A land where teachers roam free

30th October 2015 at 00:00
After years of domination, Finland has begun to lose its grip on international education rankings. As the world changes and the needs of pupils shift, it has chosen to shake up its coveted curriculum – but it’s not policymakers who are deciding what and how to teach. Teacher Lisa Pettifer visits a country where reform is empowering school staff

The sky is a crisp blue, the temperature a promising 14°C, and I am sitting in a planning meeting discussing the latest changes to the curriculum. This would usually involve a careful read of diktats sent down from above and then anger, panic and finally reluctant resignation. But today there is excitement, passion and talking. A lot of talking.

I turn to the headteacher, surprised: these teachers appear to believe they have a say in what the curriculum will be and how it will be taught. The head smiles. “That’s because they do get to do these things,” she says. “We discuss, I encourage and the teachers decide.”

So this is Finland. I had read the praise after its crowning as a Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) heavyweight, and I had read the criticism in the inevitable kickback that followed. Now I am here to see the country for myself: a teacher among Finnish teachers, in Finnish schools such as this one, Helsinki Upper Secondary School of Languages. And I’ve arrived at an interesting time: the system so coveted around the world is being overhauled. My aim is to see what they are doing and why, and how our own process of curriculum reform compares.

A recognised world leader

The success story of Finland has been told multiple times, so let me be brief. In the 1950s, only eight years of basic schooling were compulsory, so the majority of the population left school in their mid-teens with no high-school education or formal qualifications. Since the 1970s, though, when major reforms were implemented, pupils have entered formal education aged 7 and remained in the same comprehensive school for nine years. After the 9th grade, almost all students opt to stay in education, with roughly equal numbers moving into academic upper schools and vocational colleges.

The features of this system are well-documented. They’re often cited as contributing to Finland’s internationally lauded educational successes: it topped the Pisa rankings for reading and science in 2003, came first in science in 2006, and was second in science and third in reading in 2009. The qualities most frequently discussed in envious whispers in UK staffrooms include the 15-minute breaks between each 45-minute lesson, the absence of standardised testing, the lack of setting (it’s something of a taboo to separate students by ability) and the emphasis on formative assessment (it’s virtually unheard of to attribute “levels” to students before the age of 12).

Other traits discussed in covetous tones turn out to be myths; they don’t quite match the reality. We often hear about there being no big, bad schools inspectorate and no nationally driven, test-related accountability. It’s not really like that: pupil performance is sampled regularly, both within schools and across the system; regional hierarchies operate to disseminate policy and check on school operations; and peer scrutiny between schools and colleges is a feature of the quality-control system.

Yet, even with these myths debunked, Finland stands for many as a model of how education should be done. So it was a shock when, last year, Finland decided it wanted to do something different.

The Finnish authorities had become aware that all was not wholly well in education. Students were not as compliant as they used to be; delivery of the curriculum was a struggle owing to its inability to cater for pupils who speak Finnish as a second language; and traditional methods of teaching were not considered to be as engaging as digital interaction.

In 2012, Finland dropped to 12th place in the Pisa maths rankings and to fifth in science. In reading, the country fell to sixth place. This performance suggested that the old ways were not working as well as they had done, and the Finns were faced with a choice: try harder with the old ways or find new ones. They have chosen to change.

Come the revolution

Instead of talking of learning, Marjo Kyllönen, educational manager at the City of Helsinki, now talks of “extended competencies”, of a “smart city with shared spaces to integrate administration and practice” and of “22nd-century skills” (this is the first time I’ve heard this phrase).

Meanwhile, Pasi Silander, development manager for the Helsinki City eKampus, which is driving digital developments, speaks of proactive “systemic and cyclical” change, not the reactive correction of single points of dissatisfaction.

The changes that emerge from this slightly confusing business speak are seen internationally as risky, to say the least.

In Helsinki, which is leading the way by piloting the changes, two of the five yearly units of teaching are to be based on “phenomena” – cross-curricular themes taught jointly by teachers of different disciplines. This means that 40 per cent of the school year might not be taught in a subject-specific way. The Finns are also going to increase their use of digital technologies in learning, encourage more student-directed group work and involve other city agencies such as museums and businesses in designing and delivering educational experiences.

Many onlookers have been quick to decry the changes. But what do the teachers think? And what can we in the UK learn from their experience?

In the driving seat

In Finland, curriculum content is decided by teachers. From school to school and district to district, different lessons and courses are taught, depending on the expertise of staff and the specialisms of the institution. At national level, there are core objectives, but it’s up to individual schools, subject departments and teachers to decide how these are met.

