The night before researchED Sydney, I was at a dinner for some of the speakers. As part of this event, there was a badly-run panel discussion in which Geoff Masters of the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) made the point that rather than looking at the current performance of countries in tests such as PISA and TIMSS, we should look at the direction of travel; improving or declining. This would strip out the effect of cultural factors.
Unfortunately, this seemed to pass right over the heads of members of the audience who proceeded to enthuse over Finland. Finland is a favourite of progressive educators because they project on to it all sorts of things that they approve of whilst ignoring contrasting evidence from other countries that also do well in PISA and TIMSS. Perhaps these folks were simply unaware that Finland has been declining in its PISA performance over roughly the last ten years.
To perhaps address this decline, the powers that run Finnish education have decided to introduce a cutting edge approach known as ‘phenomenon-based learning’. It is pretty hard to distinguish this from William Heard Kilpatrick’s ‘Project Method’ which he first published in 1918.
A new episode of The Educators on BBC Radio 4 looks into this. Sarah Montague interviews Helsinki’s Education Manager, Marjo Kyllonen. We discover that cross-disciplinary phenomenon-based learning is all about ownership of the learning, that teachers have to give up control and that learning must be relevant and connected to the students’ lives. “We don’t want to change the child but we want to change the school,” she tells us. A student talks of qualified enthusiasm but comments that, “I wouldn’t want it to last a whole year… there’s still that traditional education that gets the message through.”
However, Kyllonen has wider ambitions. Even within disciplines she would like teachers to prioritise relevance and student exploration. To me, this sounds like inquiry learning. We hear that today’s students are somehow different from students in the past and that the new approach will enable them to learn marketable skills such as collaboration, social skills, critical thinking, creativity and cross-disciplinary thinking.
If you are familiar with my blog then you will know that I am sceptical that such attributes are ‘skills’ that can me improved through training. For instance, Dan Willingham has written about the fact that critical thinking can’t really be taught. And anyone can be creative; what society values is people who can be creative in interesting and useful ways. Newton was creative but his creativity stood at the apex of a growing body of knowledge of which he was an expert. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he wrote. Quite.
Lose the traditional disciplines that best represent what we know in a coherent way and you risk the discoveries and innovation of the future.
However, the BBC have done their research. In addition to talking to a concerned Finnish academic, they interview Tim Oates who has written a superb paper on Finnish educational performance. If we want to understand the performance of 15-year-olds in 2000 then we need to look at the education that led up to that and to a process of education reform that began in the 1960s. This was characterised by inspections, grade-level testing and state-sanctioned textbooks.
Sarah Montague challenges Kyllonen for the evidence to support phenomenon-based teaching. It doesn’t appear that there is much and Kyllonen is certainly not keen to use tests to measure the effects. If there were any evidence then it would have already shown up at some point since 1918. This is nothing new and it has been tried many times before.
It is odd that a country with a good track record, that has the answers to the problems that it wishes to solve in its own history, is so keen to strike out along a century-old, ideologically-driven dead-end. It’s a tragedy.