Revisiting Pasi Sahlberg and Finnish education

Finland’s school reforms won’t scrap subjects altogether…

 Thinking about Finnish education again…

 

Flotsam: an occasional series of education ideas from other places.

An interesting time to be re-visiting this article, of Spring 2015, from Pasi Sahlberg which illustrates the latest Finnish thinking on the convergence , a blending, of the curriculum. ‘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 .’

Educationalists need not panic is the Sahlberg message, despite our current government persistence with testing and rigid curriculum application. We visit Finland in this article, but with a side trip to Singapore too, in the interests of compare and contrast. (Ed.)


Pasi Sahlberg, Harvard University writes…

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, thanks to an article in The Independent, one of the UK’s trusted newspapers. 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, community and climate change, or 100 years of Finland’s independence, 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. Central government issues legislation, tops up local funding of schools, and provides a guiding framework for what schools should teach and how.

Second, Finland’s National Curriculum Framework is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators 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.

Phenomenon-based learning

The next big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), due to come into effect in August 2016.

It is a binding document that 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 Finnish schools since then. 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.

Schools decide the programme

What will change in 2016 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. The length of this period is to be decided by schools themselves. Helsinki, the nation’s capital and largest local school system, has decided to require two such yearly periods that must include all subjects and all students in every school in town.

One school in Helsinki has already arranged teaching in a cross-disciplinary way; other schools will have two or more periods of a few weeks each dedicated to integrated teaching and learning.

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. One education chief of a middle-size city in Finland predicted via Twitter that: “the end result of this reform will be 320 local variations of the NCF 2016 and 90% of them look a lot like current situation.”

You may wonder why Finland’s education authorities now insist that 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.

Students involved in lesson design

Pupils will have a hand in planning classes.
Markku Ojala/EPA

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

Some teachers in Finland 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 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 Finland’s basic schools for now.

Pasi Sahlberg, Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Our readers may also be interested in another recent article from The Conversation.

David Hogan, an Australian academic, argues that despite the adoption of Singapore’s ‘Asian’ education model by Conservative governments, reflecting as it does the full embrace of rigid, testing and prescribed curriculum activity, the benefits of this more ‘fixed’ approach is still waiting to be proven.

As a counterpoint, it is the antithesis of the Finnish model in the Sahlberg  article above. In fact for Hogan, this adoption in the West of a Singaporean model is a mistake.

You can read David Hogan’s article, Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West? in full here.

Published this month on the web pages of Age of Awareness is an insider view of the education system in Singapore, which also recognises the strength of ‘Asian’ education in the most recent PISA standards rankings.

The article, Singapore’s Education System: A Local Perspective, argues that learning by rote, which it is claimed is the basis of the success featured, denies learners the ability to think creatively and makes finding answers to problems that do not have ‘pre-defined solutions’ very difficult for students in the Singaporean system.

Read about the systemic failings in a Singapore education here.

(Editors Note: We like Age of Awareness. With its strapline, ‘Another World is Possible‘, and its content providing an international view on the ‘…creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system‘, we recommend it. See more here… )

Turning the tide - making a difference
Turning the tide – making a difference

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