and assistants, which allowed co-taught lessons to flow without interruption.  Each teacher instinctively knew when to take the lead with the whole class or group, when to assist, when to move in to provide individual support to a child or distribute materials, etc. The impression was of a carefully choreographed performance that saw the needs of every child in the room accommodated at all times.  We were assured however that there had been no rehearsal before our visit (!); that each co-teaching pair had selected to work together when the model was first introduced, and had taught together for several years. Teachers reported that this level of cooperation initially entailed a considerable degree of planning on a daily basis after school hours.  However, with experience, the time required for such planning has significantly reduced.
  •     The high quality relationship between co-teaching adults, and the exemplary adult-child relationships in this context also.  Familiarity and shared experience are important for effective co-teaching.  Children in Lukkari school address teachers and classroom assistants by their first names.

  •     Teachers supporting each other. E.g. A team member observed:  ‘One teacher notices that the classroom assistant has been working with a particular child, and makes sure to call on this child for an answer when it is apparent he is ready to contribute’.

  •     The invaluable role of the classroom assistant, sometimes contributing equally with teachers to activities in the lesson, and at other times engaged in a relatively low key, background role; highly attentive but not drawing attention.

  •     The possibilities for heterogeneous group work.  A small break-out room adjoins each mainstream classroom, with doors left ajar between the two rooms. This space facilitates specialised group and one-to-one activities with a teacher or assistant.  Such support during lessons is available for all children whether or not they have special needs.

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Genuine inclusion: Team members reported being several hours in each classroom before any ‘special’ needs of children became evident, as all children were receiving more individualised support. Moreover, the needs of individual children were immediately acknowledged and accommodated.  A team member described the following intervention:  ‘One child has gone very quickly from being content to tearful and throws a glue stick to the ground.  The classroom assistant is quick to respond and goes to work quietly with the child, leaving the teacher to proceed with the class.  Although the assistant moves in to deflect attention away from the child and encourage the class to listen instead to the teacher - all three adults cooperating so that there is minimal disruption to the class - still the individual child’s needs are being met (rather than being shut down).  Fascinating to observe, beneficial to teaching and learning, and responsive to the child’.

The mainstream class setting was beneficial in other ways. One of the team noticed that, ‘One of the boys is restless during writing practice, but the girl beside him encourages him to stay on task.  He turns out to be (Child named) who in preschool had serious issues with biting and kicking, and was considered perhaps unsuitable for inclusion in mainstream.  Now, however, the child beside him has greatly influenced his behaviour, looking after him and making sure he fits in’.

That differentiated textbooks are used for Maths, Finnish and English.  These books are very similar in appearance as the book covers and the first page of each chapter are identical.  In the ‘easier’ version, exercises are simplified (more support, fewer choices) and there are fewer tasks to be completed.  The font size of text is also slightly enlarged in this version.  These textbooks greatly facilitate effective co-teaching and practical inclusion.


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Our Conclusions:

Co-teaching as practised in Lukkari School is highly beneficial for pupils:

  •     It provides learning opportunities for all children in the classroom – i.e. genuine inclusion. During observation in these classrooms it was not possible for the project team members to distinguish between children with / without special educational needs.  All children in these classrooms were offered equal learning opportunities.

  •     Children with special needs are not only ‘socially’ included, they are practically included in class learning.

  •     It facilitates children’s different learning styles.

  •     It provides opportunity for supported group work.

  •     It enables peer tutoring and learning from a variety of ‘role models’ including teachers in collaborative roles.

  •     Diversity:  Children can learn to accept ‘difference’ as the norm.  This can facilitate the development of more heterogeneous friendship patterns and a sense of empathy at an early age. 

  •     It provides for a multiplicity of abilities, rather than defining any one child as ‘special’ in a universal sense.  Therefore, it is likely to enhance self-esteem, as all children (and not least those with special needs) will gain confidence from having their particular strengths in different curriculum areas acknowledged in a mainstream context.

  •     It is a valuable alternative approach to separate special class support in mainstream schools.

Co-teaching is also beneficial for teachers:

  •     It enables shared assessment of, and planning for children’s needs – potential for more effective teaching, learning, differentiation, inclusive education.

  •     It provides more opportunity to get to know individual children – can better address the needs of individuals – genuine inclusion.

  •     At all times the focus can be on teaching and learning, as the classroom assistant provides support with administrative tasks. 

  •     It provides opportunity to manage the class / children’s behaviour more discreetly so that learning is not negatively impacted.

  •     Teachers can learn in practice from one another – sharing curriculum knowledge, methodologies and interests.

  •     It provides for flexibility of practice.  Co-teaching approaches may be designed in accordance with varied teaching and learning styles.

  •     Support:  There is opportunity to share the pressures and challenges of classroom life – always someone to talk to.

  •     It can facilitate better self-evaluation via ongoing critical reflection with a teaching colleague.

Co-teaching requires certain teacher competences and commitments:

  • Trust between teacher colleagues
  • Open-mindedness
  • Interest in working together

  • Shared values

  • Similar work ethic

  • Flexibility – acceptance of different approaches to teaching and interacting with children

  • Good communication skills

  • Daily pedagogical discussion

  • Confidence in one’s own abilities

  • Willingness to learn from others

  • Willingness to take risks, to be vulnerable

  • Willingness to commit to shared planning and critical reflection

  • Clear understanding of responsibilities and boundaries

  • Willingness to share full responsibility for students and for liaising with parents

  • Supportive leadership (school principal)

The few drawbacks we considered:

  • Might students become too dependent on immediate assistance and be discouraged from trying?

  • Might individual teachers feel they have lost independence rather than gained flexibility in teaching approaches?

Lessons from Finland

While the placement of children with varied learning needs in mainstream primary school classes may prevent social exclusion, it does not necessarily facilitate educational inclusion.  However, the practice of co-teaching in such classes can offer much potential for advancing the learning of all children in these classes. The shared expertise and commitment of two different teachers and a classroom assistant in a context of considerable pupil diversity can make inclusive education a realisable goal. We recommend therefore that school leaders consider the strategy of co-teaching as a potential means of giving more practical effect to the policy of inclusive education in their schools.


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