Finland and the “phenomenon-based” learning

Classroom dynamic in Finland

Classroom dynamic in Finland

I was always interested in these rankings that place countries on the top of education in the world. Although they are subjective and give margin to a lot of discussions, there is one country that, year after year, seems to appear always at the top five. And that is Finland!

One of the most accepted and respected rankings is the PISA, which considers the results of tests in reading, science, and math from a lot of countries around the globe. Although Finland scored high on all of those subjects, the fact that they don’t care about the results of those tests is the main factor for its success.

Actually, the first standardized test the Finns take at school is when they reach the age of 16. They are more interested in the “learning for life” idea than on the scores “one size fits all”. So, predominantly, the schools in Finland are worried about preparing their students for the challenges they will face in their lives, instead of focusing on competition between their students. In accordance to that, some years ago, the schools in Finland implemented the “phenomenon-based” teaching rather than subject teaching. In other words, instead of focusing on teaching math, science and other traditional subjects, they adopted a strategy of mixing them up in more contextual and broader subjects like climate changing and European Union. This way, they can learn all of those traditional subjects as a multidisciplinary and interconnected way.

Another change the Finish schools adopted was the increasing of recess time during early childhood ages. Kids in Finland have 75 minutes break a day in comparison to the 27 minutes kids get in the US. This is really significant because the Finish realized that as the more kids play and socialize with each other, the more academic success they will have.

Exercise improves learning on three levels: It optimizes your mindset, by improving alertness, attention, and motivation. It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for learning new information. And it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory and learning.

At last, but not least, everybody wants to be a teacher in Finland. That’s right, it’s one of the most desired courses in the universities, which have strict requirements for one to get in. Finish schools demand at least a master’s degree for teachers to start teaching in their schools. In addition to that, the career plan teachers get are really worth it, with a lot of professional development time provided. Moreover, teachers are very well paid there and “hHigh school teachers with 15 years of experience make 102 percent of what their fellow university graduates do. In the United States, by contrast, they earn just 65 percent.

On a final note, I want to thank @mwleyland and the others in this cohort for inspiring me to research about this subject, which I’ve been wanting to do it for so long. I always wanted to check what other countries in the world are doing to revolutionize education. Coincidently, the video about “Studio Schools”, which Michael recommended me on my last post, matches what Finland has been doing with their public educational system.

4 thoughts on “Finland and the “phenomenon-based” learning

  1. Profile photo of Alex BuntingAlex Bunting

    What Finland are doing is what L2.0 has been preaching in part the last few years, which is that of breaking boundaries between subjects and allowing students to do cross disciplinary work, without assessment and without the worry of being wrong. following their interests and learning maths because they need it to reach what they want as opposed to what the teacher wants.

    The break thing is also something I have worked at keeping in my own school. The problem comes that schools want to add things to the curriculum, but don’t want to extend the school day. Subject teachers are fierce about keeping their teaching time so the only time to take is the break time. But its counter intuitive because the less break they have the worse they learn.

    Its not surprising that when teachers are well paid and trained, people want to be teachers. Good for Finland!

  2. Profile photo of Abbi SandweissAbbi Sandweiss

    I have also been curious about the education system in Finland for quite some time, but have not found the best opportunity to continue my research. One thing I am most interested in, is connecting with a teacher that actually teaches in Finland. Are you connected with anyone that already teaches there? Is it as good as it seems? I thought this was an interesting quote when determining long term success in Finland. “This post is about the education system, not the Finnish society in general. I don’t think that Finland is an example of a perfect country. It’s a country with high rates of suicides, burnouts and depression.” One of our goals as teachers is to create, happy lifelong learners. What is missing from this formula? It could have nothing to do with the education system, it just makes me think.

    Have you read this article, Finish Education System ? It really helped me to weigh both sides of the argument… but what really stood out to me was the “Importance of inner motivation.” This is a quality I see more in my students now, than I did back when I was home in the USA. My students are more driven and motivated by their own passion for learning. This is even a quality I find useful in myself as I am continuing my education with the COETAIL program. Inner motivation is key to success.

    Just some questions I had for you following my reading… As a teacher, would you be willing to give up content time to extend student break time? How long do your students typically have “free time” each day at your school? Do you think it’s enough… would you prefer more or less?

  3. Profile photo of Troy WhiteTroy White

    Nice post Dudley –

    One of the fundamental reasons why I love teaching in an international school is the lack of insanity regarding standardized testing. I know this insanity first-hand. A little over a decade ago my wife and I decided we wanted a change and we left our comfortable international school and moved to the great nation of Texas to teach in a Title I middle school where we were bilingual generalist teachers. It was an overtly test-orientated environment, the exact opposite of “the fact that they don’t care about the results of those tests is the main factor for its success”. The state of Texas was more than concerned and each district more so, the amount of funding schools received was based on the passing rate. Texas’ standardized TAKS tests start in grade 3, far from the “learning for life” mentality of these sixteen-year-old Finns. The stress on the teachers and the poor kids was appalling and produced the exact opposite of what we discuss every week here in COETAIL.

    I completely agree with the prioritization of student well-being and how physical education supports this. It’s a serious conundrum. I love the IB Programme, but most schools do very poorly in promoting the IB and equally the learner profile. The balanced component is generally lost in the overzealous push of academic achievements. The lack of emphasis on physical education due to more and more pressure on academic achievement is something that has been plaguing the States for some time. The same Texas middle school I taught at, identified students who might need extra help in passing their standardized tests…. And they pulled them out of their PE classes so they could go to math tutoring – horrible. These were antsy middle school kids.

    I worked in China for some time and got to understand a bit about the national system and they have it really wrong- PE was an afterthought, actually something they did after school and the pressures to excel in academics forced students to never participate in after-school activities – which is mostly letting them play ping pong or badminton – no kinesiology or actual PE lessons. When people ask how can China be so bad at football, this is it. Kids don’t get PE at school and such a small few participate in club sports. Here’s an anecdotal social media post from a reflective Chinese football fan (translation here).

    For this same lack of focus on student well-being, I’ve been very curious and excited about the DP’s pilot subject of Sports, Exercise and Health Science– I don’t know too many schools are teaching this, but it looks like a great subject that could possibly not only meet the needs of a number of students who see themselves engaged in the other group 4 options, but also provide the physical and mental well-being they need. An obvious downside to DP Programme – no PE.

    Interesting you mention the desirability of Finnish universities as well. I’ve mentioned to a number of college counselors over the years that Finnish universities were absolutely free to all nationalities (hat is up until this coming fall semester when they will be implementing fees for non-Eu citizenst – still, some programmes to be reasonably cheap compared to other countries).

  4. Profile photo of Michael LeylandMichael Leyland

    Thanks, Dudley, for some cool info here. I like the image you used to show how the brain functions better, as a result of exercise. Ya know, I wish my school did this, so I could join. In China, many of the school start the day like this . I think it’s awesome.


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