Fin­land blurs lines be­tween school sub­jects

Times Colonist - - Comment - GE­OFF JOHN­SON gfjohn­[email protected] Ge­off John­son is a re­tired su­per­in­ten­dent of schools.

One of my Writ­ing 11 stu­dents came storm­ing into my class­room wav­ing a piece of pa­per. “Look at this,” she said, “a‘D’ — I hate that woman.”

“That woman” was her English 11 teacher, pos­si­bly the last of the tra­di­tional gram­mar­i­ans, fa­mous among her stu­dents for her rig­or­ous ap­proach to the lan­guage.

“Look,” I said to my fum­ing stu­dent, “you’ve writ­ten an en­tire page here with nary a nod to the use of para­graphs. What do we talk about all the time in Writ­ing 11? Topic sen­tences, para­graphs that en­large the topic sen­tence …”

“Yes,” sput­tered my stu­dent, “but that’s in writ­ing class. This was in English class.”

It was not the first time I’d come across this phe­nom­e­non, partly the fault of the way we high school teach­ers had dis­in­te­grated the cur­ricu­lum.

As a naïve vice-prin­ci­pal fa­mil­iar with the way el­e­men­tary school teach­ers tend to teach all “sub­jects” to their class, it had con­cerned me that kids com­ing into Grade 8 could be faced with as many as five or six dif­fer­ent teach­ers, each of whom taught his or her “own sub­ject.”

Fool­ishly, I ex­posed my ad­min­is­tra­tive and man­age­rial in­ex­pe­ri­ence by sug­gest­ing to Grade 8 teach­ers that there were, af­ter all, log­i­cal con­nec­tions be­tween his­tory and geog­ra­phy, lit­er­a­ture and his­tory, math­e­mat­ics and the sciences. Wouldn’t it make sense to the kids if that same teacher taught one or more ra­tio­nally re­lated sub­ject ar­eas to the same group of kids?

An ex­pe­ri­enced teacher took me aside: “Ge­off, you don’t un­der­stand. I teach Grade 8 his­tory, Ernie teaches Grade 8 geog­ra­phy.”

It was like try­ing to turn back cen­turies of some tidal bore, one of those waves caused by the fun­nelling of a flood tide as it en­ters a long, nar­row, shal­low in­let. I knew that, for the time be­ing at least, I was stand­ing alone on the sands of that in­let.

Now, many years later, comes the cel­e­brated ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem of Fin­land sug­gest­ing that cur­ricu­lum be in­te­grated, not dis­in­te­grated. Fin­nish of­fi­cials ap­pear to be re­mov­ing school sub­jects from the cur­ricu­lum. There will no longer be any spe­cific classes in physics, math, lit­er­a­ture, his­tory or geog­ra­phy.

The head of the de­part­ment of ed­u­ca­tion in Helsinki, Marjo Kyl­lo­nen, ex­plained the changes: “In­stead of in­di­vid­ual sub­jects, stu­dents will study events in an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary for­mat. For ex­am­ple, the Sec­ond World War will be ex­am­ined from the per­spec­tive of his­tory, geog­ra­phy and math.”

Nat­u­rally, these plans have sparked con­tro­versy. There are fears that tra­di­tional con­tent ar­eas, such as math and his­tory and art, will be aban­doned.

Stay calm and carry on, says Pasi Sahlberg, a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of prac­tice at the Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of Ed­u­ca­tion, re­garded as one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on school re­form and ed­u­ca­tional prac­tices.

Sahlberg ex­plains that not only will tra­di­tional con­tent be re­tained, but that Fin­nish chil­dren will learn by look­ing at broader top­ics, such as the Euro­pean Union, com­mu­nity and cli­mate change, which would bring to­gether mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary mod­ules on lan­guages, geog­ra­phy, sciences and eco­nomics.

The other re­form tak­ing place in Fin­land is the in­tro­duc­tion of a new na­tional cur­ricu­lum frame­work, which came into ef­fect in Au­gust 2016.

The con­cept of “phe­nomenon­based” teach­ing — a move away from “sub­jects” and to­ward in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary top­ics — has a cen­tral place in the new cur­ricu­lum frame­work.

Well aware that any change, if im­ple­mented too quickly, in­evitably causes a neg­a­tive re­ac­tion, Fin­land’s NCF treads care­fully and sug­gests that all that changed in 2016 was that all ba­sic schools for seven- to 16-yearolds must have at least one ex­tended pe­riod of mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary, phe­nom­e­non-based teach­ing and learn­ing in their cur­ric­ula.

Pre­dictably, some teach­ers in Fin­land see this current re­form as a threat and the wrong way to im­prove teach­ing and learn­ing. Other teach­ers see mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary learn­ing as a first step to more fun­da­men­tal changes.

“We have re­ally changed the mind­set,” says Marjo Kyl­lo­nen, Helsinki’s ed­u­ca­tion man­ager. “It is quite dif­fi­cult to get teach­ers to start and take the first step … but teach­ers who have taken to the new ap­proach say they can’t go back.”

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