Finland blurs lines between school subjects
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.”