Tag Archives: curriculum

The Truth About Finnish Schools – a Commentary

A promotion site of Finland, called this is FINLAND, just published a nice article about Finnish schools, going through some common claims and myths along the way. The article aims especially at the upcoming curriculum, set to kick in starting August 2016.

Truth

Many of the points I agree with 100%, such as debunking the persistent misunderstanding that in Finnish schools there is no homework. This of course has never been true, nor will be in the new curriculum

I feel that some points deserve further analysis and commentary. Let’s start from the beginning. Ninni Lehtniemi, the author of the article, starts by treating the following claim

Claim 1: Students will no longer study in their classes at all. Teaching will be “phenomenon-based”, meaning that teachers will work “experimentally” with schoolchildren outside the conventional school setting.

and responds, with the help of Anneli Rautiainen, head of the Basic Education Unit of the National Board of Education: “yes and no”.

I think two things get mixed up here. Phenomenon-based learning (or project-based learning, which is more commonly used term in English), is more about crossing traditional subject boundaries than being in or out the classroom.

School projects are not new but they will indeed be more explicitly stated in the upcoming curriculum than they have been before. If the project benefits from going outside, of course it makes sense to do so. But in principle, projects can be conducted and phenomena studied also inside a classroom, with proper learning materials and technology.

The next claim:

Claim 2: Classrooms will be abandoned and replaced by open marketplaces where children will “buy” the subjects and courses they feel are suitable for them.

Response: “yes and no”. There are two things blended in this claim: abandoning the physical classrooms and making subjects & courses optional. Either can be done with or without the other one.

First the classrooms: they are already now a lot more flexible and modular than they used to be, so I don’t think that they will be altogether abandoned. Rather, we will see more innovative use of classrooms and technology in them.

Then the “buying” of subjects: this is a question which divides opinions. On one hand, we want to allow pupils & students to follow their passion and concentrate on the things they are truly interested in. On the other, we would of course like to preserve the general level of education across subjects. As the children progress to upper grade levels, they naturally get more choices to specialize.

Claim 3: Schoolchildren will make “bad” choices that will affect them into adulthood – for instance if they opt for more mathematics instead of a language course, or vice versa.

Response: “no”. I agree here totally with Ninni and Pasi Sahlberg, who commented on this claim. Although it might sound a bit idealistic to state that “here in Finland we treat all subjects as equally important”, there is a fair point to this.

My own justification to this stems from the life after school. Worklife and the skills needed in it changes so fast that no basic education can keep up. That is why we should give a broad education and organize careers so that people can engage in lifelong learning and professional development.

Claim 4: Pupils will themselves decide which level of achievement they want to aim for, and they will be set assignments enabling them to achieve such grades. There is a risk that students capable of high grades will only aim for low grades, so they can have an easy time.

Response: “no”. Agree completely. Let’s again divide this claim into two. First, regarding who sets the “level of achievement”: as Anneli Rautiainen points out, learning goals are stated in the curriculum, not by the pupils.

Secondly, about the risk that the smart students would only aim at low grades and lay back after they’ve done. This can happen no matter who sets the goals. Some smart students want to go citius, altius, fortius, whereas others are happy with their minimum acceptable performance. And all the shades of gray in between.

It is the question of motivating pupils to give their best, not about who sets the goals.

Claim 5: Schoolchildren will no longer be divided into conventional groups of learners, but will instead hang out in their own cliques according to their interests.

Response: “no”. Agree and this is important. Differentiation takes place within a class. The classroom has a heterogeneous set of pupils with varying interests and skill levels. We want to unite rather than separate. This of course demands a lot from the teachers and learning materials, but it is something we just have to do.

Claim 6: The brightest students will no longer fare so well, because cramming will be neglected.

Response: “yes and no”. This is partly related to Claim 4 above, regarding what will happen to the smartest students after the curriculum reform. Again: “brightest students” is not a homogeneous group of people; some of them (like to) learn by cramming, whereas others use other methods.

Naturally, knowing things by heart becomes less and less important since information is at our fingertips. However, core information structures, causal relationships, and general knowledge are still needed for critical thinking, media literacy and other relevant skills.

Claim 7: All provenly effective teaching methods will be abandoned, and schoolchildren will end up just messing around.

Response: “no”. Of course they won’t, this is a weird claim. This is not a revolution where all good methods will be forgotten. It is rather an evolution, where old means will be complemented with new ones to produce the best ends.

Claim 8: Homework will not be set at all.

Response: “no”. Yep, mentioned this already in the beginning of this post. Homework has always played a role in Finnish education and will continue to do so.

