Monday, 6 April 2015

Education reform in Finland

From August next year, schools in Finland will follow a new curriculum that blurs distinctions between subjects. Students will still learn traditional subjects such as mathematics, English and history, "though with less distinct borderlines and with more collaboration in practice between them", the Finnish National Board of Education's head of curriculum development, Ms Irmeli Halinen, wrote.

All schools will have to introduce at least one course of topic- or project-based lessons that cut across traditional subject boundaries, "where several teachers may work with any given number of students simultaneously". Students also have to be involved in the planning of the curriculum. The changes come after Finland fell from second place in 2003 to 12th in 2012, in the international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test for students. The change has drawn heated debate.

Here are two opposing points of view on the reform.
The Straits Times, 1 Apr 2015

Finland giving up excellent education system
By Dennis Hayes

IT IS easy to lampoon education reforms in Finland that aim to scrap the teaching of traditional subjects in favour of broader topics.

The new initiative could see history, geography and languages replaced for periods by interdisciplinary "phenomenon-based" projects on topics such as the European Union. Instead of sitting in rows learning facts about the world, pupils can rush around corridors or the Web and collect information in a spirit of "joyful learning".

Ridicule was my immediate response but what is happening has serious and sad consequences. It will ultimately waste not only children's time, but also their education.

The reasons given in Finland for the reforms are familiar: This set of initiatives is necessary to meet the challenges of working life in "modern society".

What it means is that education is no longer valued for its own sake but is seen as having instrumental value for the economy. This is often supported by claims about how to stop education being boring and make it more relevant through new pedagogic practices.

The pattern is the same across the world and we are seeing a shift from a concern with classroom content to a concern with practice. There is a lesson here for every teacher and parent.

Even in a country often lauded as an educational success story, if you do not understand why your education system was excellent, you can still throw it away.

Knowledge and skills

THE idea of being "modern" and promoting projects, multi-disciplinary activities and communication skills instead of traditional subjects is a rejection of education. But some people, including a few of my colleagues, celebrate this shift and one praised it as "thinking outside of the box".

Any ridicule or celebration needs to be understood in the context of the major educational debate of the 21st century between education as subject-led or as skills-led.

Finland is clearly making a turn towards skills. Despite a recent article in which Harvard scholar Pasi Sahlberg (see other story) argued that subjects in Finland will not be scrapped altogether, we should be worried.

The mistake that educationalists and politicians make about education in Finland, China, or whichever country comes out on top in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings is to assume that the reason has something to do with the peculiarities of the education system.

In Finland's case the quality of teaching, the teacher education system, the absence of examinations, the training, professional freedom and status of teachers, have all been advanced as some of the many and varied reasons why the education system was outstanding.

High expectations matter

BOTH the detractors of the changes in Finland and those who embrace them may think success depends on the technical design and teaching of the educational system. But it is not the activities that go on in the classroom that determine excellent outcomes. I'd argue that it is ultimately down to social and cultural factors.

My view is that the decisive factor in Finland's educational success is the high expectations of children expressed by politicians, teachers, parents and communities.

This is well known since the decision in the 1960s to make education the focus of economic success - although also criticised as Stalinist because of its reliance on teacher-centred, textbook-led education.

Whatever criticisms people make of these developments, what was distinctive about Finland in the latter part of the last century was high educational expectations. There was, however, concern in the mid-1990s that these high expectations were so demanding that they were damaging to pupils' self-esteem.

These cultural expectations will determine the structure of the education system, and subject- based teaching was the form that high educational expectations took in Finland's schools.

The move away from subjects towards topics that is part of Finland's new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) is, therefore, a signal that those high educational expectations are going from Finnish culture.

It is tempting to say that methods don't matter if general expectations are high; but if there are no expectations that children will come away with specific knowledge, then they have little chance of being engaged with learning, however they are taught.

Getting pupils work-ready

THE reforms are an attempt to offer something that just gets pupils ready for work. Those who think that "phenomenon-based" teaching won't get rid of knowledge, but will just restructure the way it is taught for some periods of the year, are turning a blind eye to the fundamental nature of the shift that is occurring.

If it accelerates, as it may without opposition, it will make education in Finland - whether it is labelled "vocational" or "academic" - just training for a job.

Finland may be cut up about its drop in the PISA rankings, but wanting to rise again in a league table is not a sign of high expectations but of panic.

The new policy shift does not focus on education as an important way to transform society but seeks to transform education to meet perceived new economic demands and, perhaps even more narrowly, to remedy Finland's position in the league tables. This may show high expectations of an instrumental sort, but these are not high educational expectations.

If Finnish teachers are as educated and independent as we are told they are, the first step towards defending high educational expectations would be for them to oppose the NCF and campaign to keep knowledge in and kick "phenomenon-based" meddling out of schools.

The writer is Professor of Education at University of Derby in the United Kingdom. This article first appeared on, which carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Integrated approach to learning
By Pasi Sahlberg

FINLAND'S plans to replace the teaching of classic school subjects such as history or English with broader, cross-cutting "topics" as part of a major education reform have been getting global attention.

Stay calm: Despite the reforms, Finnish schools will continue to teach mathematics, history, arts, music and other subjects in the future.

But with the new basic school reform, all children will also learn via periods looking at broader topics, such as the European Union, or community and climate change, which would bring in multi-disciplinary modules on languages, geography, sciences and economics.

It is important to underline two fundamental peculiarities of the Finnish education system in order to see the real picture.

First, education governance is highly decentralised, giving Finland's 320 municipalities significant amount of freedom to arrange schooling according to the local circumstances.

Second, Finland's National Curriculum Framework (NCF) is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators with freedom to find the best ways to offer good teaching and learning to all children. Therefore, practices vary from school to school and are often customised to local needs and situations.

The next big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new NCF, due to come into effect in August 2016. It sets the overall goals of schooling, describes the principles of teaching and learning, and provides the guidelines for special education, well-being, support services and student assessment in schools.

The concept of "phenomenon-based" teaching - a move away from "subjects" and towards inter-disciplinary topics - will have a central place in the new NCF.

Integration of subjects and a holistic approach to teaching and learning are not new in Finland.

Since the 1980s, Finnish schools have experimented with this approach and it has been part of the culture of teaching in many schools.

This new reform will bring more changes to Finnish middle-school subject teachers who have traditionally worked more on their own subjects than together with their peers in school. What will change is that all basic schools for seven- to 16-year- olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curricula.

You may wonder why Fin-land's education authorities now insist all schools must spend time on integration and phenomenon-based teaching when Finnish students' test scores have been declining in the most recent international tests. The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were.

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.

What most stories about Finland's current education reform have failed to cover is the most surprising aspect of the reform. NCF 2016 states that students must be involved in the planning of phenomenon-based study periods and that they must have a voice in assessing what they have learnt from it.

Some teachers see this current reform as a threat and the wrong way to improve teaching and learning in schools. Other teachers think that breaking down the dominance of traditional subjects and isolation of teaching is an opportunity to bring about more fundamental change in schools.

While some schools will seize the opportunity to redesign teaching and learning with non-traditional forms using the NCF 2016 as a guide, others will choose more moderate ways. In any case, teaching subjects will continue in one way or the other in most of Finland's basic schools for now.

The writer is Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

This article first appeared on, a website which carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Finns aren't what they used to be

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