For some time, Finland has been held up as the epitome of educational excellence. In Scotland in particular, the Finnish educational model, social equality, a high status teaching profession, the absence of examinations, combined with uniformly high expectations and high PISA rankings (although these have recently dropped slightly), has been lauded by politicians and academics alike.
Finland is, however, about to experiment with massive changes to its curricular model. These include a radical departure from traditional subject teaching to a topic-based curriculum and a move to a more informal, cooperative style of learning.
The arguments for the reforms are that they are necessary to meet the challenges of working life in “modern society”, that cooperation, problem-solving and communication skills are more relevant today than book-based, often abstract, knowledge.
These proposals have occasioned some opposition, characterised by some as conservative, subject-bound teachers unwilling to leave the silos in which they feel safe and secure. In the UK, the proposed Finnish reforms have been scorned by Professor Dennis Hayes of the University of Derby: “The new policy shift does not focus on education as an important way to transform society but seeks to transform education to meet perceived new economic demands and, perhaps even more narrowly, to remedy Finland’s position in the league tables. This may show high expectations of an instrumental sort, but these are not high educational expectations.”
High on his list of objections is that to abandon subject-based teaching is to sacrifice “knowledge” for “skills” despite the fact (or assertion) that knowledge is the first platform for all higher level learning, including applied skills.
If that however is the “conservative” side of the argument against the Finnish experiment, there is one area around which the educational conservatives and the social “radicals” might share common ground. The reforms have been justified in Finland on the basis that: “Young people use quite advanced computers. 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.”
Prof Hayes poses the counter-argument: “The reforms are an attempt to offer something that just gets pupils ready for work … If (this proposal) accelerates, as it may without opposition, it will make education in Finland – whether it is labelled ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ – just training for a job.”
There are at least three serious debates here, the opportunity for which, tragically, was avoided when Scotland introduced its Curriculum for Excellence reforms. The first is to ask whether a subject-based curriculum remains the best means of ensuring that the knowledge aspect of education remains the vital bedrock of higher level learning. The second, even if we reach the conclusion that discrete subjects remain essential to organising the delivery of a wide range of complex disciplines, how best do we develop young people’s ability to see across these disciplines and to understand the inter-relatedness of all human knowledge and learning. The third, whatever conclusions we reach on the first two, what pedagogic approaches and methods best engage all children enthusiastically in the learning process?
Perhaps an even greater question begging debate is whether the primary purpose of education is to prepare young people for work and the economy. Do human beings exist to service the economic system or should the economic and education system be structured to serve human beings and satisfy human needs? Teachers must engage with that question, even if (especially if) most politicians refuse to do so.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.