Claim 9: There will be no more tests and exams.

Response: “no”. Yes, there will be tests and exams also in the future. But it is important to clarify just what kinds of tests. Matriculation examination at the end of upper secondary education (highschool) is the only large-scale national standardized test in Finland. Has been and will continue.

However, teachers conduct tests all the time while they teach. A test is a tool for learning as much as it is a tool for assessing. Teacher has a lot of freedom running her class. She can choose to test often or rarely, inform about an exam in advance or surprise the pupils, use ready-made tests or create her own, etc.

Claim 10: Teachers will have to be super-adapters, able to teach from this autumn onwards using completely different methods, and dealing with new subjects like coding.

Response: “no”. At the expense of repeating myself: this is evolution, not revolution. Nothing will be completely different. Still, there are plenty of new skills also the teachers have to adopt. But the change won’t happen overnight and resources must be allocated to train the teachers to keep them on top of their game.

Edit: I had missed the last two claims when I first published this post. You can find them below.

Claim 11: Learning difficulties will not be found, because pupils will be responsible for their own achievements.

Response: “no”. Of course in the end it is up to the pupil whether or not she decides to study. However, the role of the teacher is very important. The teacher, equipped with appropriate learning materials and tools, is capable of assessing the pupils and noticing potential learning difficulties.

Claim 12: The new curriculum will consign Finland’s excellent results in the international Pisa ratings for education systems to the dustbin of history.

Response: “maybe, but so what?” I’ve been in this business for five years now. One thing that has still amazes me is how different local curricula are. That is why I am not a big proponent of measuring children across countries in the first place.

Flickr image CC credits: Simon Doggett

 

Mobile Games to Enrich Primary School Materials

I am super excited about the two new mobile games to enrich Sanoma Pro’s existing materials. Both collaborations are graduates of the EnhancEDU startup program.

The first of them, Ihmepupu* (in English Wonderbunny), is a mathematics game where a rabbit dashes trough colorful scenes while completing exercises. The other one is called Peikkoleiri* (Goblin Camp). It is a Finnish grammar game for natives, where the goblin has to prove knowledge of spelling, compound words, etc. in order to advance.

Both games are in Finnish and for Finnish pupils (although there is a common core aligned version of Wonderbunny in English). They are based on Sanoma Pro’s Finnish K-12 curriculum aligned content. Ihmepupu follows the structure of the Kymppi method, whereas Peikkoleiri is based on our Välkky method.

Currently Ihmepupu is for 1st graders and Peikkoleiri for 3rd graders, but both are looking for rolling out new also grade levels. At least Fantastec, the creator of Ihmepupu, is planning to launch also 2nd and 3rd grade games still during the spring of 2015.

Check out the introduction videos of these two fine games, and find the download links for both below (for Android and iOS, respectively). Enjoy!

Välkky 3 Peikkoleiri

Android, Google Play

iOS, App Store

 

Kymppi – Ihmepupun kuntorata

Android, Google Play

iOS, App Store

* Complete names for the games: Kymppi – Ihmepupun kuntorata and Välkky 3 Peikkoleiri.

Virtual Elementary Schools for Engineering, Arts, Languages, Whatnot

When I started my upper secondary (highschool) studies in the early nineties, I would’ve liked to take Latin as an optional subject. Don’t ask me why, I just would’ve. Since there were no interested people in our school besides me and my pal, it wasn’t worthiwhile to organize a latin class for my age group. So I chose German instead. Again: don’t ask me why.

Whittenberg's mascot is a robot, naturally.

Whittenberg’s mascot

Fast forward 20 odd years. The Atlantic just run a story about “America’s tiniest engineers”. The story describes A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering. That’s right, elementary school. Kids aged 5-6 years at the youngest.

What do you think about this? Does it make sense to specialize so early? Or is there a danger that we hide something potentially interesting or important from the child?

My spontaneous reaction to this is positive. As long as the basic curriculum is satisfied, emphasizing things that the children naturally take interest can only do good. At least this subject-oriented differentiation of little kids sounds a lot better than skill-oriented.

Whittenberg has robot as a mascot, iPads to study and play with, lots of project work, all kinds of cool stuff. At this point your inner cynic (or at least realist) wakes up: Not all schools can afford iPads and other fun gadgets. I agree 100%. I don’t propose all schools to be turned into schools of engineering. Nor to schools of arts, languages, or sports.

No, what I am thinking is how basic online technologies could help in specialization and implementing rare optional subjects. If there is a computer equipped with online access at school or home, it is possible to build online communities spanning the school boundaries. And what’s important, these communities can be very niche.

