Finland Is Eliminating School Subjects, A Great Idea That Would Never Work In The US

506063897Finland is a country whose name comes up often in discussions about American education reform: they continually produce top-of-the-line test scores, the gap between their highest-achieving and lowest-achieving students is the smallest in the world, and they place an emphasis on learning via play and giving children frequent recess breaks. And their unusual model is unlikely to be the talk of the education town anytime soon, as they’ve recently made plans to go forward with another big change–the elimination of teaching individual subjects, according to the Independent. Cool idea? Yes. One that’s likely to work in American schools? Well …

Before now, Finnish secondary schools have followed much the same model as American high schools: fifty minutes of math, fifty minutes of history, fifty minutes of biology. But going forward, schools are moving toward getting rid of this structure in favor of organizing learning around different topics. For example, where an American student might take separate classes in foreign language, world history, and economics, for a Finnish student all of these subjects might be combined together in an over-arching unit on the European Union.

As a former teacher, I can see the value in this model for one big reason: eliminating the omnipresent question of, “But why do I have to learn this?!” Centering learning on big concepts of immediate relevance to students’ lives as citizens gives them an obvious reason to learn about it–and gives teachers a break from “but I don’t care about this” whining–while interconnecting knowledge instead of teaching each subject in isolation can help students retain that information more easily, too. (Although it may not be possible to connect, say, the integration of power series from calculus to a real-life application, because I still don’t know why I had to learn that.)

Small pilot programs have shown the value of the new system, too, with gains in positive outcomes for student learning in the schools where this approach has been tested out, although the relatively short time frame of the pilot (two years so far) makes me wonder about the longer-term effects on subjects that keep building on prior knowledge, like foreign language and math.

Of course, while Finland is famous for its no-homework policy for students, this new system might create a fair bit of homework for its teachers. It would obviously require a lot more co-planning and coordination among faculty–not every teacher can be an expert in every single subject area covered under one of these broad topics. The nice news is that teachers who do put in the work required to successfully coordinate this way get a little salary bonus to make it worth their while.

Is this idea an interesting one? Definitely. Is it likely to be effective in American schools? I’m not so sure. Besides the structural reasons Finnish schools are set up for educational success (such as a much, much lower rate of income inequality in its population), Finnish teachers also get much more planning time compared to their American peers. When I taught, I had a few minutes before school, one forty-five minute preparatory period during the day (for which I had to prep materials for the three different courses I taught), and then after school, I supervised clubs or had students in my room to make up tests and quizzes. It’s hard to set up a system of co-teaching when you don’t ever have the time to be in the same room at the same time as your co-teachers. It’s exciting to see what Finland will accomplish with new innovations like this one–but here at home, I’d like to see us try a few things that would be relatively innovative for us. Such as, say, funding poor schools equitably compared to rich ones.

(Image: svetikd / Getty)

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