Finland Re-imagines School Subjects


Glen Forde / Creative Sustainability
Students actively participate in a sustainability course in Helsinki, Finland.

Year after year, Finland has consistently ranked amongst the top countries in the world in education quality. Case in point: in September, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Report ranked Finland first in primary education rankings, with a score of 6.8 out of 7—outscoring even the education heavyweights of East Asia, Singapore, and Japan.

Much of Finland’s success has been attributed to the country’s willingness to work outside traditional Western education practices, through prioritizing group activities and peer-to-peer collaboration over rote memorization and minimizing the emphasis on standardized testing. Altogether, the Finnish education system has, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), allowed for 96 percent of Finnish students to go on to complete secondary education—a full 13 percentage points higher than the OECD average.

In August, the Finnish Board of Education implemented, in a new curriculum, another radical shift towards how to better approach education. Rather than simply teaching single-subject courses in Math or History, the Finnish state has instead decided to prioritize “phenomena” courses, which teach multiple subjects in a specific topic-driven setting.

According to The Independent, classes such as “The European Union” will combine several separate topics, such as languages, history, and economics, into multidisciplinary courses designed to “promote traversal competence skills,” as stated by the Finnish Board of Education on its website.

“Study, working life, and active citizenship require a command of different knowledge and skills as well as competences in combining these,” the Board said in describing the new curriculum. Rather than having each subject exist in the vacuum of the classroom, the hope is that “phenomena” style courses will teach students how to better adapt the topics they learn in school to challenges and situations that they will face in the post-graduation world.

That’s not to say that typical Literature or Math courses are simply going away, however. Instead, “phenomena” courses are designed to exist side-by-side with more traditional classes, with the Board of Education stipulating that at least one “phenomena” type period must be introduced during a given school year.

But Finland’s education system is notably decentralized, says Pasi Sahlberg of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in an Op–Ed in The Conversation. While some parts of the country will likely jump to fully adopt the new way of teaching—indeed, Helinksi, Finland’s capital and most populous city, has already declared that its schools will have a minimal of two phenomena courses a year—others will likely “choose more moderate ways” of adapting the new curriculum to suit their own preferred teaching methods, Sahlberg says.

Another part of the new curriculum stands out, too: according to the Finnish Board of Education, students must take part in the planning and structuring of phenomenon-based classes, giving them an agency in the classroom that until now was held only by the instructor.