In Depth

Why Finland is scrapping traditional school subjects in favour of topics

Finnish schools to get rid of maths and geography in education shake-up designed to prepare children for the future

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Finland, a country with some of the world's most liberal attitudes to learning, is introducing a radical overhaul of its education system.

It already has one of the most successful schooling systems in the world and is widely regarded as a model for education, but is now planning on scrapping individual subjects in favour of teaching pupils about more general "topics". 

Why does Finland's education system rank so highly?

"Politicians and education experts from around the world – including the UK – have made pilgrimages to Helsinki in the hope of identifying and replicating the secret of its success," reports The Independent.

In Finland, children don't begin formal schooling until the age of seven, and education is free all the way up to university. There are no school inspectors or league table and students are not forced to sit any exams until they are 16. "We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test," the Ministry of Education's Pasi Sahlberg told the Smithsonian Magazine.

Teachers are given more freedom to teach what they like and are not constrained by a strict national curriculum. There are no school uniforms, homework is limited to just 30 minutes – even in secondary school – and students call their teachers by their first names. 

What is the new proposal?

Finland is preparing to move from a "teaching by subject" to a "teaching by topic" approach in its secondary schools. For example, students would study the European Union – which would include languages, history, geography and politics – instead of individual subjects. Alternatively, students on a vocational course get the opportunity to do "cafeteria services" lessons, which would include maths, languages, and writing and communication skills.

Schools can choose which topics they want to focus on, with students and teachers both providing input. The scheme has been trialled at several schools in the capital, Helsinki, and will be extended to more schools from next year. It is hoped that the changes will be in place in schools across the country by 2020.

Who is in favour?

"This kind of teaching helps children understand why they are learning things. A maths lesson can seem pointless if you don't understand what you need it for," Marjo Kyllönen, the capital's education manager who is leading the reforms, told Finland's daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

"There are schools that are teaching in the old-fashioned way which was of benefit at the beginning of the 1900s – but [students'] needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century," she said.

Parents and students have also come out in support of the reforms, with early data showing that student standards – or "outcomes" as they are known in Finland – have improved as a result of the approach.

Who is against it?

There has been opposition to the changes among teachers, who don’t support the new proposal's more collaborative approach, which involves different subject teachers coming up with lesson plans together. However, nearly 70 per cent of Helsinki's high school teachers have now been trained in the new method. "We have really changed the mindset," Helsinki's development manager Pasi Silander said. "It is quite difficult to get teachers to start and take the first step… but teachers who have taken to the new approach say they can't go back."

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