Finland has long been an enticing case study for educators. It regularly ranks near the top of the PISA international student assessment rankings, which alone would draw interest. But even more fascinatingly, while the other top-ranked countries tend to intensely apply traditional, often rote learning methods, Finland wins while having reduced standardized testing and given teachers much more freedom to design their own curricula. In other words, they’re the standout example of progressive education policy having produced high test scores. While we’re not ones to put excessive stock in test scores - they tend to be a very narrow assessment of intelligence - it’s clear that something interesting is happening here.
So with that basis, Finland was sure to capture global attention when they recently announced that they were eliminating subjects from school, in favor of inter-disciplinary “topics.” Out go “Math, “English,” etc, in favor of thematic topics that cut across traditional curriculum areas. For example, they might study the European Union, weaving together history, language, geography and economics. Of course, the traditional subjects will still be present here, but they won’t be the organizing structure of study.
We think this is a brave and visionary move. Why? First, because students learn best when they feel their studies are relevant. If they can relate it to something they see in the news, or experience in daily life, they will be more motivated when it comes up in school. Daily life outside of school doesn't typically involve 50-minute successive sessions of topics like "History" and "Language Arts," needless to say, though it does draw on those skills in more integrated ways.
Second, this matters because the way schools structure knowledge leaves a profound imprint on students’ thinking. If they’re used to “doing math” from 10:15-11:05 each day, but not the rest of the day, they become accustomed to a single-subject focus. Too much of this and students may feel confused or intimidated when faced with a complex, real-world problem where math is used here and there, but is by no means the exclusive focus.
We’ve been exploring how to apply this in Millennium's curriculum (Finland did not consult us before making this announcement, alas!), creating time for students to go deeply into cross-curricular topics, projects, or simulations (e.g. of a political or economic structure). Imagine a student doing an architecture project that requires them to use math, history, and artistic skills. Say they discover they need algebra to do a calculation - they’ll learn it with motivation because it’s needed right away, and their application of it will help them encode it into long-term memory. Or say they do a full-school economics simulation, with some students starting businesses, others operating mini-banks, etc - chances are they'll learn and remember more from this than many textbooks worth of economics.
This is rich, deeper learning, the kind that prepares students for the complex challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.