The West loves Finnish education. And it’s easy to see why. Finland runs schools in a way that we value and gets results that are just as good as the Asian countries who do things, well, differently. In a way, Finland delivers on the promise that the West keeps trying to fulfil, providing hope that our reforms will one day be fully implemented and our ideas will be vindicated. The following graph shows the fascinating tale of the tape from the second most recent (2009) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, administered by OECD to almost half a million 15-year-olds worldwide. (Note that the graph only indicates countries. For historical and political reasons, some smaller jurisdictions such as Shanghai and Hong Kong participate independently. These are high-scoring jurisdictions.) You can well imagine the shock when on March 20, 2015, the Independent ran the headline Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with ‘topics’ as country reforms its education system. The article went on to claim that Finland–heretofore the darling of Western education–was eliminating the study of subjects–the heart of modern education. But because Finland has been so successful, the tone was largely incredulity rather than critique.
Subject-specific lessons – an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon – are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching – or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.
For many Western reformers, this was fantastic news. Dreamers of educational utopia have long advocated for project-based learning, where students no longer learn fragments of disciplines in isolation, but rather become deeply immersed in topics of their interest, and learn the relevant mathematics, science, politics, etc. in the context of these projects. The Independent article, it looked as though the project-based learning advocates were vindicated. My initial reaction was simply disbelief. Either the Finnish authorities had lost their minds, or the reports were wrong. My objection is simple—a system predicated entirely on project-based learning would be gruesomely inefficient. Much of what we learn must be mastered, and mastery does not come in context. I would never advocate for a drill-only system, but neither would I ever claim that no drill, no repetition, no out-of-context exercises would be an appropriate way to organize K-12 education. I like projects, and I think that meaningful projects can and should be an important part of education; I simply don’t believe that meaningful projects could be accomplished without significant, structured subject-based learning in the background. Turns out I was right. The Finnish authorities are not crazy.
Six days after the Independent story rattled around the world, the Washington Post published the contradictory No, Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Here’s what’s really happening. The Post notes that Pasi Sahlberg, the smooth-talking, good-looking ambassador for Finnish education, explained in a blog that Finnish students will continue to study subjects, but will have a mandatory project to complete in each year of schooling. He further notes that education in Finland is highly decentralized, with most of the important decisions about the details of each students’ school year being determined at the local level. The Finnish National Board of Education had corrected the record one day ahead of the Post.
Subject teaching in Finnish schools is not being abolished
The news that Finland is abolishing teaching separate subjects has recently hit the headlines world-wide. Subject teaching is not being abolished although the new core curriculum for basic education will bring about some changes in 2016.
The subjects common to all students in basic education are stipulated in the Basic Education Act, and the allocation of lesson hours among school subjects is prescribed in the Decree given by the Government. However, education providers have had a high degree of freedom in implementing nationally set objectives for more than twenty years. They may develop their own innovative methods, which can differ from those in other municipalities.
The new core curriculum for basic education that will be implemented in school in August 2016 contain some changes which might have given rise to the misunderstanding. In order to meet the challenges of the future, the focus is on transversal (generic) competences and work across school subjects. Collaborative classroom practices, where pupils may work with several teachers simultaneously during periods of phenomenon-based project studies are emphasised.
The pupils should participate each year in at least one such multidisciplinary learning module. These modules are designed and implemented locally. The core curriculum also states that the pupils should be involved in the planning.
So what’s the lesson from Finland? Local autonomy seems to be pretty darned important, but centralized curriculum and a broad outline of the conditions under which teacher and learning are to occur are indispensable as well. And, yes, disciplinary learning remains on the agenda.