Why Finland won't be teaching 'math' and 'history' anymore

Finland will making drastic changes to an already successful education system. Why now? And will this model change the way other countries go about educating their children?

Bob Strong/Reuters/File
FILE PHOTO- Students attend a class in nuclear engineering at Aalto University School of Science and Technology in Helsinki, Sept. 27, 2010. Finland, which already has one of the most successful education systems in the world, will be changing from a subject-based system to a topic-based system in hopes of better preparing its students for the real world.

Despite having an education system that does not rely on standardized test scores, Finnish students perform extremely well on exams that are given to students all over the developed world. 

But now Finland is looking to overhaul its education system and will now focus on more on "topics" and less on subjects, according to The Independent.

The Finns are calling this "phenomena" teaching. The Independent cites an example of a student enrolling in vocational courses who may choose to take lessons in "cafeteria services." In this example, the adolescent student would study math elements and languages – for serving foreign customers – while working on writing and communication capabilities. 

Students who are on a more academic track might take a course on the European Union, which would combine elements of history, economics, and foreign languages. 

“What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life," Pasi Silander, Helsinki's city manager told The Independent.  “We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society.”

There has been some pushback from Finnish teachers, who currently have a great deal of independence on how they teach their respective courses. It is a very competitive profession – all teachers hold master's degrees and are far better compensated than their American counterparts, according to the New Republic. Finnish teachers earn 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates make in salary, contrasted with the 65 percent pay American teachers receive compared with college graduates in other professions, according to the report.   

Early signs indicate that this new method of education is benefiting student outcomes, The Independent reported. Helsinki schools are already devoting some time to this new style of learning, and current plans call for instituting this type of schooling across the country by 2020, according to the report.  

Finland's deviation on educational standards may come as a surprise to some – because Finland trails only Singapore and China in performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in 65 of the world's most developed countries.

Finland has served as a model for other countries looking to improve their education systems. Teachers from Britain have made the trip to study and observe Finnish schools. And Americans who are pushing for educational reform often point to the Finnish system as a model that encourages students to play as they learn. Students in Finland get 15 minutes of recess in between lessons, and students are not administered standardized tests until they are in high school.

The idea of combining subjects to better facilitate learning is nearly a century old. American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey thought that schooling should better reflect real life. This educational approach was attempted in American schools; once before World War II and again in the 1970's with the "Open Classroom" movement, The Washington Post reported. 

However, it was abandoned after it was found not to be compatible with an American public school model, which expected students to have a certain level of knowledge to be able to move on to the next grade. Combining subjects in this fashion required teachers to have an extensive knowledge of all subjects they were teaching, and some teachers struggled to generate assignments that would play to a wide range of students' strengths and interests. 

With the results looking positive in the early trial runs at Helsinki schools, Finland's new education model looks to be succeeding where previous efforts to combine studies have failed. However, the success of this schooling method will ultimately come down to the country's highly skilled teachers' performance if phenomena learning is to become a tried and true means of education. 

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