Finland´s educational system has moved to another iceberg!

finlandFinland´s educational system has moved to another iceberg! Well, at least metaphorically… According to several articles published since 2015, Finland has been in the process of radically reforming their educational system from teaching subject-based content to “phenomenon-based learning.”

Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, the Finnish minister of education and culture, describes this methodology as a cross-curricular topics-based approach:

“Schools can choose a theme like climate change and you can look at it from very different perspectives, from very different subjects like mathematics. It’s culture—it’s everything. It’s giving our children skills to think about subjects like climate change from different perspectives.”

This approach makes a lot of sense to me. As a Spanish teacher, my class lessons incorporate linguistics, literature, music, fine arts, history, geography, social and natural sciences, with a liberal sprinkling of technology for good measure. Immersion programs such as the Specialty Center at Tucker HS in Henrico Co. have been doing a version of this for many years as well (teaching content from a variety of curricular areas in the target language). But world languages teachers are certainly not alone in reaching across the curricular-aisle.

What most intrigues me about Finland´s educational reform is not WHY the change is being made, but HOW it is being accomplished. Change of this magnitude does not happen overnight. So how did the Finnish DOEC get buy-in from teachers across the country, many of whom have dedicated their lives to specializing in one content area?

The success of implementing this change seems to be founded on three critical components—extensive planning, mutual trust, and autonomy.

  • Real change takes time. In this case, the reform has occurred incrementally over 4 years and has involved planning at the local, regional and national levels.
  • In Finland, teachers are respected as professionals and are trusted to make good decisions. Teachers from across the country have worked together to develop the new national curriculum.
  • Teachers and localities have the autonomy to decide what their “phenomenon-based” focus will be and how to best integrate the new program to engage their students.

What can we learn from this? One size cannot fit all when it comes to education. In a country with a population nearly 60 times bigger than that of Finland, educational reform is more likely to be successfully led at the state level rather than at the national level. And, if we consider how to best serve students and engage them in the education process, real reform cannot come from the top-down. Transformational change to education in the US (such as getting rid of standardized testing) must take into account the needs of the localities.

Finland´s “phenomenon-based” approach to education provides a compelling example of what may be accomplished when leadership is willing to take a risk and explore a dramatically new model. It will be interesting to follow the outcome of their reforms in the years to come.


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