Finland’s New Education Reform


Is It Right For the United States?




School may never look like this again!

Parents and teachers are painfully familiar with these questions: “Why do we have to learn this stuff? When are we ever going to use this again?”

Finland has the answers: this “stuff” matters, and it matters today. And next year, Finland is going to prove it to Helsinki’s population of sixteen-year-olds. The city is taking a huge step in education reform. It’s switching from the traditional, subject-based system we are familiar with (an hour of math in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon) and replacing it with what they call “phenomena” education.

The Independent describes what a topic-based class looks like. Students might take a class on the European Union, in which they learn economics, history, and language. Their teachers will collaborate to create meaningful, integrated lessons that show yes, you really will use statistics in real life. This new policy is already being phased into some schools this year, will be applied to all Helsinki schools next year, and will be a country-wide policy by 2020.

Why is Finland making a sweeping change to its schools when it enjoys such a high rate of performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, a test given to 15-year-olds in many of the world’s developed countries?

“There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s – but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century,” Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager, tells The Independent.

Pasi Silander, the city’s development manager, adds that, “In the past the banks had lots of bank clerks totting up figures but now that has totally changed. We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society.”

The world is going to be watching. As The Christian Science Monitor points out, Finland has long held top spots in academic achievement and their school systems are seen as models for countries around the world. Teachers in Finland are well educated and well respected, and their salaries reflect that. If phenomena education works in Finland, we might see it pop up in other countries as well. Maybe even the United States.

Or, maybe not. Finland does other things well that schools here aren’t yet copying. For example, Finnish schoolchildren generally get 15-minute recess breaks between classes and standardized tests aren’t administered until high school. The United States, in contrast, has seen time spent on the playground or in music and arts classes shrink in proportion to time spent preparing for and taking standardized tests.

What do you think? Is Finland on the right track? And if Finnish students do thrive under this new program, should the United States follow suit?