The recent headline in The Independent, Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with ‘topics’ as country reforms its education system caused quite a stir. It was quickly followed by other newspapers attempting to clarify the reforms. For example, the Washington Post followed with No, Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Here’s what’s really happening. So, like often in education, scrapping subjects is not the whole story, but there is an interesting shift in educational thinking towards making learning more relatable for students, and to make it more meaningful.
Finland, for example, wants students to develop projects that link student learning in the different subjects, but also connect it to ‘real world’ learning, helping students to make meaning of their learning. 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 specialises during adolescence, pruning connections between brain cells like you would prune a rose bush (Sara-Jayne Blakemore 2012). Any new learning that does not have meaning risks the pruning scissors!
Traditionally, curriculum design is driven by what Lynn Erikson (Transitioning to Concept-based 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 ‘why should I learn this?’
These are not totally new ideas, the ‘Backward Design’ model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design (2005), reasoned that curriculum should be specifically structured to help students develop conceptual understanding. They identified two main types of understanding, topical understanding – similar to Erikson’s ‘micro concepts’ - and overarching understanding – 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."
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 the adolescent, keep them interested in or curious about what they are learning?
Per the Washington Post, Finland is adding interdisciplinary units or projects to the subject learning that already takes place to better prepare students for the world they will face once they leave school. This approach is very similar what is also known as ‘concept based’ teaching and learning as defined by Lynn Erikson, and of course, the approach 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 subject learning is organised in this way. Many teachers, under pressure to ensure students are prepared for external exams that follow the middle years, often undervalue these kind of projects as ‘one off’ learning opportunities outside the ‘real curriculum’
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."
In my opinion, students benefit most if they are taught through a concept-based and international curriculum. One that helps them make meaning of their learning without sacrificing essential subject discipline learning, keeping them interested and making them globally mobile. We must ensure that we are properly preparing students for the next stage of their education, whether that be KS4, GCSE, iGCSE or IB Diploma.