Finland has become an international education icon. It performed extremely well in the first few rounds of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and that led to a boom in education tourism, with every education bureaucrat with enough cash in the budget making the pilgrimage to Finland in order to find out what was going on. Alas, these fact-seeking missions were not entirely objective and Finland ended up as something of a magic mirror, reflecting people’s views and prejudices back at them.
The truth is that PISA assesses 15-year-olds and therefore if we are looking for inferences, we need to look at the prior ten years of education. For the class of the early 2000s, this was a pretty traditional form of education. Nevertheless, Finland was repeatedly held up as an example of a successful implementation of the tenets of educational progressivism.
Since the early 2000s, Finland has instituted some important changes. For whatever reason, the Finnish education system has sought to become more like the one projected onto it by outsiders. This has coincided with a gradual decline in Finland’s performance on PISA. It has been odd to watch as those who were drawn to Finland due to its standardised test scores now seek to dismiss PISA evidence of a decline on the basis that test scores are not important.
Back in 2015, we learnt of plans in Finland to introduce ‘phenomenon based learning’, a cross discipline approach that appeared to already be underway in some schools. Pundits celebrated this move on the fallacious basis that Finland has an excellent education system and so this untested approach must be excellent too. Other were more critical. Do not worry, we were told, the plans only involve a few periods a week and traditional subjects will not be abandoned altogether.
This weekend, via Pasi Sahlberg’s Twitter account, I became aware of this story about parents filing complaints against a school, ostensibly because of the way it has implemented phenomenon based learning. One account tells of how students have to come together in a ‘market square’ at the start of each day to plan their own work and complains of a lack of teaching. Although such complaints are exactly what you would expect of an approach that overloads students with too much to attend to, the school authorities have framed the complaints as parents and students being resistant to change.
And this is not the first warning we have heard. Last year, a researcher at Helsinki University raised concerns about phenomenon based learning and its effects on PISA scores, particularly in maths and science.
Not only was all of this foreseeable, it was foreseen. In my own small way, I predicted, a month before they were released, that nascent phenomenon based learning would contribute to a decline in Finland’s 2015 PISA scores. I was right about maths and science, although reading remained stable. Such an effect is predictable because a) these ideas have been tried many times before and failed and b) they are at odds with what we now known from cognitive science.
Students and parents are not reacting to change, they are reacting to methods that they can see are ineffective.