Demystifying the Finnish Education System, Part II: Is Finland abolishing school subjects?

In the months leading up to my move to Finland, friends and family regularly forwarded me any links to news articles about the Finnish education system they came across. Those articles most often were about one of two things: the lack of testing and homework employed in the Finnish school system, and the rumors that Finland is “abolishing school subjects” in place of phenomenon-based learning.

I addressed the first topic in a previous blog post, so I thought it was about time I addressed the the second question: Is Finland getting rid of school subjects? 

The short answer is no, but to better understand what changes are actually happening in Finland requires better understanding what “phenomenon-based learning”–the hallmark of the policy changes being referenced–means in practice, and in Finnish education policy.

What is “phenomenon-based learning”?

The concept of phenomenon-based learning is grounded in the theory of constructivism, which posits that learners actively construct knowledge through their experiences independently, and in collaboration with other learners. Inherent in this framework, therefore, is the notion that knowledge is not something static that is passed down through educational hierarchies, but rather it is something that is constructed through social interactions and problem-solving.

According to Phenomenal Education, phenomenon-based learning is that which is centered around the study of “holistic real-world phenomena”:

“The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects. Phenomena are  holistic topics like human, European Union, media and technology, water or energy. The starting point differs from the traditional school culture divided into subjects, where the things studied are often split into relatively small, separate parts (decontextualisation).”                                                                                                                                                                                 — Pasi Silander 

The underlying understanding behind the model is that, when students are presented opportunities to think critically through an multidisciplinary lens, they are able to experience deeper learning.

In 1956, educational theorist John Dewey wrote: “From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–its isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests and activities that predominate in his home and neighbourhood.”

Phenomenon-based learning attempts to bridge the gap between schools and outside life by teaching students to learn and engage with problems in ways that encourage them to ask questions, collaborate with others, and integrate both methods of problem-solving and content knowledge from across disciplines. It brings together project-based learning (PBL) models, while further highlighting crossovers between disciplines.

So, what do these changes actually mean in practice? 

In the Finnish national curriculum, there are seven “transversal competence areas” which define the overall objectives of the education system:  (1) “thinking and learning to learn; (2) cultural competence, interaction, and self-expression; (3) taking care of oneself and managing daily life; (4) multi literacy; (5) information and communications technology (ICT) competence; (6) working life competence and entrepreneurship; (7) participation, involvement and building of a sustainable future”

In August 2016, the Finnish National Board of education introduced the requirement that all students (aged 7-16) participate in at least one multidisciplinary learning module–or “ML”–per year, as a way to support their engagement with these seven competences.

MLs are defined as “study periods of integrative instruction based on the cooperation between subjects” and “aim to engage students in exploring holistically authentic phenomena, which are interpreted as real-world themes and as such cannot be contained in only one subject.” For example, rather than studying the history of European Union, students might also consider the EU from the lenses of economics (i.e. applied math), representations in culture/art/music, politics, ethics, etc.

Therefore, Finland is introducing new multidisciplinary curriculum that is focused on bridging barriers between traditionally defined “school subjects,” but Finland is not getting rid of the enterprise of school subjects altogether, at least not in the near future. 

Something critical to note here is that, because educational outcomes in Finland are not assessed and regulated in the same ways they are in places like the United States, the development of curriculum in Finland is decentralized. What that means is that MLs are all planned locally by schools, which has implications on how they manifest in specific schools: “Within this decentralized model, education providers make decisions on how the MLs are implemented, with regard to local goals, principles and methods that guide the implementation process, objectives and content, assessment practices, and monitoring of the implementation.”

This ultimately provides schools the autonomy to determine how they wish to construct such new curriculum. Because most in-service teachers have not necessarily been trained to design and implement such curriculum, that is where external organizations like the LUMA Centre step in, to help support teachers in designing curriculum and adjusting their pedagogy to reflect these changes in the national curriculum. To read more about the work LUMA does in these regards (and how it relates to my own research), you can check out my earlier blogpost here.

Why did Finland make the shift to phenomenon-based learning? 

Helsinki education manager, Marjo Kyllonen notes“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…There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s – but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century.” 

The model of phenomenon-based learning is just one example of models being tested  internationally to better prepare students as “21st century learners” and teach them more relevant content. I am excited to see if other school districts, states, or nations, begin employing the same model as Finland. An example I have already seen gain traction is the Big History movement–an interdisciplinary approach to teaching the history of the universe/human history from the Big Bang to present.

Perhaps the most important take-away from these changes is that teachers in Finland are not receiving any designated curriculum that they must implement in their own classrooms, so any teacher could try to implement elements of phenomenon-based curriculum within their own classrooms.



Leave a Reply