Back to me and my unrealized Latin studies: In the early 90s the Internet existed, sure, but Tim Berners-Lee was still working on the foundations of the world wide web. The machines in my school’s two computer classrooms were not connected to the outside world.

Now the situation is different. It shouldn’t be too difficult to organize Latin studies by working virtually. Finland is a small country with only five million inhabitants. However, I am sure there are enough people each year for a couple of Latin groups, if the participants can come from wherever in the country.

Furthermore, there is no need to wait until the upper secondary studies for these virtual classes. Why not build a couple of virtual elementary schools of engineering? After all, most graduates from such schools are going to work virtually on a daily basis. No wait, most graduates from all shools are going to.

I am leaving you with a video of how this virtual work today takes place. Hopefully there is going to be progress on that front as well:

 

We Need to Mix & Match between Subjects (and Edtech can Help Us)

Traditionally the story has gone as follows: first as a child you learnt spontaneously and autonomously the things you felt important, with maybe your parents’ or other adults’ reinforcement activities. (“Say ma-ma, MA-MA.” “Grrbrgl.” “Good boy!”)

School

Then it was off to preschool, where they started showing you letters and numbers. In other words, you got your first dose of maths & reading. In primary education you got served a bit more subjects, and even more in secondary education. At the end of secondary you had a couple of languages, maths, physics, history, geography, etc. A whole bunch of subjects.

Then it was full stop. Whether it was university, polytechnic, or vocational education for you, you generally had to pick a subject and go from there. One subject, leaving all these other wonderful domains behind.

But it did not matter, since after your higher or applied studies came the work life where you were assumed to know that one topic you had educated yourself. Carpenter, captain, accountant, veterinarian. You got paid for doing that one thing.

Somewhere along the way things changed. These days work is ever more multidisciplinary and calls for skills, which make use of things taught across the curriculum. We need T-shaped people, to quote the term coined by IBM [PDF]. T-shaped people have deep knowledge of some subject but also, and sometimes more importantly so, lighter knowledge of many other domains.

If I am to predict, we are not going back to individual experts working alone. Instead, we are proceeding even further into teams consisting of multitalented people each having separate roles but still capable of understanding each other.

So what to do? This should be embraced in education, of course. I think there is nothing wrong with subjects, mind. On the contrary, they are useful abstractions of similar kinds of information. However, it should be easier to hop over the subject boundaries and implement multidisciplinary teaching and learning.

If we look at the grade levels, I think the most convenient places to add multidisciplinary approaches are at the start and at the end of one’s educational life. At the start children are not yet accustomed to subjects and it is more natural for them to switch lanes.

And at the end, when teenagers are preparing for work, it would be very useful for them to get a grip of what’s going on in corporate life, and what it has in store for them. So for universities, polytechnics, vocational education, and even upper secondary, I would like to see more project-based work with real-life topics.

Many educational technologies can help in this:

  • Children can collect online portfolios consisting of content spanning several subjects.
  • They can use suitable social media tools and virtual learning environments to work in groups and assess each others’ achievements, learning teamwork as they go
  • Educational games and other content utilizing gamified elements can teach several subjects in one unified universe.
  • etc.

Bottom line: We should respect subjects and utilize them to the max. However, we shouldn’t let them prevent multitalented experts to emerge.

Flickr image CC credits: Tulane Public Relations

Replace Textbooks with iPads? Stop this Madness!

Disclamer: I work for a provider of educational solutions, ranging from printed books to online content and learning platforms.

It’s the time of year again, when schools are starting and you hear these ideas about getting rid of text- and workbooks at school and investing the same money to tablets. Mmmkay, think about this for a second.

For a while now books have turned out to be quite a nice carrier for content consisting of text and pictures. This is true for educational content as well. However, books are just that, a carrier. Nothing more, nothing less.

The beef is in the content, and the medium it comes in is secondary. So when you propose that out with the books and in with the iPads, you should demand the iPads loaded with educational content satisfying your curriculum.

There’s nothing curriculum-related in tablet’s normal set of preloaded software. You have to go to an application store and start searching. There you can find all sorts of apps, many of which are probably very useful to you. Just be aware that coming up with content and apps satisfying all your curricular needs might be quite time-consuming and cumbersome.

End rant.

I think iPads and other tablets are very fine devices. As they become more common in and outside classrooms, which they will for sure, new innovative ways to teach and learn will emerge.

I for one welcome our new flat overlords. I just don’t fool myself in thinking they are going to magically turn into content. Or make content irrelevant.