Those canny Finns!

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Why is Finnish education so good?

Talk about international education and within 5 seconds Finland will have politely elbowed its way into your conversation. Those canny sauna-loving Finns, they’re shaking the snow globe again. Not content with scrapping cursive handwriting or topping the PISA test pile, they are now embarking on more radical reforms.

Shake it up!

Should we just stand back and admire the snow globe and wait for the snow to settle?

Finland is always sparking educational debate, kicking sand in our faces and making us feel like we are one step behind. They talk about quality, efficiency, equity and internationalisation, while we choke on hairballs related to grammar schools, assessment and mastery.  They recognise that their ‘doing, knowing and being’ have changed, whilst we still fight the viruses of what is often called the global education reform movement (GERM): standardisation, choice, competition, and data-based accountability.

The Finns are enjoying this a bit too much. Do they have a department devoted to upstaging less-advanced myopic systems? Do they plan to rock the boat every year, or is this a DNA thing linked to their innate love of heavy metal? The hands-on Finns certainly know how to stir the pot of controversy with their fancy ‘less is more’ ways.

Let’s consider the evidence:

  • Dividing learners into different tracks based on ability was abolished long ago in the 1980s.
  • Standardised testing went out with the ark because in-class evaluations by teachers are seen as better.
  • Teachers are trusted to do their jobs and have more control over their classroom and its content.
  • No league tables – the Finns have an all-inclusive system based on equality.
  • All subjects are seen as equally important in giving learners a broad and balanced education.

shutterstock_256670791 failure of Finland - hands gesturing thumbs down in front of flag

Image: Shutterstock

In 2010, Finland created the international day of failure which they celebrate every year on 13 October – the idea is for everyone to celebrate failure and learn from it.

It all sounds just so damn good!

Hot topics

So, what are the phenomenal Finns up to now?

They’ve introduced ‘phenomenon based learning’ and frankly, we should have seen it coming! But we didn’t, because we were too busy flicking rubbers, twanging rulers, choking on Brexit and wondering how the hell to pronounce ‘Hygge’.

… a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), due to come into effect in August 2016. It is a binding document that sets the overall goals of schooling, describes the principles of teaching and learning, and provides the guidelines for special education, well-being, support services and student assessment in schools.” (Pasi Sahlberg, The Conversation)

Phenomenon based learning in a nutshell is teaching by topics or problem-based learning. It has wrongly been reported that it is replacing traditional subjects, it hasn’t or isn’t going to. This is just one way to learn connecting learning together in an interdisciplinary manner where teachers are no longer information providers but super-enablers helping each child find their own way to learn.

Phenomenon based teaching and learning uses the natural inquisitiveness of students to learn in a holistic and authentic context from different subject areas’ perspectives. Phenomena are holistic real-world topics, foe example: human rights, climate change, the European Union, water, and aeroplanes, all studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects.  Learners ask questions, pose problems and build answers together filling gaps along the way.  The aim is to involve learners directly in fashioning their own learning environments and to invest them in that learning by letting them study topics that are important to them. It’s where teachers talk to learners about the goals they want to set themselves.

PBL will not sit well with politicians and educators who advocate a more traditional method for teaching. It is worth reiterating that PBL is not to replace traditional subject-based teaching, but designed to be part of school life, one which places the teacher at the heart of the classroom with a deep emphasis on subject knowledge. Schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than teach to the test. Teaching that integrates knowledge and skills drawing on lessons from the past and current, real-world issues. (@TeacherToolkit)

This is education with 5 Cs: choice, collaboration, communication, co-learning and creativity and GERM free.

Do schools have to do this?

Yes they do. All basic schools for 7-16 year olds must have at least one extended period of phenomenon-based teaching and learning although the length of this period can be decided by schools themselves.  Finnish schools have actually been experimenting with this approach since the 1980s but now it is official because Finland needs world-savvy students.  The new curriculum emphasises skills that 21st century students need like critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and the ability to code and use technology. The world has changed and learning has to change with the times.

shutterstock_235601491 Christmas snowglobe Image ID:235601491 Copyright: Leigh Prather

Image: Shutterstock

What’s all this got to do with us?

