Finland: putting the final touches on a radical curriculum

Finland’s education system has been long held up as the textbook example for the rest of Europe. Its consistently high levels of attainment in maths, reading and science in the annual PISA rankings, following ‘radical’ educational policies, have made the country a Mecca for education experts and politicians alike. From free universal day-care for children up to five, fully subsidised meals for full-time students, no selection, very few private schools and no tuition fees, the commitment to equity alongside academic excellence has left onlookers marvelling at the system.

But in a controversial move, the Nordic nation is about to undertake its most radical overhaul yet: teaching by ‘phenomenon’ or topic rather than subject. Lessons in traditional subjects such as English Literature or Chemistry are already being phased out for late teens in Helsinki secondary schools. Instead, these students are being engaged in a new method of ‘phenomenon teaching’ of cross-subject topics. The idea is that core subjects such as geography, history and economics are taught through the prism of a relevant topic or phenomenon, such as the ‘European Union’, with the aim of providing more directly applicable skills and knowledge.

Despite reservations among some teachers, the early data indicates an improvement in pupil ‘outcomes’ following the changes. This success has led to the proposal that this new way of teaching, currently being drip-fed across the capital, should by 2020 be the nationwide reality.

Teaching in Finland is a considerably more prestigious profession than in the UK. All teachers hold Master’s degrees and boast competitive salaries. This is crucial as the success of this new model will ultimately come down to the teaching. Either it will pay dividends, as has been the case so far with Finland’s policies, or it could disastrously compromise Finland’s high standing. But while we might usually be inclined to follow in their footsteps, could there be a national appetite for such a radical reshuffle here in the UK? I somehow doubt it.

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Learning for learning’s sake, with no evident practical application, still holds sacrosanctity for those like me, a futureless Humanities student. The high regard for ivory-tower learning is especially true somewhere like Oxford, a sentiment summed up by the Vice-Chancellor last year when he stated that the University must “reserve the right to investigate subjects of no practical use whatsoever”. This both aids students’ pursuit of knowledge and opens doors to new research; doors which would have been locked even earlier if we were to streamline secondary school subject matters to practical areas.

Nevertheless, though I don’t feel we should impose such a radical change (nor can we simply pluck the model from Finland’s overarching framework of values and paste it into our own society), we should recognize the failings of our education system.

An ‘exam factory’ approach to schooling has led to an extended training in memory expansion, rather than stimulating intellectual growth. On top of this the government continues its slog to encourage more students to take up the STEM subjects which are vital for the economy, while it is no myth that leading research universities favour ‘hard’, traditional subjects and admit fewer ‘soft’ A-levels. As these ‘soft’ choices are more likely to be taken by pupils from state schools, the result is that we have cultivated an environment of subject stigma where subject choice has become an additional hurdle for the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

With the education system coming under increasing fire in the run up to the general election, and calls from Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary to “rethink some of the fundamentals of the industrial model of schooling”, it will be interesting to see the direction the debate takes. Perhaps Finland’s educational facelift will be the wakeup call we need to take our own drastic measures to stop us trailing at the bottom of worldwide studies.