Finn and fun: Lessons from Finland's new school curriculum

Preparing the next generation for a new world

Responding to the challenges and developments faced by the country over the past two decades, the Finnish education ministry implemented a new curriculum last year to tackle the issues.

Traditional Finnish industries such as paper manufacturing have declined because of an increased preference for digital media.

Furthermore, technology trends are changing rapidly, and failure to innovate resulted in the collapse of industry giants such as Nokia - a Finnish stalwart that, at its peak in 2004, sold 40 per cent of the world's mobile phones and employed one in 100 Finns.

Undoubtedly, automation and digitalisation will also render many more traditional jobs redundant - a development that the government is trying to stave off by equipping the next generation with skills they will need for the future.

So even though the Finnish education system has consistently ranked at the top of international educational benchmarks - despite minimal homework regimens and no standardised tests, apart from a nationwide matriculation examination for students when they are around 17 - the curriculum has been tweaked further to keep it relevant.

As shown in the following articles, The Straits Times saw during a study trip how the Finns are trying to keep their students up to date in a changing world.

• The writer's flight and accommodation were paid for by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and Finnfacts, an independent media service that operates as an interface between international media and Finnish industry and business.


The school curriculum incorporates two hours of physical activity daily. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AND CULTURE OF FINLAND

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Tailor-made classrooms for young learners in Helsinki str.sg/finnlearn


A curriculum focused on skills

After consultations with academics, educators and parents, the national core curriculum was reformed in 2014 and implemented by Finnish schools last August. It is the overarching blueprint for what and how schools teach in Finland.

The Finnish education department first lays out the national core curriculum. It is then interpreted at the municipal level to form the municipal curriculum, and this is in turn pushed down to schools, which have the autonomy to develop their own school curriculum. This process takes up to two years.


Finnish students get a free meal every day, made up of a main course such as fish, along with vegetables and bread. Meals are thought to improve the ability to learn. Schools also use lunchtime to teach nutrition and even table manners. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

The new curriculum framework has four broad thrusts.

1. TEACHING STUDENTS 'HOW TO LEARN' INSTEAD OF 'WHAT TO LEARN'

The reformed curriculum focuses on teaching young Finns the skills to obtain knowledge rather than teaching them the content itself.

"Competencies needed in society and working life have changed over the past two decades, requiring skills that will remain relevant in an uncertain and volatile global environment," said Mrs Anneli Rautiainen, head of the innovation unit at the Finnish National Agency for Education, the Finnish equivalent of Singapore's Ministry of Education.


At Lauttasaari Primary School in Helsinki, open-concept floor plans replace traditional classrooms. Tables are designed such that they can be moved around easily to suit the teacher's requirements. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

2. EMPHASIS ON DEVELOPING BROAD-BASED COMPETENCIES

Schools now emphasise developing skills that traverse multiple subjects. These competencies include information communications technology (ICT), cross-cultural communication, active participation in society and entrepreneurship.

Students will also embark on at least one "phenomenon-based" inter-disciplinary module per year. These modules require them to learn and apply a variety of skills and competencies within a single lesson unit instead of studying subjects such as mathematics and geography as separate disciplines.

An example of such an inter-disciplinary module could be one where teachers guide students to work in groups to research the effects of climate change. Students may then create a global awareness campaign on YouTube to persuade their peers from Finland and other countries to conserve the environment.


Learning takes place everywhere, not just at desks, like in the case of these pupils reading an assigned textbook on the floor. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

Phenomenon-based learning is also about getting students to take charge of their own learning. Instead of imbibing content knowledge from their teachers, students are trained to be intellectually curious to create their own understanding of a topic. "The key is for teachers to provoke students to ask questions such as 'Why are there numbers in the world?'," said Ms Sara Sintonen, an education researcher and trainer at the University of Helsinki's Playful Learning Lab, a simulated classroom for trainee teachers to practise their teaching skills under observation by their trainers.

3. ASSESSMENT AS LEARNING

Assessments are primarily used to pinpoint areas where students lack understanding, not to differentiate performance between students.

Students get individualised feedback to help them close their gaps in understanding. Assessment, therefore, is a support platform for teachers to give personalised, early intervention to aid the students' learning. It is also for students themselves to have a stake in their education - from as young as six years old when Finns enter pre-school.


Digital learning is embedded in all assignments. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

"Assessment is ongoing, encouraging and guiding. By having a more personalised learning approach, we can hopefully motivate students better. We would like to see students play an active role to build their own future," said Mrs Rautiainen.

4. SCHOOLS AS LEARNING ORGANISATIONS

Schools are encouraged to develop the love for learning by prioritising student well-being and welfare. For example, school leaders and teachers will strive to build a cooperative - rather than competitive - learning environment among students.

