Finland and phenomenon teaching

Finland is the exemplar of academic excellence. Ever since the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings first came into being, the Scandinavian country has been at or near the top. Researchers have been flooding there to see if they can discover the secret of the Finnish success.

Finland’s excellent performance system is accompanied by some fascinating statistics, many of which contradict the educational philosophy that I’m used to in the U.K. and Spain. Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven. In their first six years children are not measured at all; there is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken at the age of 16. Exams are rare in general, as is homework, which is not normal until they are well are well into their teens. The difference between weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world. Unlike the U.K. children are not streamed according to ability. And despite spending 30% less per student than the United States, 93% of Finns graduate from high school, and 66% of students go to college, higher than any other European country.

Recently, though, Finland has been slipping a bit. In the 2012 study they were down to 12th place. Now they are going to overhaul the educational system. The slip in the rankings may have worried the Finns but the motivations for change are deeper. The government believes that schools should teach what young people need to take their places in the workplaces of the future. In a previous post I mentioned how they were going to eliminate traditional handwriting classes. But this is just the beginning. As of August this year they are going to on what the Independent calls one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state”.

What they are going to do is introduce a methodology known as phenomenon teaching. They will not be getting rid of the traditional subject-based classes such as mathematics, history and biology, but they will be bringing in more interdisciplinary classes that draw from multiple subject areas. These lessons will be co-taught by teachers from different subject areas. This holistic approach could include topics such as the European Union, climate change or whatever the teachers and stunts think might be useful.  An article in the Independent explained the new system:

For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union – which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

The traditional sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned will be replaced by a more collaborative approach. Pupils will work in smaller groups solving problems while improving their communication skills.

I am a fan of this type of education. I like the idea of students researching topics. The days of students memorising facts should be behind us. I do have doubts though.  Firstly, Finland has a population of five and half million, three million less than London. Secondly, it will not be easy to implement in an education system based on different traditions. The best way is gradually. Spain has introduced a number of educational reforms since I came here in 1987. I am sceptical about the benefits. This is partly because I can’t even agree with myself about what the ideal educational system would be. If we look at the PISA rankings, we will see different recipes. Japan and Korea are also high on the list. I am sure their methodology is nothing like Finland’s.  Nevertheless, I have been impressed with Finland’s unique education system and will be following their experiment with great interest.

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