Goodbye rote learning: how Finland’s new curriculum puts children first

How do they do it?

It is a question that has long dominated discourse in education circles, since the OECD’s publication of an international league table. Finland’s consistent ascendancy in areas such as literacy and numeracy was a cause for both admiration and a certain amount of envy. After all, all governments want to have a high-performing education system, and all governments want to ensure the next generation is equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge for them to prosper in the future.

Finland, however, is not resting on any laurels. It is currently implementing a wholesale and radical reform of its curriculum. Although the country’s curriculum still includes subjects and lesson hours set by Parliament, it is now also compulsory for every student to have an interdisciplinary working period or module at least once a year. This requires collaborative teaching and learning across disciplines. For Olli-Pekka Heinonen, director of the Finnish National Agency for Education, these changes are rooted in the realisation that as the world changes so, too, should education.

“Education is in the core of everything,” he says. “It is a question of how we can cope with a changing and uncertain world and give the children the abilities they need to cope for the future – a future that as adults we can’t imagine. But the best thing we can do is ensure that the children of today have the ability to cope with whatever lies over the horizon.”

The character of the child really matters  

Finland’s education system is separated into two tiers. The Ministry of Education and Culture has overall authority and is responsible for all publicly-funded education. Legislation and budgeting fall within its purview. The national agency, by contrast, is responsible for early childhood education and care and pre-primary, basic, general and vocational upper secondary education as well as adult education and training.

“The agency is responsible for the development of educational lifelong learning and early childhood education in Finland, as well as the internationalisation through exchanges of pupils, students, teachers and researchers,” adds Heinonen. “The agency is also responsible for the European Union’s ERASMUS programme and other international exchange programmes.”

Underpinning such activity is the emphasis on learning not by rote but by experience. “It is about learning the basic skills through play and developing their character in early childhood education,” says Heinonen. “This is when they learn how to cope with change, communication and collaboration. At the heart of the new basic education national curriculum is the idea of how to help each child develop and grow as a human being and as a citizen. This is something that has become more and more important.”

The implementation of the new curriculum began last autumn for grades one to six, but the process began in 2014. “Over the subsequent two years, there was consultation with teachers, schools and municipalities,” he says. “The teachers have been very strongly involved, so they know what it is all about. From now on, there will be one additional class every year starting to use the new curriculum. So it is a gradual process because, of course, it takes time to change the way teaching and learning is happening in schools.”

That teachers themselves have been heavily involved in this change programme is a reflection not only of their high status within Finnish society but also of the fact that the country’s education system places great emphasis on research and evidence about what works. No centrally imposed diktats here – instead, the teachers and schools have much autonomy in how they shape their style and method of teaching. And this makes it much easier to implement a new curriculum.

“The curriculum only sets the core aims that should be met, but then it is the question of how they are met and this is up to the individual schools and teachers,” says Heinonen. “They are utilizing the most recent research about teaching and learning when they are implementing the local curriculum. In Finland, teachers have a university-level Master’s degree, so they have an educational basis on which to utilise research-based evidence. This is what we see as the best way to make a systemic and sustainable change – we have educational institutions and schools that have the capability of adapting to changes themselves. You cannot do it top-down – there must be a national core direction and then the well-educated teachers who are also part of the change process.”

Creating our own direction

The new curriculum has also been introduced at a time when Finland’s test results have themselves been on something of a downward spiral. While still performing very well in contrast to many other countries, the most recent PISA scores confirmed that performance has dropped compared to previous years. Heinonen – while not panicking – admits that this is a concern.

“We do care about this,” he says. “But we also don’t want to stick only to the criteria measured in PISA. So we want to continue with our direction, but we also know that we don’t have all the right answers. That’s why we are cocreating with countries like Estonia, the UAE and others in Asia. There are interesting things happening around the world and we want to be connected with them, as this is the best way to learn new things. However, we think that our focus on future skills and capabilities is the right way to go.”

A good example of this is how Finland is seeking to take lessons out of the confines of the classroom. “To some extent, we are breaking the boundaries of individual subjects in that we have introduced a layer of what we call ‘phenomena-based learning’,” explains Heinonen. “This is about using different means for children to learn different content. For example, it can be creating an enterprise or company, or staging a play, or measuring the water quality of a nearby lake and utilising the data and passing it to the relevant authority. This is a way of working which emphasises the importance of the whole school community – it is more holistic than having it happen in one classroom with one teacher, and is a core part of the curriculum rather than being squeezed in.”

Such innovations will, it is hoped, help schools and teachers adapt to challenges such as the increasing diversity of Finnish children, with their differing needs and ranges of ability – a reflection of how society as a whole is evolving.

“Finland has been a very homogeneous country for a long time,” says Heinonen. “This is changing – there are people with other cultural backgrounds now coming to live here, and they have different expectations. This is more challenging, especially as one of our two main principles – along with decentralisation – is equity. We make sure that everyone has the possibility to meet their potential, but this is harder when the students and pupils come from more diverse backgrounds.”

Heinonen, though, is unfazed. A former politician who has also spent time in the private sector, his is an outlook shaped by a strong sense of optimism and a firm belief in the potential of the new curriculum to deliver positive change. With its first results expected in 2019, he is focusing on the here, now and future, while at the same time counting his blessings to be in a position of such profound influence.

“This is such an important area,” he concludes. “I feel honoured and humbled to have this opportunity to make a difference.”

 

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