Finland’s education system is considered among the finest in the world, as the country produces some of the world’s most intelligent and evolved students. The country has a progressive and successful education system. It is at the top of the international league for literacy and numeracy. Only far eastern countries such as Singapore and China outperform the Nordic nation in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings which makes it all the more remarkable that Finland is about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state – scrapping traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic”.
The big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), which came into effect in August 2016. The framework 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. Subject-specific lessons like history and geography 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 such as “cafeteria services” lessons, would study elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills in a holistic manner.
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 Finnish schools since then.
This new reform aims to bring more changes to Finnish middle-school subject teachers who have traditionally worked more on their own subjects rather than together with their peers in school.
What will change in 2016 is that all basic schools for 7 to 16-year-olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curriculam. The length of this period is to be decided by schools themselves.
More students would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union – which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.
“This is going to be a big change in education in Finland that we’re just beginning,” said Liisa Pohjolainen, who is in charge of youth and adult education in Helsinki, the capital city at the forefront of the reform programme.
Parsi Silander, the city’s development manager, 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.”
Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager – who will be presenting her blueprint for change to the council at the end of this month, said: “It is not only Helsinki but the whole of Finland who will be embracing change. We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow. There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s – but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century.”
The reforms have met with some objections from teachers and heads in Finland, many of whom have spent their lives focusing on a particular subject only to be told to change their approach.
Ms Kyllonen has been advocating a “co-teaching” approach to lesson planning, with input from more than one subject specialist. Teachers who embrace this new system can receive a small top-up in salary. About 70 per cent of the city’s high school teachers have now been trained in adopting the new approach, according to Mr Silander.
“We have really changed the mindset,” he said. “It is quite difficult to get teachers to start and take the first step… but teachers who have taken to the new approach say they can’t go back.”