Three years ago, Finland shook the education world by announcing that its schools would do away with teaching traditional school subjects like history and math and replace them with “phenomenon teaching” in which students would explore real-world topics while applying tools from traditional subjects.
This dramatic shift was big news because Finland was already a world leader in education. Ever since Finnish 15-year-olds scored at the top of an international test in reading, mathematics, and science literacy in 2001 (along with Japan and Korea),2 education experts from around the world have descended upon Finnish schools as observers to the point they are considered, “a national distraction.”3
Why Do Away With School Subjects?
Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki education manager, explains, “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.” 4
Why is Finland’s educational system world’s above the one in the U.S and way better than most of the developed world?
Well, there are a host of reasons and it begins with the fact that there are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school.
There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.
Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators.
The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7.
Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curricula and assess their students. “We have no hurry,” says Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out? “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture.
Here’s a short documentary on Finland’s extraordinary educational system that proudly asserts that it: “prepares kids for life.”
In comparison, the U.S. has promoted a system based upon marketplace competition between the states, teachers, and private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. The results explored in the video below are extremely troubling if not downright terrifying:
How Is The Change Going?
Now several years into phenomenon learning, critics worry that the new teaching method is contributing to a gap between the most and least able students. One physics teacher said, “This way of teaching is great for the brightest children who understand what knowledge they need to take away from an experiment. It allows them the freedom to learn at their own pace and take the next steps when they are ready to, but this is not the case for children who are less able to figure it out for themselves and need more guidance. The gap between the brightest and the less able has already begun widening and I am very afraid that this will only get worse.” 5
A complete switch away from school subjects to phenomenon learning nationwide is expected to be complete by 2020. 6 According to one report, early data shows since the reforms were introduced, student outcomes have improved.1
Anneli Rautiainen of Finland’s national education agency observed, “ We are not too keen on metrics in this country overall so we are not planning to measure the success of it, at least for now. We are hoping it will show in the learning outcomes of our children as well as in the international tables such as PISA.”5 PISA is the Programme for International Student Assessment test in which Finland first shot to the top of the tables in 2001.
All of the final changes are expected to be done by 2020: “We would like to make Finland the leading country in terms of playful solutions to children’s learning,” said Olavi Mentanen, director of the PLC project.
What do you think about Finland’s approach to education?
1Briggs S. Traditional Subjects; Can We Do Without Them? 4 September 2016. informED.
2Lyne J. Who’s No. 1? Finland, Japan, and Korea, Says OECD Education Study. 10 December 2001, Site Selection.
3Anderson J. From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model. 12 December 2011. New York Times.
4Garner R. Finland Schools. Subjects Scrapped and Replaced with ‘Topics’ as Country Reforms Its Education System. 20 March 2015. The Independent.
5Spiller P. Could Subjects Soon Be a Thing of the Past in Finland? 29 May 2017. BBC News.
6Andrei M. A Revolution in Education: Finland to Stop Teaching Individual Topics. 25 March 2015. ZME Science.
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