Thanks to a new set of reforms focused on interdisciplinary learning, Finnish students can say goodbye to subject-area classes like math and language arts—at least for a few weeks each year.
Finland is often held up as a model for successful education, thanks to years of high (if declining) test scores on international comparison tests. But Helsinki’s education manager, Marjo Kyllonen, says that the country’s current system doesn’t go far enough in teaching students information and skills that are relevant to the real world (the ones that don’t show up on PISA results). “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system,” she told The Independent, “so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow.”
Starting in August 2016, that redesigned system will come in the form of “phenomenon” teaching, which in theory replaces traditional subject-based classes—history, math, foreign language—for interdisciplinary ones based on broader topics like the European Union or vocation-specific lessons that draw from multiple subject areas. In most cases, this model will likely lead to lessons co-taught by teachers from different subject areas.
The Independent (U.K) calls this “one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state"—but, says Pasi Sahlberg, formerly of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and now a visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the changes aren’t as broad as they might seem.
Finland isn’t actually “scrapping” subjects entirely, he says. The newest iteration of Finland’s National Curriculum Framework will require schools throughout the country to implement “at least one extended period” of phenomenon teaching, but the specifics of what that looks like will be left up to individual school systems.
According to The Independent, Helsinki officials have already announced that schools in the capital will be required to have two such periods. “In most basic schools in other parts of Finland students will probably have one ‘project’ when they study some of their traditional subjects in a holistic manner,” Sahlberg writes. That means that for most students, the changes will be confined to a few weeks out of the year at most.
The topical approach to curriculum isn’t a completely new idea, either, according to Sahlburg. “Since the 1980s, Finnish schools have experimented with this approach and it has been part of the culture of teaching in many Finnish schools since then,” he said. Still, he recognizes that the changes will push teachers in more traditional schools to collaborate more with their colleagues, even if only for a short period of time.
One aspect of the reforms that hasn’t been drawing much attention elsewhere in the media—and, from Sahlberg’s perspective, one of the most interesting new requirements—is that the new NCF requires that students be involved in the planning and assessment of phenomenon-based lessons, encouraging students to take greater ownership of their education.
Despite phenomenon teaching only being required for a short time, Sahlberg seems optimistic that the changes will have an impact. “What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.”
Image: A school cafeteria in Vantaa, Finland. Leo-setä/Flickr Creative Commons.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.