The Finns Are At It Again: Redesigning Education

Not content with sweeping the international testing stakes Finland is setting about radical school design and reform – again.

And given some rather gloomy economic outlooks maybe not a moment too soon.

Maybe they know that topping the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test pile is not the holy grail and that these scores don’t tell us anything very useful 

Donald Clark wrote a good piece on Why Finland is Finished as a Role Model pointing out  that PISA   scores are not the pinnacle of educational virtue. That’s the very test that leads to all the clothes-rending lamentations of American reformers who are so busy setting about dismantling American education.

Clark references Finnish whistleblower teacher  Maarit Korhonen.  Her book Wake up school! exploded some of the myths of the golden-glowing world of Finnish schools. 

Scathing about PISA, she claims that the Finnish system is not world-beating but remains myopic and old-fashioned. She claims that, far from being a high performing system, it has become a slave to the PISA madness, happy to score well in these narrow, academic measures, while leaving far too many learners behind. According to her analysis, 2 out of 3 children get substandard education in an overly academic curriculum sitting in rows of desks, working slavishly through a dated curriculum, using dated textbooks.

Finland_unhappyFinland may have scaled to the top of the testing heap but its kids are fifth from  bottom on the misery index.(Indonesia was number one in terms of children enjoying school and the US hovers just below average on the enjoyment scale.)

Maybe this – and a realization of global and economic change – is what is spurring them to rethink school and especially high school.

So what are they doing?

Only scrapping the traditional disciplines and replacing subjects with interdisciplinary topics and “phenomenon-teaching” for one.  Sounds interesting to me.

In Helsinki, Pasi 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.”

What? College and career readiness does not mean high test scores in narrow bands of lower order thinking skills? Shock! Horror!

Sounds like they are also waking up to active learning and the simple fact that schools need no longer need be in the knowledge transfer mode. No more four walls, desks in rows, teacher at the front transmitting information. Information is everywhere. The role of the teacher is now quite different, more interesting and more important.

Keys to the new design changes appear to be collaboration, communication, co-teaching and creativity.

And what about the effects on teacher of all these demands for change?  Resistance? Of course. People like change but they don’t like to be changed. But training and topped up salaries help.

Oh! and by the way – they’ve also done away with teaching cursive handwriting. In this Finland is following the US  where In September 2013 cursive handwriting was removed as a compulsory skill in the US in September 2013.

Finland to remove cursive handwriting from education curriculum

I visited Finland last summer. And of course, Nicky the Navigator went too. A great trip.  And here – with absolutely no relevance to this blog past – are a few pictures from Finland.

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  1. George Malaty:

    In the 1950s, one of the aspects of Second World War impact on the American education was a call for interdisciplinary approaches. Now, 60 years later, such a call has appeared in Finland and in Helsinki in particular. Such attempts inside and outside the USA were limited and didn’t take in anytime the teaching of subjects away. Simply, the reason is that no interdisciplinary approach can get a success without a good background in different subjects, not only for teachers, but also for students. In other words, without a good education of subjects, there is no possibility to get a success in any type of interdisciplinary education of any topic. Therefore, nothing different shall take place in Finland. In every school year one time or two interdisciplinary approaches will be used in dealing with a topic. But, subject teaching shall keep its place all the time, and for all schools.
    (George Malaty, adjunct professor, University of Eastern Finland)

  2. Thanks for the comment Professor Malaty. Your perspective comes from a place of far greater knowledge than mine when it comes to Finland and its schools. I am, however, more optimistic than you are about the possibility of some forward momentum and positive change in the direction of interdisciplinary thinking. I think it often starts in very modest ways by knowledgeable people seeking those points of intersection and building out from there. In terms of Finnish schools – well, time will tell.

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