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Finland's important, misunderstood campaign to rethink how students learn

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The largest city in Finland is experimenting with getting rid of school subjects. This would mean doing away with lessons in history, math, and science in favor of teaching broader themes, where teachers work together on lessons in a given topic.

The goal is to help students in Helsinki better understand how their classwork relates to real life, and to give teachers the opportunity to work together to plan lessons. And the change, which for now has really only taken hold in one city, is likely to contribute to the idea of Finland as an education paradise, with plentiful playtime, few standardized tests, no requirement that students learn cursive, and, maybe one day, no formal subjects at all.

Next year, a new framework for Finnish education will direct schools across the country to experiment with this model at least occasionally. Because Finland has a reputation for excellent performance on international tests — although that reputation has slipped somewhat recently — the change will be closely watched. So far, though, Finland isn't throwing out the traditional approach to education entirely. Not yet.

How the new Helsinki approach to education works

Finland began experimenting with topic-based lessons in the 1970s, says Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on Finnish education and a visiting professor of practice at Harvard.

Helsinki has embraced topics instead of subjects recently, requiring schools to experiment at least twice a year with this approach to education. Beginning next year, all schools in Finland will be required to try it at least once.

At some Helsinki schools, students on the academic track are studying the European Union, combining history, geography, economics, and languages; on the vocational track, they're studying "cafeteria services," including math and communication skills, according to the Independent (UK).

This is an idea borrowed from the US: it comes from the theories of education philosopher John Dewey, who wanted to educate the "whole child," and has gone in and out of style in American schools. A vocationally oriented version of this approach has caught on recently for adults at community colleges in Washington state, where some programs instruct students in job skills and academic subjects at the same time.

How Finland is overhauling its schools

Finland's education system is internationally renowned. But the nation is in the middle of a broad overhaul of its framework for education: loose guidelines for schools and districts on what students should learn. The changes are meant to ensure the school system is in step with what the nation will need in the future, and to emphasize students working together and "the joy of learning," according to Finland's national board of education.

The main goal of the new approach is to address a concern Finns have about their education system: that it doesn't do enough to encourage curiosity and make learning relevant in the real world, Sahlberg said.

Compared with the OECD average, students in Finland are more likely to be late for school, more likely to say they give up easily when confronted with a difficult problem, and less likely to say they do more than what is expected of them. (Students in the US are also more likely to say they remain interested in their work once they've started it than Finnish students are, and are more likely to say they exceed expectations.)

"Finland has been working a long time already to try to find ways to engage young people more into their own learning and to make schoolwork more meaningful and interesting," Sahlberg said.

But Finland will still have national expectations for what students learn. In other words, even if some schools eliminate math and language classes for part or even all of the year, students will still be expected to master those subjects.