Family life

Why Finland's school reform isn't as great as it seems

Finland is scrapping its current school system, but is it the best move for students?

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Photo: iStockphoto

Critics of the Canadian education system are quick to point out that our way of teaching is outdated: Kids listen to lectures, take standardized tests, are issued standardized report cards and don’t get enough free play during recess. Finland, apparently, is doing it right—the country is widely respected for its school curriculum, with a reputation for top marks on international tests.

Last year, it was Finland’s way of incorporating free play into the school day that made international headlines. Schools have 45 minutes of classroom instruction, followed by 15 minutes of play—a system I support wholeheartedly. This year, however, educators in the Nordic country are proposing to update the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) and move away from the traditional method of “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by inter-disciplinary topics.” Finnish educators and legislators have dubbed the new concept “phenomenon-based teaching,” meaning subjects will encompass broader topics like the European Union, climate change and 100 years of Finland’s independence. The changes are set go into effect in Helsinki as of August 2016, before being slowly unveiled across the country.

The end goal is to help students better understand how their studies relate to real life, while allowing teachers the freedom to work together and find the best ways to offer the ideal education to their students—with practices varying from school to school depending on the specific needs of students at each location. Beginning next year, schools will be required to experiment with “phenomenon-based teaching” once a year for kids between the ages of six and 16 to help educators gauge the success rate of the new system.

“It is not only Helsinki but the whole of Finland who will be embracing change,” says Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager. “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow.” Kyllonen hopes that the changes will be in place across the nation by 2020.

Not everyone thinks the reform is a good idea, however. Kathleen Porter-Magee, a New York City school superintendent and a fellow at the Fordham Institute told the Washington Post that reading comprehension should be taught alongside traditional courses. “It sounds like the Finns are swinging the pendulum a bit too far in the other direction.” But as Vox.com’s Libby Nelson points out, students will still be tested and have to adhere to the national expectations for each subject.

Will Finland still perform as well under the new school system?

I’m among those who don’t think the reform is a good idea. At my children’s previous school, an experience-based learning approach was granted for many of the subjects. Field trips and in-class activities replaced lectures and instruction and, I admit, I loved seeing how engaged my son and his classmates were during these non-traditional classroom sessions. That being said, literacy levels and standardized test rankings for the school were far below the provincial average.

When our family moved a few months ago, my son struggled to get caught up to the same level as his classmates in math and reading comprehension, and we noticed huge gaps in what he had been taught at his old school compared to what he was learning in his new school. Sure, all those field trips he went on supported the curriculum, but it couldn’t replace actual instruction-based teaching. I worry that the school-to-school variation of what’s being taught could leave gaps in some kids’ education.

On the surface, moving away from the traditional teaching of subjects sounds like a great way to engage children in the classroom, yet I’m not convinced that the outcome will create the types of adults Kyllonen—and other Finnish educators—envision.

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