Educators around the world have been making expeditions to Finland to learn the secrets of the nation’s top performing students. Finnish students consistently test at the top on international tests, like the PISA. They also report being happy, are less frequently tested and have more time for play. Finland has the benefit of a strong social welfare system and high quality of life, but very few private schools. With all these variables currently in its favor, the Finns are taking dramatic steps in changing its education system by overhauling how high school is taught. Students will go from the traditional way of learning by subjects, to learning by topics, according to The Independent. The transition hasn’t been without its tensions.

Teaching by topic will start in Helsinki high schools and then spread to the rest of the country. At the core of this topic-specific technique will be co-teaching by educators and more collaboration amongst students. According to The Independent:

“Subject-specific lessons – an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon – are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching – or teaching by topic. 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.”

Schools in Finland will no longer teach ‘subjects’

For years, Finland has been the by-word for a successful education system, perched at the top of international league tables for literacy and numeracy. Only far eastern countries such as Singapore and China outperform the Nordic nation in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings.

Finland flag image credit Tauno Tõhk/陶诺/Flickr

Tossing Out Teaching by Subject as Part of a Modern High School Education 23 February,2016MindShift

  • JL

    I think it’s an interesting shift. The only downside is that they would lose depth and focus on certain topics. At, we always like to compare it to sports – you’ll develop more as a soccer player (lets say) if you spend 10 hours practicing passing, shooting, and movement vs. spending 10 hours just playing games. This “Phenomonen-based” approach seems to be similar to just playing games.

    A lot will hinge on how/when/whether they allow students to dive deeper into specific subjects.

    • Elizabeth Lockman

      Very interesting. My concern is somewhat the opposite. My nephew talks about how he *knows exactly what he wants to do* and wants to learn nothing else. (To be honest, his grandfather was this way, failed out of college as a result, but was still very successful in his pursuit.) But I worry about the loss of some well-roundedness…he would never learn a bit of history or read a bit of literature, if given that option. Or is this more about tricking them backwards into that stuff by showcasing the relevance through project-based work, rather than strict subject assignment?

      • John Wright

        As educators and parents, we are all concerned about changes. But our current system does not reflect what is happening in the work place. The workplace is often “fluid” – meaning that it is not segmented into different subjects requiring different modes of thinking. The way we learn now is anything but fluid. For a child who wants depth – the option would be there. This model requires that we change- and I think we should embrace it. By the way, any country will do well on PISA rankings or any other “influential” test if they focus on it. Besides, what does mastering such a test tell us about immeasurable “Mindset” skills?

      • JL

        I guess our concerns reflect our own experiences! My daughter seems interested in everything – from cereal nutritional values to learning how to code…so maybe I worry more about focus!

        To be clear – I’m not against project or phenomenon-based activities at all – we use them a lot with our own kids. I just think it’s about finding the right balance between that and skill building.

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  • ElizabethDD
  • Jake Cutone

    As I read this article on Finland’s new educational directives, I couldn’t help but think about the very nature of innovation, as it relates to global systems of education and pedagogy. If we look at Finland’s educational system- one that scores near the top of any evaluation matrix- we
    must admire (and yes, emulate) their willingness to evolve with the needs of their students. There are many politicians, administrators, and teachers that would do anything to replicate the success of Finland’s students. And yet, Finland has decided to move away from the “subject-based” teaching that has seen them become the high standard for student achievement. So why, after all this success, would Finland move further from a typical, “subject-based” system of education? On a fundamental level, Finland has recognized that schools should prepare their students for the world we live in… not the world our great-grandparents designed.

    Recently, at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) annual conference, Brian Bordainick discussed how tightly we’ve held onto educational systems of the past. He posed the argument that if we were to take a person from 1900 and place them in modern day society, that person would have great difficulty recognizing any of our social systems. The way we organize shopping centers would be overwhelming. Hospitals and factories would be foreign. Even a modern prison would scarcely register as familiar. But, if we brought that same person to an elementary school, they would know exactly what they were seeing. When we consider how rapidly global society is evolving, it is inconceivable that many of our schools remain entrenched in methodologies of a distant past.

    Given their track record on education, it’s not a stretch to believe that some aspects of Finland’s long-term plan will be successful. Other parts will undoubtedly fail and require revision. That’s OK. Innovation is always messier than we’d like to imagine. But shaping the future of our schools is worth getting our hands dirty.

    Jake Cutone
    Director of Special Programs, UCDS
    Seattle, WA

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