What we need now is a dif­fer­ent kind of edu­ca­tion,” says Pasi Silan­der, the devel­op­ment man­ag­er in Helsin­ki, Fin­land. He adds that edu­ca­tion should now be aimed “to pre­pare peo­ple for work­ing life.”

The changes in edu­ca­tion in Fin­land were recent­ly pro­filed by Richard Gar­ner in The Inde­pen­dent (@Independent) [link]. Please don’t mis­read my quick sum­ma­ry here as an indi­ca­tion that this is a small change in how schools teach. What Fin­land is doing is noth­ing short of a major rev­o­lu­tion, over­turn­ing years of estab­lished aca­d­e­m­ic pro­to­col.

Briefly, edu­ca­tion­al lead­ers in Fin­land (such as Liisa Pohjo­lainen, Helsinki’s chief of youth and adult edu­ca­tion) decid­ed that stu­dents, who at an ear­ly age are oper­at­ing com­put­ers, should not be imped­ed by an old-fash­ioned approach to edu­ca­tion based on a sub­ject-mat­ter expert impart­ing knowl­edge in one-hour time chunks. Most of us learned the old way. We went to a class on lit­er­a­ture, then geog­ra­phy, then math­e­mat­ics — then lunch — and wrapped up the day with biol­o­gy fol­lowed by social stud­ies and then, per­haps, by a for­eign lan­guage. In gen­er­al, such an approach to knowl­edge is his­to­ry in Fin­land, or soon will be, as Gar­ner describes:

Sub­ject-spe­cif­ic lessons — an hour of his­to­ry in the morn­ing, an hour of geog­ra­phy in the after­noon — are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phe­nom­e­non” teach­ing — or teach­ing by top­ic. For instance, a teenag­er study­ing a voca­tion­al course might take “cafe­te­ria ser­vices” lessons, which would include ele­ments of maths, lan­guages (to help serve for­eign cus­tomers), writ­ing skills and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.

Symbolic Students

What’s hap­pen­ing with edu­ca­tion in Fin­land is being much dis­cussed and is by no means uni­ver­sal­ly applaud­ed. But I see lots of val­ue in the new approach and some impor­tant lessons for all lead­ers — even if you’re not an edu­ca­tor.

  • Lead­ers lead. Even though Fin­land is near the top in terms of per­for­mance (PISA rank­ing [link]), the coun­try has­n’t stopped look­ing for ways to inno­vate fur­ther.
  • Lead­ers chal­lenge fun­da­men­tals. Fin­land is not sim­ply inno­vat­ing on the edge (although I am sure they do that as well); they are attack­ing the core assump­tions that have shaped edu­ca­tion since the Renais­sance. If this new approach works well (I’d bet on it), not only will Fin­land be fun­da­men­tal­ly changed, but edu­ca­tion around the world is sure to fol­low. Fin­land is cre­at­ing a new bench­mark for how stu­dents should learn.
  • Lead­ers grasp cur­rent real­i­ties, then change them. The changes being made in Fin­land are not just for the sake of change, but rather are dri­ven by a fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion of what peo­ple cur­rent­ly do at work and how that tra­jec­to­ry into the future will require fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sion­als with dif­fer­ent mind­sets, skillsets, and edu­ca­tion­al under­pin­nings.
  • Lead­ers are not impetu­ous. It appears that Fin­land will not trans­form every school overnight, but rather will start with small, con­trolled exper­i­ments in order to (pun intend­ed) “learn their way for­ward”. Via small, less risky, steps, the coun­try will dis­cov­er the best way to stage a more com­pre­hen­sive (and more intel­li­gent) roll-out of changes to the wider sys­tem. Sounds to me like a well thought-out for­mu­la for mak­ing big changes while man­ag­ing the risk — exact­ly what senior lead­ers of organ­i­sa­tions need to do in order to change their own basis for cre­at­ing val­ue.
  • Lead­ers change sys­tems. It is impor­tant to note how changes in one area (how the cur­ricu­lum is imag­ined and struc­tured) will have, as a con­se­quence, a rip­ple affect upon class­room design, the role of the teacher/professor in the learn­ing process, the tools need­ed to cre­ate a learn­ing envi­ron­ment, and on and on. Big ideas often fun­da­men­tal­ly recast the mod­el for cre­at­ing and deliv­er­ing val­ue. The Finnish edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem can be see as a blue­print for the types of ques­tions any leader needs to ask — and answer — in order to reshape an entire organ­i­sa­tion­al val­ue sys­tem. It is, and must be, a sys­temic approach.
  • Lead­ers con­front lag­gards. Based on what I’ve read, the epi­cen­tres of resis­tance to the new mod­el of edu­ca­tion in Fin­land seem to be com­ing from those most vest­ed in the old sys­tem. No sur­prise. Over­com­ing such a cho­rus of resis­tance is also part of lead­ing any organ­i­sa­tion­al sys­tem into the future. Get­ting to next is nev­er easy, espe­cial­ly for one embark­ing on rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. One rea­son why we val­ue lead­ers is that they do not allow any­one to stay stuck on the way things are, which is a pre­scrip­tion for irrel­e­vance. They help change mind­sets. Sure­ly Fin­land has wit­nessed many admin­is­tra­tors, teach­ers, par­ents (and, most of all, stu­dents) who were uneasy and quite fear­ful of chang­ing the sta­tus quo. Lead­ers con­front such behav­iours by help­ing peo­ple imag­ine what the future needs to look like while reas­sur­ing them that, in time, it will be brighter for all.
  • Lead­ers mea­sure progress. New sys­tems require new met­rics, and reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing of the right data is impor­tant to know­ing what is work­ing and what is not. As in busi­ness, edu­ca­tion is dri­ven by out­comes in the form of stu­dent learn­ing. Most sure­ly, the new Finnish mod­el will require new ways to test stu­dent progress. In all organ­i­sa­tions, the right mea­sures must be found to see if major change is yield­ing progress, and not just dis­rup­tion.

The Nextsens­ing Project is ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing peo­ple over­come the hur­dles to find­ing their next. And it’s amaz­ing how many who resist­ed change at first soon became its cham­pi­ons. Pasi Silan­der made the same point in the news arti­cle: “We have real­ly changed the mind­set,” he said. “It is quite dif­fi­cult to get teach­ers to start and take the first step… but teach­ers who have tak­en to the new approach say they can’t go back.”

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