Project-based learning isn’t a new phenomenon and we are certainly no strangers to it. It was popular at the beginning of the 20th century when championed by John Dewey and then again in the 1970s. Then it got a bad press for being unstructured and lacking rigour and since then it has peaked and troughed in use and popularity ever since.

Should we embrace topic education, integrate it into our own curriculum and make it compulsory?  Are our students  21st century ready? We still talk about STEM and not enough about STEAM, we compartmentalise subjects, knowledge and skills, we still treat school like exam factories and we still walk the corridors knee-deep in data obsessed with evidence. Phenomenon based teaching and learning deserves a place in our education system as it fosters a wide range of future skills and gives all learners a choice and a voice.

Let’s follow the Finns; they seem to know what they are doing when it comes to personalised learning, collaboration, and being happy. They also have a deep understanding of how children learn best and know what ‘the bigger picture for all’ looks like. Finland is the model pupil.

Isn’t it time we started being phenomenal too or do we just stand and admire the snow globe and wait for the snow to settle?

10 Reasons to ‘Phenomenon Teach’

  1. Students have a vested interest in learning topics they have chosen, so, own their learning
  2. It facilitates active teaching and learning that is hands-on, minds-on and hearts-on
  3. It promotes transferable learning life skills e.g. team work, research
  4. Students appreciate the connections between subjects and become more skilful in peer and self-assessment
  5. Students become better at asking a range of questions and use the ‘language for learning’
  6. It boosts confidence in tackling tasks and helps divergent thinking and critical thinking skills
  7. It powers collaborative learning and develops negotiating skills
  8. Students cover topics in more depth and explore from a variety of perspectives
  9. Students consolidate learning by synthesising ideas from across the curriculum
  10. It provides teachers with multiple assessment opportunities.

Written by John Dabell for Teacher Toolkit.

John Dabell

John trained as a teacher 20 years ago, starting his career in London and then teaching in a range of schools in the Midlands. In-between teaching jobs, he trained as an OfSTED inspector and worked as a national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. He’s taught across all Key Stages and writes at:





“There has been a lot of noise in the Twittersphere about project-based learning recently,” says educator Graham Brown-Martin. “I don’t see how this is opposed to subject-knowledge centred approaches. Subject knowledge is vitally important, it’s just that with a carefully designed project strategy this knowledge is distributed differently. One could argue that Phenomenon Based Learning is more routed in project based learning rather than “problem based learning” and that also the positive integration of technology within projects shows origins in Paperts work on constructionism, as well s Mitra’s work in Self Organising Learning Environments (SOLE) … The truth will set you free.

It is equally disappointing to see some educators and ministers of education jump on the TES headline; that Project Based Learning doesn’t work and holds back poor pupils. Rather than reading the evaluators report as David Price states: “the rising popularity of PBL around the world has enthused and revitalised legions of classroom teachers. Until we’ve got some conclusive evidence that it’s not working, can we allow them to exercise their own professional judgement, please?”


6 thoughts on “Those canny Finns!

  1. This reminds me of when the English primary school was supreme. The problem is that education is controlled by politicians who have no idea of what the are talking about. Kieth Joseph asking the NASUWT president when was he going to be promoted from a junior head to a secondary head. I have been capaigning for years to actually teach thinking. Simple processes that help students succeed, but because they are not subject specific administrators will not give it time. Finland succeeds because they respect and trust teachers and allow them to get on with it. Will never happen in our system. I personally believe the fault lies with headteachers who never fight for education but instead meekly accept whatever the government state no matter how detrimental to the success of pupils. Ofsted is a corrupt organisation and if all heads united in not allowing them into schools the system would improve overnight. In fact it seems heads revel in anything that makes their staff’s lives more intolerable. We don’t need to work harder, we need to work smarter.

