International educators take Finnish lessons as classrooms adapt to change

Phenomenon-based learning was introduced in part to help reduce the gap in education outcomes between boys and girls, but results won't be known for a long time.

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Students at Kalasatama primary school get ready for outdoor play time, March 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

At Kalasatama primary school in east Helsinki, a class of noisy nine-year olds charges around the gym hall, dodging a ball thrown by their teacher.

They’re burning off some steam before heading back to lessons where art, maths, geography and music might all be mixed together.

An architectural and design marvel, the brand new primary school in this fast-expanding neighbourhood seems like it was purpose built to cope with the demands of phenomenon-based learning, a new experiment in education now integrated into the Finnish curriculum, particularly at primary school level.

“I would explain phenomenon-based learning as an entity where you approach a question or a problem from as many angles as possible” says third grade teacher Bek Issabeigloo.

Teacher Bek Issabeigloo at Kalasatama primary school / Credit: News Now Finland

Sitting on a bright orange sofa in a multi-media ‘plaza’ surrounded by classrooms, some with bean bags instead of desks and chairs, Issabeigloo sets out what makes this style of teaching different to the way school children have traditionally been taught in Finland.

“If we were to study our solar system, we could do equations counting how many moons are on each planet then combining them. Then in music we could sing a song, write a song or compose a song about our solar system. And in geography we could study the different ways of how the ground is formed. In art lessons we could just draw or paint the planets. We would have different approaches to one problem” he explains.

The new curriculum was introduced, in part, after statistics showed that Finland had the fastest growing rate of education inequality between boys and girls of any OECD country.

One theory behind phenomenon-based learning is that it helps boys learn better, while at the same time doesn’t negatively impact the learning process for girls. Besides, it’s also supposed to be fun and innovative for pupils in the classroom.

“The children respond very well because from my experience they have a very long attention span, unlike what a lot of people maybe think, so they can go deeper into the question at hand, and find out more about it, and have more time to get thrilled about it as well” says Bek Issabeigloo.

Banner for International Summit on the Teaching Profession ISTP, March 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Summit brings education ministers to Finland

It’s Finland’s track record of educational excellence, and probably a little curiosity about what’s next for education in the Nordic nation, that brought Ministerial delegations from more than 20 countries to Espoo earlier this month.

The International Summit on the Teaching Profession ISTP is an annual event for educators and policy makers from around the world to exchange ideas and best practice.

This year’s event brought together ministers and teaching trade union leaders from countries with high-performing or rapidly improving school systems.

“We have the best teachers in the world, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to end my term as a minister by promoting Finnish skills on the world stage” said Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen (NCP) who attended the Summit.

“Thanks to Finland’s efforts, early childhood education and care became a Summit priority. While the importance of early years in the child’s development is increasingly recognised across the world, early childhood education and care has not yet been debated to this extent at this level” she said in a statement.

Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney attends Espoo education summit, March 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Among the national delegations attending the Espoo Summit, held on the Aalto University campus, was a group from Scotland.

Education Secretary John Swinney brought with him a team of education officials and the head of the country’s teaching union.

“We’ve been looking very carefully at the Finnish education system for many years, and there’s a number of lessons from Finland that we’ve taken forward” Swinney tells News Now Finland, between workshops.

The Scottish Government has set up a council of education advisors, which includes Finnish education evangelist Pasi Salberg.

“Some of the principal lessons we’ve learned are about the importance of valuing and respecting our teaching profession, of investing in the professional learning and development of our teaching profession, and also of understanding the importance of building consensus and agreement about the way the education agenda should be shaped” says Swinney, who also holds the post of Deputy First Minister, in addition to his education portfolio.

“The other principal lesson we’ve learned from Finnish education is about constantly working for improvement in education and also that you meet everyone’s needs and support their potential” he adds.

Students at Kalasatama primary school during a lesson, March 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Specialist learning 

At Kalasatama primary school, playtime has come and gone, and the pupils are back in their classrooms.

Bek Issabeigloo has handed over his third graders for a while, as he works with a group of children with special language requirements.

In the group are boys and girls from a number of countries, speaking Finnish and mixing it with English or another language. At home they speak Ingush, French, Arabic, Swedish and a half dozen more.

They’re gathered around for another phenomenon-based learning session, watching a TV newscast for kids, which they’ll discuss afterwards.

Issabeigloo says it’s one of their favourite activities of the week, and their biggest complaint is that the newscast is over all too soon – they’re eager to do more of this, to work on their Finnish skills.

While phenomenon-based learning is a hit with this group of pupils, Issabeigloo cautions that it’s not right for every child, and there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution to close that elusive gap in education outcomes for Finnish boys and girls.

The results of Finland’s newest education experiment won’t be known for a decade or more, and that’s one reason why some teachers are wary of taking a leap into the unknown with a whole new method of classroom instruction.

“It takes a lot enthusiasm from the students’ side, and it’s so student driven the learning method, that it could put some students in an unequal position” says the primary school teacher.

“I think it’s tricky to find a form [of teaching] for boys and a form for girls to reduce that education gap, and probably there are ways, but I don’t know if phenomenon-based learning is it”.

File picture showing exterior of Kalasatama primary school in Helsinki, March 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland