Some of us went to school at sprawling urban campuses, others in homey small town districts. Some went to private schools, others public. But whatever the specifics of your education, if you're American, one thing probably held constant -- your day was broken up into subjects.

Maybe you kicked off the morning studying math with Mr. Smith and then when the bell rang headed out to English with Mrs. Jones, for instance. But no matter the details, across most of the U.S. the basic structure of education is the same.

Swapping 'Climate Change' for 'Earth Science'

That's soon not to be the case in Finland. The Nordic country, which consistently takes the top spot in global rankings of educational achievement, is embarking on a national push to expand a new system called "phenomenon based learning" countrywide.

In this approach, rather than focus exclusively on traditional subjects, students and teachers together choose real-world topics to study. They then use a variety of disciplines to dig into the chosen phenomenon. So, for instance, a class might opt to study climate change, drawing on earth science to understand what's happening, math and tech to model it, political science to investigate the human response, and language skills to communicate their personal viewpoint or persuade their elected officials.

Contrary to some reports, it's not that Finland is ditching subjects entirely. The country is simply ramping up use of the new approach so that by 2020 all students are engaged in a significant amount of phenomenon-based learning. The program is also quite decentralized, leaving local schools plenty of latitude to implement the new approach. But that's still a big leap from how most students are taught in the States.

An education fit for the 21st century?

The idea behind the reforms is to better prepare students for the complex, integrated and practical thinking the modern world demands. "There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s - but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century," Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki's education manager, told the UK's Independent newspaper.

But won't all of this integrated learning take time away from traditional drills and test prep, you might wonder? Yes, it probably will. But, as startling as it might seem for someone looking at these reforms from the American perspective, the Finns seem to be OK with trading slightly lower test results for more real-worth competency.

"Educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were," Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg commented, noting a slight recent dip in the test performance of the country's children. "What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues."

Would you like to see more American schools follow Finland's lead and adopt the phenomenon-based approach?

Published on: Jun 7, 2017
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