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Subjects vs topics

Some lessons from the changes being introduced by Finland in education

Subjects vs topics
Equality without equity perpetuates discrimination.

Recently, Finland created a stir in education circles around the world when a news story appeared regarding ‘scrapping of subjects’ from school curriculum there. Finland is a country that sits at the top in most rankings of educational achievements at least at the school level, thanks to high test scores on international comparison tests.

The education policy in Finland revolves around ‘high-quality education and training’, as a long-term objective. The four key terms are efficiency, equity, internationalisation, and quality. Comparing Finnish education policy with numerous policies we have had in Pakistan, one realises our policies are much bulkier and full of tall claims without much focus on equity and internationalisation.

Here the concept of equity in education is important to understand. Those who advocate the so-called ‘merit-based’ opportunities flaunt the principle of equality in education meaning that everyone should have ‘equal opportunity’ through merit. On the face of it all sounds good, but looking closely reveals inherent flaws in this logic. Equality without equity perpetuates discrimination in favour of ‘merit’ that neglects socioeconomic background of those who lag in the race. Equity in education has at least two dimensions: fairness and inclusion. And the Finnish system of education includes both.

Fairness makes sure that personal and social circumstances — such as gender; socio-economic status; religious, sectarian, or ethnic origin — do not become obstacles to achieving education potential. Inclusion ensures a basic minimum standard of education for all; for example, everyone should be able to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Education will fail if equity is not there, and the failure of education system in Pakistan is a hoary example of this lack of equity, whereas countries such as Finland pride themselves in fairness and inclusion and try their best to pay not equal but equitable treatment to all learners.

Here are the three key points to remember and implement: one, make education full of interesting learning tasks; two, develop learning materials to suit those tasks; three, train teachers to give proper feedback and guidance to students.

Another element of the Finnish education policy is the basic right to education and culture as recorded in their constitution. Most Muslim-majority countries fail on this account, especially in matters of culture. Be it Shia population in Saudi Arabia, Sunni practitioners in Iran, Ahmadi community in Pakistan, or secularists in Bangladesh, diversity is not tolerated, rather nurtured at state level. In contrast, Finland-like countries build these rights in their basic principles not only in school education but also in life-long learning which is considered the backbone for the wellbeing of society.

Education in Finland is strongly based on the concept of early childhood education before the age of six, following which there is one year of pre-primary education. From 7 to 16 years of age, basic education is given in Comprehensive schools. After school education, young students can go to general upper-secondary schools — equivalent to our higher-secondary or intermediate — or they may opt for vocational qualifications such as apprenticeship training. Here government, trade unions and employer organisations form a tripartite partnership for the development of students. The best part is that at the central level only main objectives are defined, but the implementation of these is the responsibility of the local level.

Now coming to the subject of ‘subjects’. Finland is talking about the school of the future that is more interested in the culture of competence development rather than silos of ‘subjects’. They are trying to create a pedagogical process suitable for the 21st century. The discussion on ‘topics’ instead of ‘subjects’ is aiming at a systemic change at the operational level that will facilitate learners’ growth through self-direction including their own assessment of educational activities. The argument is that compartmentalisation of knowledge in restricted subjects prevents an open learning environment and learning processes are restricted.

The change is expected to enable students’ cognition (thinking) that is distributed physically and socially. In simpler words, it will offer cognitive tools or thinking aids using different kinds of concepts, theories, diagrams and drawings, machines, computer software, and forms of activities based on socially shared cognition. The key is to offer more enabling interaction among the learners with peer learning as a building block. Essentially, peer learning is sharing of expertise in a functional learning environment that uses a holistic review of the phenomena to be studied and supports authenticity of learning.

So, what is this phenomenon-based learning (PhBL)? In short, it teaches real-world phenomena by studying them in context as complete entities transcending the boundaries of traditional ‘subjects’. For example, students can learn about water as a formula in chemistry, and as a source of irrigation in geography but in Phenomenon-based learning water is studied in its entirety with the help of chemistry and geography teachers together. This type of learning is not limited to one single point of view and uses different points of view integrating various subjects and themes. For example, history is being taught in Pakistan as a sequence of events; just imagine, teaching Pakistan Studies with this approach using different points of view.

Rather than imposing ‘subjects’ on learners, PhBL asks them about what phenomenon or topic interests them. If they say, ‘how an airplane flies and stays up in the air’, different teachers come together to guide students about how to find their answers, rather than lecturing them with answers. That’s how learning is anchored within students’ own efforts guided by different teachers present in the same classroom. Students are encouraged not only to seek information but also to apply and use that in the learning situation. When leaning becomes authentic it increases cognitive processes. Authenticity is the key driver in the movement from ‘subjects’ to topics.

Contrary to international brouhaha, subjects are not being scrapped in one go. To begin with, only a few weeks each year will be given to this interdisciplinary learning which has already started in August, 2016. Gradually, traditional subject-based classes will be replaced with lessons that draw from multiple subject areas to be co-taught by teachers from different specialisations. The newest iteration of Finland’s National Curriculum Framework (NCF) requires schools throughout the country to implement at least one extended period of phenomenon teaching, but the specifics will be left up to individual schools.

Another positive aspect of this type of teaching is that teachers will be encouraged to collaborate more with their colleagues. The new NCF also requires that students be involved in the planning and assessment of their lessons so that they take ownership of their education.

So, what lessons does it have for a country such as Pakistan? Well, first we need to realise that our society is also becoming highly digital. Some provincial governments are responding to this challenge by purchasing computers and tablets or even interactive whiteboards.

The decision makers need to understand that thoughtlessly acquired technological equipment often prove to be an obstacle slowing down learning in the absence of a more enabling teaching process. Be it paper, pen, or blackboard, the teaching process must add value to pedagogy.

To enrich teaching, diversity in perspective is the name of the game that must be carried out with a flexible curriculum at least at the school level. Learners should be able to search for information they need and then should be able to communicate effectively. If these two qualities — curiosity and communication — are not inculcated, no matter how many laptops we distribute, the level of competence will remain low.

The gist of the changes in Finland is the dialogue between learners and tutors rather than monologues by teachers. If our provincial governments really want to improve educational attainment in their schools, here are the three key points to remember and implement: one, make education full of interesting learning tasks; two, develop learning materials to suit those tasks; three, train teachers to give proper feedback and guidance to students. Abolish all subjects, at least at the primary level; just focus on literacy and numeracy. To achieve this, a new Basic Education Act should be presented in provincial assemblies.

Through this Basic Education Act, primary education can be overhauled — or at least the process can be initiated. Our young learners need more literacy and numeracy than dozens of subjects that overwhelm our children now. Just look at the burden of school bags on the backs of our half-asleep cuties every morning, and you will realise why we need this change.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

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