Why Finland won’t teach math & history anymore

Finland will be making drastic changes to an already successful education system. Why now? And will this model change the way other countries go about educating their children?

Despite having an education system that does not rely on standardized test scores, Finnish students perform extremely well on exams that are given to students all over the developed world.

The country, one of the leading educational hotspots in the world, is embarking on one of the most radical overhauls in modern education. By 2020, the country plans to phase out teaching individual subjects such as maths, chemistry and physics, and instead teach students by ‘topics’ or broad phenomena, so that there’s no more question about “what’s the point of learning this?”

What does that mean exactly? Basically, instead of having an hour of geography followed by an hour of history, students will now spend, say, two hours learning about the European Union, which covers languages, economics, history and geography. Or students who are taking a vocational course might study ‘cafeteria services’, which would involve learning maths, languages and communication skills, as Richard Garner reports for The Independent. So although students will still learn all the important scientific theories, they’ll be finding out about them in a more applied way, which actually sounds pretty awesome.

 “What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life,” Pasi Silander, the Helsinki’s development manager, told Garner. “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.”

The new system also encourages different types of learning, such as interactive problem solving and collaborating among smaller groups, to help develop career-ready skills. “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,” Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager, who is leading the change, told Garner.

“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,” she added.

Individual subjects started being phased out for 16-year-olds in the country’s capital of Helsinki two years ago, and 70 percent of the city’s high school teachers are now trained in the new approach. Early data shows that students are already benefitting, with The Independent reporting that measurable pupil outcomes have improved since the new system was introduced. And Kyllonen’s blueprint, which will be published later this month, will propose that the new system is rolled out across Finland by 2020.

Of course, there is some backlash from teachers who’ve spent their entire career specialising in certain subjects. But the new blueprint suggests that teachers from different backgrounds work together to come up with the new ‘topic’ curriculum, and will receive a pay incentive for doing so.

It is a very competitive profession – all teachers hold Master’s degrees and are far better compensated than their American counterparts, according to the New Republic. Finnish teachers earn 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates make in salary, contrasted with the 65 percent pay American teachers receive compared to college graduates in other professions, according to the report.

Early signs indicate that this new method of education is benefiting student outcomes, The Independent reported. Helsinki schools are already devoting some time to this new style of learning, and current plans call for instituting this type of schooling across the country by 2020, according to the report.

Finland’s deviation on educational standards may come as a surprise to some – because Finland trails only Singapore and China in performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, a standardized test given to 15 year olds in 65 of the world’s most developed countries.

Finland has served as a model for other countries looking to improve their education systems. Teachers from the United Kingdom have made the trip to study and observe Finnish schools. And Americans who are pushing for educational reform often point to the Finns as a model that encourages students to play as they learn. Students in Finland get 15 minutes of recess in between lessons, and students are not administered standardized tests until they are in high school.

The idea of combining subjects to better facilitate learning is nearly a century old. American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey thought that schooling should better reflect real life. This educational approach was attempted in American schools; once before World War II and again in the 1970’s with the “Open Classroom” movement, the Washington Post reported.

However, it was abandoned after it was found not to be compatible with an American public school model which expected students to have a certain level of knowledge to be able to move onto the next grade. Combining subjects in this fashion required teachers to have an extensive knowledge of all subjects they were teaching, and some teachers struggled to generate assignments that would placate to a wide range of students’ strengths and interests.

With the results looking positive in the early trial runs at Helsinki schools, Finland’s new education model looks to be succeeding where previous efforts to combine studies have failed. However, the success of this schooling method will ultimately come down on the country’s highly skilled teachers’ performance if phenomena learning is to become a tried and true means of education.

Source Credits: Alexander LaCasse in the Christian Science Monitor and Fiona MacDonald in Science Alert

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3 Responses to Why Finland won’t teach math & history anymore

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