A number of headlines reporting that Finland would be removing subjects from the curriculum as the country reformed its education system caused quite a stir a year or so back. They were quickly followed by other reports, for example, in the Washington Post (tinyurl. com/wpfinland), attempting to clarify the reforms. Finland continues to be celebrated for its education system, consistently topping global measures on student performance – so, whatever it’s doing, should we be taking note?
Like so often in education, the headlines – in this case, about ‘scrapping subjects’ – didn’t tell the whole story; but there is definitely an interesting shift in thinking towards making learning more relatable to ‘real life’ for all students (especially at secondary school) and to make it more meaningful. Finland wants young people to develop projects that link their learning across the different subjects and also connect it to real world understanding, in order to help them make meaning of what they learn.
The importance of making meaning
And Finland is not alone. In 2016, Singapore’s Education Minister, Ng Chee Meng, said, “Let’s help our children make good use of their time to branch out to explore other interests and passions and to pursue what they want to do in life. Let’s help them make good choices about their educational and career pathways based on their aptitudes and aspirations. Let’s help them be ready for the future.”
Making meaning is especially crucial to students’ learning in early adolescence. Neuroscientific researchers like Jay Giedd and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore have found that the brain matures and specialises during adolescence, especially in the prefrontal cortex that regulates the ‘executive function’ of the brain, pruning connections between brain cells like you would prune a rose bush.
Any new learning that does not have meaning for the adolescent, risks the pruning scissors. We have all heard those infuriating words from our students and own children: “Why should I learn this? I will never use it in my life again.” Are they being dismissive, or are their brains asking them whether to keep or prune the newly made learning connections?
Traditionally, curriculum design is driven by what Lynn Erikson (Transitioning to Conceptbased Curriculum and Instruction, 2015) calls the ‘two dimensional’ model, well-known for its focus on facts and skills that assumes deeper conceptual understanding will automatically develop, creating ‘inch-deep, mile wide’ learning. This is especially frustrating for adolescents trying to make meaning of learning; trying to figure out ‘where does this fit in my life?’
Two types of understanding
These are not totally new ideas; the ‘Backward Design’ model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design, reasoned that curriculum should be specifically structured to help students develop conceptual understanding. The authors identified two main types of understanding, topical – similar to Erikson’s ‘micro concepts’ – and overarching – similar to Erickson’s ‘macro concepts’.
Developing conceptual understanding has its own challenges, though. Wiggins and McTighe warn: “While teaching for understanding is a vital aim of schooling it is only one of many. We are thus not suggesting here that all teaching be geared always towards deep and sophisticated understanding. Clearly, there are circumstances when this depth is neither feasible nor desirable.”
A place for projects
This is the paradox we are all grappling with as curriculum designers and teachers. How do we make sure that the students develop the essential knowledge, skills and understandings needed in the subject disciplines, but at the same time ensure they build meaningful conceptual understanding, both topical and overarching (micro and macro)? And in the case of adolescents, keep them interested in or curious about what they are learning, too?
Finland is dealing with this paradox, by adding interdisciplinary units, or projects, to the subject learning that already takes place in its schools, to better prepare students for the world they will face once they leave. This approach is very similar to what is also known as ‘concept based’ teaching and learning as defined by Lynn Erikson, and of course, the approach so clearly described by Wiggins and McTighe.
Many curriculum writers have tried to create authentic interdisciplinary units, but the challenge remains that tracking progress in specific subject disciplines is very challenging if all learning is organised in this way. Many teachers, under pressure to ensure students are prepared for external exams that follow middle years, often undervalue these kind of projects as one-off learning opportunities outside the ‘real curriculum’.
However, if we truly want to support adolescents to form the habit of looking for links and meaning in everything they learn – whether at school, at home, or anywhere else they find themselves for that matter – some form of integrated approach is necessary for all their education, not just a selected chunk of it while doing a project. Using Erikson’s big concepts (overarching understanding) can provide the necessary lens (a common idea) through which they can view all their learning.
What students need
Erikson warns that “crafting macro-ideas will address breadth; but will fail to provide disciplinary depth of understanding. To ensure conceptual depth, most of the unit generalisations should be written to represent more micro ideas.”
Young people benefit most if they are taught through a concept based and international curriculum. By this I mean one that ensures students have the opportunity to learn what most teachers and curriculum writers (globally) agree they should know, be able to do and understand by the time they reach their next phase of learning. Adolescents in particular need a curriculum that helps them to make meaning of their learning and develop their understanding of the real world without sacrificing essential subject discipline learning, keeping them interested and making them globally mobile.
It’s the best of both worlds; and we owe our students no less.
About the author
Isabel Du Toit is head of International Middle Years Curriculum (greatlearning.com/imyc/)