For instance, the core curriculum for upper secondary students (aged 16-19) states that within the requirement for teaching “mother-tongue language and literature”, schools should “provide plenty of literary and other texts to read from”. But there is no prescription of which texts these should be. Teachers themselves will decide this. They are trusted to apply their pedagogical and subject expertise when designing new curriculum schemes and courses.

So, have the new objectives of phenomena-based learning, digital-led pedagogy and group work been embraced by all as an opportunity to show off their skills? Not exactly.

On the whole, the teachers I speak to are open to more group work. They have a commitment to the idea of “spaces of the future”, where work spaces are shared by groups and areas are not predefined. Some schools are making building changes to allow for this, with more “breakout” areas for shared work. They also believe that the “consumers” should co-construct the learning (within reasonable limits), so student voice is strong already.

As for increasing the use of technology in their teaching, they are open to new ideas. That said, teachers have reservations related to funding, so it’s unsurprising that the “bring your own device” option is being explored.

Trailblazing teachers

But what of the curriculum itself, or, more specifically, the phenomena-based learning? I visit Ressu Comprehensive School in Helsinki, which educates children aged 7-16. Here, as in several other Helsinki schools, 2014-15 was a pilot year to trial the new system.

Successes were analysed, failures were evaluated and adjustments were made to phenomenon-based projects. The most workable solutions were passed back up the system to city education leaders for wider dissemination, so other schools could base their own practice on trialled Helsinki models if they wished.

Meghan Smith is an American teacher at the school who has now acquired a Finnish accent. She admits that not all staff were on board with this new system at first: losing up to 40 per cent of subject teaching time, as it was first perceived, did not sit comfortably with teachers.

Yet she says that, at the same time, there was a feeling of increased professional value, because of the responsibility teachers were being given as trailblazers. Staff in Finland are trained in research methods; they used this skill to set up and evaluate trials in content and pedagogy, then to share their findings laterally with other schools and vertically within the education system hierarchies. Smith recounts how buy-in increased steadily as teachers became inspired by their pivotal say in the new curriculum.

Yet it’s an awful lot of work. Being in charge of the curriculum requires a huge amount of collaborative planning to make the changes work.

This planning maelstrom is what I witness at Helsinki Upper Secondary School of Languages. It is not fatigue I observe, however, but staggering amounts of energy and enthusiasm. I watch as successes and failures are analysed in equal measure. Teachers Mervi Kannelniemi and Heidi Kohi laugh as they recall the difficulties of trying to bring different scientific and arts specialisms together in the “European Union” unit. “No, that didn’t go too well,” Kohi says, acknowledging the obstacles but keen to try again.

What they took from the disappointments was that teachers from different disciplines need a better overview of where their teaching fits into students’ overall learning experiences, and where complementary approaches can be merged.

An example of a success is a physics and geography unit. Principal Sirpa Jalkanen explains how neither subject was compromised because the teachers met to organise a turn-taking style of factual delivery, interspersed with independent tasks undertaken by students.

A taste of freedom

What strikes me most is that these teachers are in no way prepared to lose their subject specialism, or its core knowledge, in this new blended approach. If anything, they are asserting that it is even more important for the key learning of each area to be articulated and consolidated.

And Kohi is keen to show that a partial abandonment of subject teaching does not mean that subject knowledge is lost. She loads up her laptop and shows me the college’s virtual learning environment, through which she is able to set and mark subject-specific multiple-choice and short-response homework tasks and interim assessments. These subject checks are all part of the ongoing planning that characterises this style of delivery.

Then it’s my turn to taste the freedom of creating a new curriculum. I join Kannelniemi and Kohi, and students Jasmine, Jeanette and Joakim, to speculate on what a unit based around the theme of Tudor England (Kannelniemi’s passion) might look like.

We discuss the literary and dramatic opportunities, the language outcomes in terms of vocabulary development, tenses and register, the business applications within the tourism industry. More obvious connections with history are suggested and then some scientific ideas: the development of understanding of disease, social factors affecting disease transmission, different kinds of virus, and how all this led to immunology and modern pathology. We need a scientist at this point. We are almost on the verge of calling one in when we realise that this isn’t a real planning meeting – it’s a set-up for my benefit. I am just a teacher from England sharing these teachers’ enthusiasm for creating schemes of work that will engage and instruct, challenge and inspire students in this new system.

Raring to go

Enthusiasm is a powerful resource in education. The widespread Finnish enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the rather jaded and sceptical version we tend to have in the UK. At home, a few schools have experimented with project-based learning, but even they are still stuck with a situation where top-down changes and additional expectations seem to come thick and fast, with little chance to pilot, evaluate, share or report back to the policymakers.

