Curriculum - Could a stitch in time save Finland's international rank?

Finns back handicraft over Asian nations' 'questionable methods'

Joseph Lee

Its education system has been hailed as the best in the world, but Finland is facing increasing competition in international league tables that compare performance in reading, mathematics and science.

So how does the country respond? By voting for more time in the curriculum for non-academic subjects, including physical education, music, and arts and crafts.

"That's a really remarkable thing and a very brave thing to do in these days, when most countries that are not doing so well in Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) are actually scrapping all the non-academic subjects and having more mathematics," Kristiina Volmari, a councillor on the Finnish National Board of Education, told TES.

"Fortunately, the thinking is rather progressive across the whole society here. And we understand - we've done quite a lot of research on it - that handicraft and physical education boost your learning in academic subjects."

Ms Volmari said that Finland is not concerned about being overtaken in the international rankings by high-performing Asian countries, some of which she accused of using "very questionable methods" to improve their results.

Instead, Finland's revised curriculum is expected to emphasise critical thinking over factual content.

"We want to boost critical thinking, citizenship, and we also have what we call cross-curricular themes, which should be going through every subject," Ms Volmari said. "These are sustainability, humanity, safety, taking responsibility for your community and entrepreneurship - not just meaning that you set up a business but also in terms of taking responsibility for yourself.

"And something that I find very interesting is that we're trying - I stress the word 'trying' - to reduce content and give more time to learning. Again, that's something that is against what they're trying to do in many other countries."

Last week, TES revealed that the Pisa assessments are to undergo some significant changes. Andreas Schleicher, education special adviser at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the tests, said that they will increasingly focus on creativity and other "21st-century skills".

Ms Volmari, who spoke to TES during a visit organised by the Technology Academy Finland, said that as other countries try to discover the secret of Finland's success, it is looking abroad to address its problems in trying to embed information and communication technology (ICT) into the curriculum.

She said that the country's results in the European report Survey of Schools: ICT in education had highlighted how teachers are failing to use technology. "We got really bad results; it's so embarrassing," she said. "Before the survey we knew this, of course. We've fallen behind in terms of hardware, where we were top of the list in the late 1990s. We had a very ambitious plan, we bought a lot of equipment for the schools, we trained teachers in national programmes etc, but they just didn't take off."

And there is another concern: national evaluations that Finland introduced to replace school inspection have flagged up a decline in performance in mathematics, which the national board wants to address.

"Normally, when we have an issue like this, we channel more funding into teacher training, we channel more funding into encouraging innovative approaches in schools. We take this very seriously," Ms Volmari said. "The fundamental problem in Finland is that mathematics is perceived as a difficult subject and very boring."

Ultimately, however, Finland is not concerned about being overtaken in international comparisons and it remains confident that its methods are right for students, she said.

"The Asian countries are clearly gearing a lot of effort towards Pisa, and some with very questionable methods, if you allow me to say so - the complete opposite of our approach," Ms Volmari said.

"This is a small nation of 5.3 million people. We can't afford to lose anybody, and if you don't want to lose anybody, you have to look after everybody. The well-being of the kids, well-being of the teachers, well-being of the whole school community is essential.

"It doesn't matter if we're overtaken. We play in a different league."

See Comment, page 26.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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