Finland schools replace subjects with ‘topics’


Finland is well known as having one of the best, if not the best, education systems in the world. With scores in both literacy and numeracy at the top of the heap, only  Singapore and China outperform Finland in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, which has caused educators to flock to the country to learn what makes the Finnish system so strong.

Now, Finland is about to make one of the most drastic educational reforms any country has ever taken by scrapping the traditional concept of teaching subjects, and replacing them with “topics”.  Yes. You heard right. Say good-bye to Science, Math and Social Studies. Say hello to….to what exactly?

Well, Finnish officials in Helsinki are saying that the education system should better prepare people for working life.  So they are pushing for what is called the “phenomenon” teaching approach. For example, a teenager studying in a vocational school might take a ‘restaurant service’ course which would include math, languages, writing skills and communication skills more specific to the task set out for them.  Academic students on the other hand would be taught cross-subject topics such as “European Union” which would include economics, history, language and geography, etc.

There is a concerted effort to promote “character, resilience and communication skills” says British Minister Tristram Hunt, rather than just pushing children through “exam factories”, so to speak; but ditching traditional subjects is a stretch that most countries would be hard pressed to embrace. Even in Finland, these reforms have been met with objection from teachers, who are not too happy about being asked to change the approach they have been working on for years.  However, through a system of co-teaching with salary bonuses, teachers are mostly on board – with 70% of Helsinki teachers trained in the new approach.

Apparently since this program started 2 years ago, student “outcomes” have improved. It is planned that by 2020, all Finnish schools will utilize this phenomenon-based teaching system.

Time will tell if this system is effective, as indicated by future PISA scores. The prudence of this drastic change to a phenomenon-based learning system is certainly open to debate, but one thing for certain is that Finland continues to not be afraid to innovate and adapt to the changing world by ensuring the education system changes along with it.


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