  2. Very interesting piece, John, and thanks for publishing @TeacherToolkit. It’s too easy to dismiss Finland’s success by citing their societal homogeneity (that’s increasingly not true, anyway). I suspect we in the UK WILL ignore their Phenomenon Teach approach, simply because it is one of those modest shifts towards the world that students will face upon graduation, and it doesn’t accord with the preconceptions of those in charge of schools here. Better to invest massively in Shanghai/Singapore maths, despite the fact that employers repeatedly say that literacy and numeracy aren’t their biggest skills gaps. Those same employers – see the Fortune 500 CEOs most valued skills, for example – are crying out for employees who can think critically, have global awareness, can problem solve and manage projects, and they’re not seeing them because of the UK’s obsession with a knowledge-driven curriculum. So the Finns are going into the territory explored so well by Howard Gardner’s 5 Minds For The Future: we need BOTH disciplinary skills and trans-disciplinary skills – which is why they haven’t abandoned subjects, but have added the need for in-depth, extended thinking.

    You pointed to the neo-trad’s attempt to misreport the EEF study on PBL. I’ve thought long and hard about the motivations behind such ‘attacks’ and I can only rationalise it by the fear factor: people who are seeing the increasing adoption of well-scaffolded, content-rich, projects in the US, UK and Australia would rather portray it as the ‘laissez-faire’ hippy-dippy approach (which admittedly was prevalent in the 1980s) than ask ‘how are these schools getting extraordinary student outcomes using cross-disciplinary, project-based approaches when we thought it had been consigned to history?’ Instead, the neo-trads say that only randomised control tests of PBL are acceptable forms of evidence. We know that the FInns looked at a much broader range of ‘evidence’ before implementing this change, and will use a much broader range of measures when assessing its effectiveness. Andreas Schleicher – he of PISA fame – recently said ‘the past was subject based, the future is project-based’. We only have to look at schools like School 21, Stanley Park, Hartsholme Academy , Gloucester Road Primary in the state sector, and Cranleigh, Eton, King Alfred’s, Wellington in the independent sector, to see that the roof doesn’t fall in when you adopt more progressive principles in curriculum and pedagogy!

  3. I went to Finland in 2006 to investigate their “amazing” education system. Here are a few factors that put it into context not mentioned in the above article:

    Finland does not have the broad socio-economic and multi-cultural communities that the UK has.
    Almost all children go their local school – however, schools are staffed and equipped to manage this properly, with specialist teachers & TA’s, dedicated rooms etc.
    Children with severe SEN are part of a “home” class for some subjects (Music, Art…) but not for academic subjects. So inclusion is more fit for purpose.
    There is far more “space” in Finnish schools, with break out areas for pupils, and more natural light.
    Out school felt like a submarine when I returned.
    Children do not start formal school until they are 7. At kindergarten they “learn to BE”.
    Classes are far smaller than in the UK. 12-15 was common where we visited.
    Children often sit at single desks and chatter is discouraged.
    Teachers set work from books and go around giving a lot of individual attention.
    I was left with the overwhelming impression that UK teachers are actually far more skilled.
    There is NO Ofsted type inspection regime.
    There are NO SATs, or similar in primary schools.
    There is far less of a military type approach, no uniform, children just walk in at the bell and start working, at dinner times they serve themselves, there are regular short breaks.
    The children we met were a delight; cheerful, friendly and upbeat.
    Most children go to and from school by themselves and at different times.
    Parents trust teachers to get on with the job, but are able to access the school easily if they wish.

    What did I bring back?
    Better use of the limited space we had – a cloakroom became a D&T room, coats were moved to the corridor (not ideal, but better). Created an additional teaching space during kitchen build, which helped enormously with group work.
    Clearly, I was NOT able to recreate many of the factors above.
    I enjoyed my visit and it impacted on our school, however, at no time did I feel that our staff were inferior, but simply disadvantaged in almost all aspects. My polite envy still bubbles under.

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