Finland’s Education Minister Discusses New National Curriculum and PISA Scores

By Madeline Will — October 06, 2016 9 min read
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This fall, Finland rolled out a new national curriculum that emphasizes interdisciplinary and student-centered learning.

This is a significant education reform for the Nordic country that has become internationally known for its strong school system after its students have scored at or near the top of international exams for years (although in the last two Program for International Student Assessment cycles, Finnish scores have slipped).

The new national curriculum, which went into effect in August, moves away from isolating subjects in silos and towards multidisciplinary learning modules. While education in Finland is decentralized and local school systems decide exactly what will be taught, the new curriculum requires schools to have at least one extended period of multidisciplinary, “phenomenon-based” teaching and learning, where students will study a traditional subject in a holistic manner. Students must be involved in planning these periods and must be able to assess what they learned from it.

Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, the Finnish minister of education and culture, was in Washington for two days in late September to meet with U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. and other education officials. She also attended the White House Arctic Science Ministerial.

The education minister sat down with me to discuss the rollout of the curriculum, Finland’s investment in teacher education, and the upcoming release of the latest round of PISA scores.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. See selected excerpts from her interview in a video at the end of this post.

Q. The new Finnish core curriculum is being implemented this fall. What does that look like in classrooms, and what was the motivation behind the shift?

A. It’s very exciting; it’s a big change for us. We emphasize, of course, a very strong base of knowledge, but we also want to see our children to learn new skills and competencies like critical thinking, learning-to-learn skills, more like multiliteracy, as we call it, social skills, [Information and Communication Technologies] competencies and so on. Many new skills are in a very strong position in the national core curriculum.

Some international newspapers wrote that Finland is giving up subjects. That’s not exactly how it is, but we want to see more cooperation between teachers in different subjects, and more multi-disciplinary learning models. Schools can choose a theme like climate change and you can look at it from very different perspectives, from very different subjects like mathematics. It’s culture—it’s everything. It’s giving our children skills to think about subjects like climate change from different perspectives. We call it phenomenon-based learning, but I know that’s a bad translation. We haven’t found a better one yet.

Q. The new curriculum requires that students be involved in the planning and assessment of these phenomenon-based lessons. Why is that?

A. We want to see our children to take more active roles in learning. We want every child to succeed in their studies. Different students learn in different ways.

In Finland, we don’t believe in standardized testing—we don’t have any. We don’t choose the materials, the teachers can choose themselves. They have had a high-quality education, and they’re strong professionals, and they know what’s best for just those students that they have in their classroom.

Q. How were teachers prepared for the new curriculum?

A. Our teachers have had a very active role in this new curriculum process for four years now. The national curriculum was made by the National Board of Education, which is a center for experts in education, and it has been made together with teachers all around Finland. It has been a very interactive process.

Then after that, all communities, all municipalities, and all schools get their own local core curricula. And [teachers] have a very active role with that work and then all the teachers can choose—they have a strong autonomy in choosing materials and choosing how they teach and where they teach. We want to see our children to learn not only in the classroom, but also outside, in our society. You can learn anywhere.

Q. According to the last PISA results, over a quarter of Finnish students said they are not happy at school and felt like they didn’t belong. Will this be addressed within the new curriculum?

A. I think it’s very important that the teachers are motivating learning and [students] feel that it is fun to be at school. This is a challenge in Finland. We hope that this new curriculum will help in making learning more fun. We see that in research and in everyday life, when you are motivated, when you see the reason for learning, then you will learn better and then the good learning outcomes will follow.

Q. Finland’s PISA scores in reading, math, and science have declined since 2006. Is the Ministry of Education taking any measures to improve the scores?

A. Finland is one of the top countries in the world in PISA and we’ve been very successful in that, but we see that in all Western countries, the results in learning outcomes are going down. And that’s a problem, of course. We want to constantly improve our excellent education system. And now we have a national core curriculum. We’re very much investing in teacher education. We want to provide our teachers with more education, for example, in digital learning, new pedagogy, new learning environments, and so on. There’s always room for improvement.

