Policy & Pedagogy

Finland Ditching Single Subjects in New Ed Reform Push

Perennial PISA darling Finland is taking a new approach to education by eliminating individual subjects like math and language and instead integrating them into broader contexts.

The flag of Finland

If you think school reform under the Common Core has been a tough slog, take the case of Finland. This country, which has consistently ranked highly in international standardized assessments, is revamping its "basic education" for students between 7 and 16 years of age to eliminate traditional topics such as math and language. In their place teachers will focus on competency areas across subjects, presented in the context of broader topics, or "phenomena."

According to a video featuring Irmeli Halinen, the head of curriculum development with the Finnish National Board of Education, because the world is changing, so should "everything connected to school." Because competence development and the questions pupils find meaningful require cooperation across school subjects, she noted, so should "learning content, pedagogy and school practices."

What the country risks is a drop in its standards in international assessments, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, which are published every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In the 2012 snapshot results for PISA, Finland came in 12th by mean score for math, reading and science, 24 rankings higher than American students.

The work of rethinking the nature of the competencies taught to students has been underway for several years; three rounds of draft documents built by working groups of "more than 300 people" began surfacing for public commentary in 2014. Now the national core curriculum is being given a local spin by local education agencies, which are expected to introduce new curricula for all grades by fall 2016. That will be rolled out across courses over the next four years.

The seven areas that teachers will focus on in the new list of competencies are:

  • Thinking and learning to learn;
  • Taking care of oneself, managing daily activities and safety;
  • Cultural competence or cultural literacy, interaction and expression;
  • Multi-literacy;
  • ICT competence
  • Competence for the world of work and entrepreneurship; and
  • Participation, influence and building the sustainable future.

In coverage by the UK newspaper The Independent, reporter Richard Garner said changes are already underway in capital city Helsinki for 16-year-olds. Lessons in history or geography are being replaced by "phenomenon" teaching, in which the students have experiences. A vocational course might include a lesson in the school cafeteria, where the student would learn math, language, writing and communication. Or a student might work in a team to pull together a project that incorporates economics, history, language and geography to study the European Union.

According to Garner's reporting, about seven out of 10 high school teachers have been trained for the new teaching approach —  receiving a small boost in salary along with it.

Garner quoted Helsinki official Pasi Silander, who explained, "What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life. Young people use quite advanced computers. In the past the banks had lots of bank clerks totting up figures but now that has totally changed. We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society."

At the same time, the schools themselves are being encouraged to get into the reform act by becoming "learning organizations' themselves. That means, according to a presentation that lays out the reform efforts, they'll try "varied working approaches," "well-being and safety in daily life," and "responsibility for the environment."

The hope for the reform, Halinen stated, is to achieve a "common dream —  that the joy of learning will be borne out of our students wondering and their own comprehension. We try to help our kids know how to make meaning and sense of what they are learning so they can see who they are."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.