Teachers are advised to teach at an unhurried pace to ensure that every student is able to catch up.


Tables and chairs at Lauttasaari Primary School have castors so they are easily moved to allow an area to be set up differently according to the requirements of each lesson activity. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

Educators are urged to see themselves as part of a learning community that continually seeks to improve its craft. "We encourage teachers to work collaboratively and practise team teaching. Schools are learning communities, where everyone can learn from each other, including adults from students," said Mrs Rautiainen.


Spaces designed for different learners

To cater to the evolving learning styles of learners and modern methods of teaching and learning, Finnish schools are being transformed into spaces that look very different from most schools in Asia.

Classrooms with different learning zones replace the traditional layout - a cuboid space with rows of tables and chairs - that has largely remained the norm for centuries.


Areas with tiered seating allow each pupil to get a clear view of their peers' presentations. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

At Lauttasaari Primary School in Helsinki, one of the first schools in Finland to adopt cutting-edge learning spaces, school leaders and teachers worked with architects to plan the school's interior design and furniture.

Most tables and chairs have castors attached to their legs, so they are easily movable to allow an area to be set up differently according to the requirements of each lesson activity, whether it is groups of four for a group discussion or two large blocks for a class debate.

In these learning spaces, teachers usually move around the classroom, acting as facilitators rather than delivering lessons at the front of the classroom.


Custom-built modular pods give pupils a space to interact and engage in team discussions comfortably. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

"Instead of teaching, educators guide and activate learning in their pupils. And learning can take place everywhere, not just in classrooms or buildings. Digital learning will be embedded in all assignments," said Mrs Anneli Rautiainen, head of the innovation unit at the Finnish National Agency for Education.


Hammocks and cushions are placed in the classroom for pupils to relax and recharge in between lessons. PHOTO: DAVID TAY


Teaching among the most prized careers

At the frontline of the Finnish education system are its highly trained, trusted and respected teachers.

Despite drawing slightly below-average starting salaries compared with those of other professionals in Finland, teaching is one of the most prized careers there.

Every year, only 10 per cent of qualified applicants to the University of Helsinki's primary and secondary school teacher training programmes are accepted.


Movable steps, tunnels and balance beams scattered across corridors connecting different areas of the school encourage pupils to hop, balance and crawl in between classes for some exercise. PHOTO: DAVID TAY

According to the university, the teacher education department is as highly regarded as medical school for doctors.

But this culture of respect for teachers did not develop overnight.

A comprehensive school reform in the 1970s guaranteed the same nine-year basic education for all.

Previously, different students of various means had access to different standards of schools and education. Today, there are no fully private schools in Finland, and the concept of "elite schools" is alien to Finns.

Since the comprehensive reform, the Finnish national core curriculum has been renewed four times - in 1985, 1994, 2004 and most recently in 2014.

With every iteration, districts and schools were given more empowerment and autonomy to develop their own school curriculum based on the national one.

Great trust is then handed to the teacher - who has autonomy to implement the school curriculum in a way that fits his students' profiles and as he sees fit.

In fact, there is no performance ranking of teachers or schools in the country.

Finnish parents also trust teachers implicitly to do their jobs well.

"Parents do not question how teachers teach their students. When they talk to teachers, they share information on the well-being and learning progress of the children," said Ms Heidi Sairanen, researcher and trainer at the University of Helsinki's department of teacher education.

Finnish teachers also have a culture of networking with others in their fraternity to hone their teaching skills.

Though existing teachers need not take compulsory training programmes, many educators seek to upgrade their skills on their own.

"They need to attend only a mandatory one- to two-day conference every year. But they will talk to other teachers to share and improve on their teaching methods with their colleagues as well as with other educators through Facebook groups," said Ms Sairanen.

Many teachers also work with university researchers to evaluate their current teaching methods and come up with innovative ways to improve their techniques.

Said Mr Jussi Okkonen, senior researcher at the University of Tampere, who works with Finnish teachers to infuse educational technology in their lessons: "Because all primary and secondary school teachers in Finland have master's qualifications, it is also easy for them to work with researchers to carry out lesson studies or try out new pedagogies because they speak the same language as we do."

Ultimately, this strong culture of trust and respect for teachers is what sets Finland's education apart from many others.

Said Professor Lasse Lipponen, an early education academic and trainer at the University of Helsinki's department of teacher education: "Any school is a good school. Honestly, there are some quality differences between schools, but they are not large. The Finnish education system is hard to copy because it ties in closely with our societal values, which encourage cooperation and welfare (of students) instead of competition." 

Correction note: In the previous version of the story, we said that at its peak in 2004, Nokia employed one in 10 Finns. This is incorrect. Nokia employed one in 100 Finns in 2004. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Finn & Fun'. Print Edition | Subscribe