Among Finnish teachers there is a joke that if you want to hide a 500 euro note, hide it between the pages of the national core curriculum, because no one ever opens or reads it. The joke is at least partly challenged by the over two-year co-creational process of building the Finnish national core curriculum in 2014. The aim of the Finnish National Agency for Education was to make teachers, principals and other stakeholders experts on the contents of the curriculum.
The national core curriculum has ambition, progressive content and it provides support and momentum for schools to renew or develop their pedagogies and practices. What is now needed is the courage to act and implement, as well as commitment and pedagogic leadership. The school principals’ role in creating the settings for the curriculum to start emerging in practice is important. They need to be enabling leaders who support the whole school community to make a shift toward more collaborative ways of working with the community and society, more collaboration between the teachers and between parents and schools and strengthening students’ agency.
There are variations in terms of the levels of commitment and implementation in schools across Finland and even among cities. Even so, it still has to be acknowledged that when looking at global comparisons, the Finnish school system is uniform and equal. There are still those taboos, like teachers’ fixed working hours, that do not allow for much development work and that creates an incentive for teachers to defend the amount of teaching hours their subject gets in the curriculum. This is especially true in secondary schools. This is not the easiest starting point for project-based learning approaches. That said, it is now defined in the curriculum that every Finnish student needs to have one project-based learning module a year.
The curriculum states that personal growth, studying, work life and being a citizen require know-how that surpass the limits of individual subjects. The overall starting point of updating the curriculum has been a deep understanding of our rapidly-changing society and the demands that this puts on the individuals and society both from the point of view of skills and character. This understanding has created an encouraging atmosphere for discussions of the purpose of schools and education, values and principles.
The curriculum has enabled change to start emerging. One sign of this are increasingly common questions by the media that focus on the teacher’s current and future role—questions that, amongst others, postulate whether teachers are truly allowed to be ‘teachers’ anymore when they have to be more like guides and co-learners. It is likely to be a much-debated question in the years to come and clearly reveals that the implementation of the new national curriculum then, has unequivocally begun to challenge conventions.
Information Box 1: A Teacher Explains: The Curriculum as a Tool for Teachers
School principal Pekka Rokka, now retired, writes in the foreword to his dissertation (2011) about his professional journey with the national curriculums of 1985, 1994 and 2004. In his dissertation he studied, with the help of these three documents, how schools integrated students into society, what kind of civic and societal skills and knowledge students learned, and what kinds of political themes were to be found in the curriculums from different decades. Rokka writes that national curriculums can be considered ‘bibles’ to teachers. “In my daily work as a teacher, I felt that the curriculum is the document that gives ground to my whole work and for my role as a teacher,” (translation by author) he states (Rokka 2011, p. 3).
Rokka posits that the curriculum of 1994 was a radical event in the education field in Finland because each school was supported to produce their own curriculum. This made it possible to do in-depth development work in schools and it made many schools able to take steps forward in their pedagogical and operational practices. Conversely, the curriculum of 2004 felt like a step backwards because it was not as co-creational as the previous one, Rokka explains. The work consisted of reading and commenting on material that others had written, but the deep participation was not there. The core curriculum of 1994 was school-specific, but there was little space for school-specificity in the core curriculum of 1985 and 2004. The core curriculums are guided by pendulous policy since the openness of the curriculum of 1994 was returned back into a more restrictive policy in 2004 (Rokka 2011, p. 9).
Rokka states that individuality, consumer citizenship, entrepreneurship, integration, internationality, the future and encountering the future, emphasis on equity, information technology and technology, effectiveness of media, youth culture, concern for the environment and nature, healthy life and safety awareness, as well as the assessment, development and effectiveness of education, all emerge as central political themes in national curriculums (2011).
Information Box 2: Me & My City—Learning by Doing
Me & My City is a Finnish learning concept for 12-year olds (6th graders) and 15-year olds (9th graders) developed by a former teacher, Tomi Alakoski, and his colleagues. The goal is to give the students the opportunity to develop their understanding of the economy, society, working life and entrepreneurship and transitioning to a circular economy and to strengthen their preparedness in these areas. Me & My City has operated for since 2010 in different cities in Finland. During that time around 250,000 students have visited Me & My City reaching around 75% of the 6th graders and around 40% of the 9th graders in Finland. In 2017 Me & My City started a big collaboration with the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. Me & My City concept is updated so that it simulates the kind of sustainable practices needed in the future societies. In this circular economy and sustainable business models are emphasized.
Me & My City is organised by the Economic Information Office (TAT) and funded by the Ministry of Education, The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, companies, municipalities and foundations. The learning environment created by Me & My City simulates a city with a post office, city hall, supermarket, local newspaper and businesses. The goal is to give children a learning experience that is rooted in the everyday-life practices and operations of society. For one day, the young students work in different positions in the city and have tasks that they are responsible for. The pupils generate an income from their job which they can use to purchase groceries or small items that they can take with them at the end of the day. The young students who work in companies have to consider the reputation of the company and the status of their corporate social responsibility strategy.
Before the day spent on site, teachers and students prepare for the experience by working through job applications, simulating job interviews, learning about the economy, taxation and more. The learning concept includes teacher training and learning materials for ten lessons. An important part of the concept is to develop collaborative skills, learn more about what it means to be a consumer and to deepen the students’ media literacy.
Alakoski and his colleague, Minna Ala-Outinen, explain that one of the advantages of Me & My City is that it is made easy for schools to participate. Schools are an institution often seen as an answer for many different kinds of developments in society and schools are contacted frequently by different kinds of organisations. Often it is not clear why the proposed project would be beneficial for the school. Me & My City does not have that problem since it has been designed to directly support the goals of the national curriculum.
There is a new Me & My City learning environment for 9th graders focused on the global economy. In this concept, 9th graders work as the board of directors of a Finnish multinational industrial company Metso. Alakoski and Ala-Outinen explain that it is interesting to see how Me & My City has an impact on different students and teachers. For one day, the teachers’ role is simply to sit and watch how the students run the city. Often those lively students, who might have certain difficulties concentrating in the classroom, perform exceptionally well in Me & My City. The teachers are often astonished by how good these students are when they are in the right kind of learning environment. As a result, it is empowering for the 12-year olds as well as the 15-year olds to visit Me & My City. They are given responsibility and begin to understand their parents’ world a little bit better. Ala-Outinen adds that Me & My City has made some teachers realise what kind of resource the parents, companies and other organisations could be for learning purposes. This way, Me & My City is bridging the gap between schools and the rest of the society (Tomi Alakoski, Minna Ala-Outinen, personal communication, May 2016).