Q. The next round of PISA scores will be released in December. How are you expecting Finland to fare?

A. It was kind of a surprise that we did so well in PISA studies. We know that we have an excellent education system in Finland, but we’re not doing it to be good in PISA. We’re doing it because we want all our children to learn and we want our small country—only 5.5 million people—to be a good society to all our children. We don’t have standardized testing in Finland, we don’t do school rankings or anything. We just want to give all our children a very high-quality education and we want to build our education system based on values like equality and equity.

We want to provide all our children with equal opportunities, irrespective of their family background, gender, or anything like that. You can just go to the nearest school to your house and it’s a promise from our society: Your child will get the best, world-class education, irrespective of where you live in Finland.

Q. Many U.S. educators look to Finland for insight on building a strong education system. Is there any area in education that you look to the United States for insight?

A. It’s very important that we cooperate with different countries, that we learn the best practices from different countries. You cannot copy an education system, it is unique, and has a long history and so on. But it’s very interesting to see what the United States is doing in digitalization and digital learning, for example. We’re very interested in that. And we wish to cooperate even more with you.

Q. You mentioned that Finland is emphasizing digital learning in teacher education programs. How is educational technology currently integrated in Finnish classrooms, and how are you working on improving this going forward?

A. In Finland, we have several reforms going on in our government in the field of digitalization. We want to see our schools use computers, laptops, and smartphones for learning more than they do now. We are giving our teachers education in that field. We think it’s important for teachers to be capable of using new learning technologies and new learning solutions in everyday life. As we know, our children use all these devices, tablets, and smartphones in everyday life, so I think it’s very important that schools also see that as an opportunity for learning.

We all have almost all information in our hands, all the time, and I think it’s important to feed the curiosity of our children to take the best out of it, to solve very complex problems in the world, and to see the opportunities they have in life.

Q. I recently spoke with some U.S. State Teachers of the Year who traveled to Finland over the summer. They said that some educators told them they were concerned about adjusting to teaching an influx of refugees. Is the ministry preparing for this change in demographics?

A. In Europe and in Finland also, we have more and more children from different backgrounds. They don’t speak Finnish or Swedish. It’s a very difficult situation for us because we don’t have the background in multicultural teaching. We now focus very much on teacher education to give them tools to help the children be integrated in society. I’d like to see in the future that we have more teachers who have immigrant backgrounds so they could be role models and help the other teachers to [teach] a classroom with children of different backgrounds and countries.

Children, they learn languages very easily so the first step is [for them] to learn the language and then [schools will] integrate children to normal classrooms as fast as possible so they will get friends, they will learn from them, and they will get the same opportunities as all the other children have in Finland.

Q. Finland’s teacher education programs are able to have a very low selection rate because there are so many applicants. What makes the teaching profession so popular?

A. Teachers are so respected in our society. I think it comes from the fact that they have this high-quality master’s degree education, and also the fact that teachers have such a strong autonomy. They’re not just implementing some curricula, but they have a very active role. They can choose materials, they can choose how they teach, where they teach, when they teach. They are professionals. Our society trusts in our teachers.

Q. As Finland rolls out the new national curriculum this fall, what are the next steps on the horizon?

A. We’re trying to help the teachers implement it and take the best out of it, and we’re continuing investing in teacher education. We have this new model in Finland where we will educate tutor teachers. Every school has a tutor teacher who helps the other teachers implement the new national curriculum and helps the other teachers with new digital learning methods and technologies. We have good experiences in some municipalities from this model, and now we’re trying to spread it to the whole country, so teachers can learn from other teachers.

Our teachers have many opportunities to get more teacher education during their career, but we wish to have even more of that. This new tutor teacher model is an answer to that. It’s sometimes very difficult for teachers to take two days off and go to some courses. That’s why we’re trying to bring the learning to everyday life. It’s a collaborative learning. We wish our teachers to cooperate even more, to teach together, in small groups. That’s one of the ideas of our new curriculum.

More on Finnish Education:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.