In Finland I see the knitted brows of possibility, rather than the raised eyebrows of cynicism belonging to teachers who have experienced the relentless changes forced upon schools for accountability rather than purely educational purposes.

It’s not just the enthusiasm that is different, though – it’s the collaborative imperative of the whole endeavour. It would be easy for Finnish schools to become competitive, to try to outdo each other in developing schemes of work. But they don’t. In my many conversations with teachers during my stay, the word I hear the most, and which is used with the most conviction, is “holistic”. They speak of a whole system of schools, without the notion of good or bad, better or worse.

As Smith puts it: “What’s the point of one school being better at the expense of others?”

Times are undoubtedly changing for Finland’s teachers. A further year of trials and dry runs, mini-projects, training and meetings is now under way. The new system will be implemented nationally in a year’s time.

Back in my school, my department is facing more key stage 3 development and new GCSEs (both with new assessment methods), plus new A-level specifications and the unresolved confusion regarding the status of AS-level. Maybe the Finns should send some people here to see how we are coping with the changes; even better, maybe our politicians should go over there to see how education reform should be done.

Lisa Pettifer is curriculum lead at the Nelson Thomlinson School in Wigton, Cumbria

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Pasi Sahlberg’s view: ‘Finns tolerate more experimentation in education’

Reports about education in Finland or any other country are often just a snapshot of visible aspects of schools, teachers and students. Many stories that have been told about Finland lack deeper understanding of what goes on in Finnish schools and classrooms. What can you expect after a short visit to a strange country by someone who is not an experienced educator?

Some of these stories rave about excellent teachers, beautiful buildings and relaxed atmospheres in Finnish schools. Other stories confirm the writer’s prejudices and beliefs about Finnish education. Then there are those who manufacture new myths about successful education using Finnish schools as a springboard.

Lisa Pettifer writes as if she’s writing her journal. She is able to catch something authentic of the life in Finnish schools. It is indeed that spirit of professionalism, collectivity and enthusiasm that distinguishes the culture of Finnish schools from many others, including those in England.

Finland’s curriculum system is not very easy to put in words. Each school is in charge of designing and maintaining their own curriculum, and these practices vary from one school to another. This story shows that Finns tolerate more uncertainty, experimentation and failure in education than most other countries. In Finland failure precedes success, rather than being its opposite. Change is good if you don’t need to worry about failure.

Pasi Sahlberg (pictured) has worked as a teacher, a teacher educator, a researcher and a policy adviser in Finland. He is currently a visiting professor of practice at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education

How does assessment work in Finland?

Assessment in Finland is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, it must guide and encourage the learning process; on the other hand, it must reliably measure the process and the outcomes of learning. By law, the assessment implemented is made up of two tasks: assessment during the studies and final assessment.

The main task of assessment carried out during basic education is to guide the pupil’s learning process and to encourage him or her to learn. Assessment should promote the learning process with the help of the teacher’s feedback. At the local (school) level, it is decided how often pupils receive reports during the academic year, either in the form of assessment discussions or certificates bearing verbal assessment or number grades (4-10). Assessment should give pupils comprehensible feedback so they get a realistic idea of what kind of learners they are.

The new curriculum will increase these methods of in-depth and cooperative learning. As a result, teachers are required to review their own assessments methods as well. Traditional testing is incompatible with the phenomenon-based learning process. Thus, Finland’s teachers must follow every step of the learning process, as well as observe the development of study skills and social skills in pupils, in addition to academic achievement.

Dr Peter Johnson (pictured) is director of education at the City of Kokkola, Finland

‘The traditional role of a teacher is being challenged’

The Finnish curriculum process is a cooperative community process. Many teachers think this new curriculum is a big change. The time for closing doors and doing your own work in a traditional way is gone: this curriculum challenges the traditional role of a teacher. Generally speaking, teachers are enthusiastic about the changes and the opportunity to be part of the process.

A more holistic approach and enquiry-based learning are the most significant changes that teachers are excited about. In addition, ICT skills must be used in all grade levels in all subjects and all schoolwork. The holistic approach means not only knowledge and skills but also values, attitudes and a willingness to act. These are emphasised more in this new curriculum. Thinking skills, communication and cooperation are essential parts of the new curriculum.

Of course, there are teachers who are not overly enthusiastic about all these changes and all the extra work. There will be a need for in-service training and professional development in the near future. Our challenge is to keep all the teachers involved in the developing process of their work.

Raija Perttunen is principal of Oulu International School in Finland

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