Finland is home to some of the world’s most forward-looking innovations in education – school autonomy instead of school rankings, portfolios instead of exam grades, inquiry-based learning instead of memorization, real world context topics instead of traditional subjects.
eGov Innovation speaks with Pasi Silander, Digitalization Lead of City of Helsinki, Finland, who currently leads the digitalization strategy process of the Helsinki school district and the Stadi eCampus. He has worked as a long-time researcher and developer of digital learning, and has created new innovative concepts, pedagogical practices and planning methods that are widely used in the Finnish education system.
What changes are needed in today’s education systems? What kind of skills do students need to develop to succeed in the future?
In today’s education systems, we should promote competencies for the future, 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and learning skills. These soft skills are needed, while hard skills (e.g. memorizing facts, basic calculation) will be done more or less by computers in the future.
Even today in the banking sector, computers do all the calculation – they decide if we will get a loan or not, they buy and sell stocks. Therefore, we cannot train our kids to compete with computers or robots in the future working life. Algorithms work 24/7 and they don’t break.
In order to learn these future 21st century skills, students have to participate in processes that require “higher thinking skills”, such as setting goals, choosing methods to study, evaluation and reflection. That is one reason why I believe that topics (phenomena) should be chosen by teachers and students together.
What are some pedagogical innovations and reforms introduced in the Finland education system in recent years?
1. Pedagogy based on student’s learning process
This is a paradigm shift from the teacher’s teaching process to the student’s learning process. Designing traditional contact teaching has mostly been designed based on the teacher’s activities and teaching process, while in designing digital learning, the starting point must genuinely be designed based on the learner’s learning process.
Designing the teacher’s actions, guidance, task assignments etc. that promote the learning process can only occur after the learner’s learning process (or the kind of cognitive activity the learner needs to learn) has been designed and constructed. This can be considered a paradigm shift in instructional design.
2. Phenomenon-based learning
Instead of focusing on school subjects, phenomenon-based learning focuses on actual real-world and interdisciplinary elements, on topics such as the European Union, the human body, the environment, for example.
The human body is a good example of a topic/phenomena that combines biology, psychology and health education. You cannot understand the human body by observing it only from the viewpoint of an individual school subject. Learning starts from the joint observation of comprehensive, genuine real-world phenomena in the learning community. The observation is not limited to one single point of view; the phenomena are instead studied comprehensively from different points of view, crossing the boundaries between subjects naturally and integrating different subjects and themes.
3. Empowering schools to develop new learning methods
Teaching and learning will take a place in various kinds of settings, depending on learning goals, content and working methods. We want to encourage teachers to try out and develop new pedagogical methods and work as teams, for example, when designing learning processes for students. Co-teaching is a good example of modern teaching methods, and has already been utilized in Finland for some years.
4. Reforms in student assessment
The new assessment is based on a student’s learning process, not on the outcomes or end-products. Multiple methods, such as portfolios, are used in formative assessment. Early classes in primary education do not use traditional grades in school year reports. Instead, we use written feedback that describe and promote the student’s learning, encouraging students to learn more.
What have been the outcomes so far?
The experiences we have, is that most of teachers find this modern way of learning meaningful. Teachers are given opportunities to work in teams and to develop their pedagogy and new competencies.
Schools are using a lot of phenomenon-based learning, inquiry-based learning and project work. Vocational education and universities of applied sciences (polytechnics) are collaborating tightly with working life and companies.
Students will learn more authentic skills and competencies to serve working life and future society better. Traditionally, in primary, secondary and high schools, there have been a lot of exercises and tasks that have been done only for teachers – not for the student’s real working life ahead.
Authentic learning, as well as modern working methods with technology have a major motivational effect. Learning is more deep and rewarding for students. In the digitalized school, the roles of teachers and students are transformed. Teachers no longer feed information to students, instead they activate and guide students. Students are no longer targets of instruction but active agents in learning processes.
I think Finnish education today reflects very much the needs of working life, society and our social and economic system. In Finland we do not have gold or oil, so knowledge and competencies are our only way to build up society. We don’t have Nokia anymore, so new innovations and business models are needed.
How do you see digital technology impacting the educational landscape in future? How should digital technology be used to enhance learning?
Digital technology is the most essential tool for thinking and learning. It extends our minds. We cannot talk about phenomenon-based learning without digital technology. Technology is the tool for making learning processes visible for reflection and evaluation, documenting learning, processing information and searching information. It should be as natural a part of learning and teaching as paper and pen.
In the new school culture, digital technology is integrated with learning processes in pedagogically meaningful ways, enriching the processes and enabling new pedagogical solutions. Learning happens by the processing of information and by problem solving. Use of digital technology becomes a systematic and everyday activity at schools.
Electronic learning materials replace traditional schoolbooks. Traditional classrooms give way to multi-modal working environments, in which students no longer sit in rows. Learning environments expand from the school building to other institutions in the surrounding society. Learning is no longer organized into traditional classes only but can happen in workshops, in projects and on-the-job in vocational education.
How do you create the school of the future? How should education leaders go about transforming schools and education systems?
Pedagogical change is needed for the school of the future, because the skills the learners will need in the society and working life of the future have changed. Our knowledge of how human beings learn has also greatly increased in the last few decades – but pedagogy, teaching practices and school structures have not really developed accordingly.
The school of the future is not a building, it is a culture of competence development, a pedagogical culture that has an active role in the development of the society. Schools and educational institutions need a systemic change of operational culture and a new pedagogical leadership. A change can only be made by ensuring that pedagogical leadership is actively oriented towards the future. This is a great challenge to education leaders – they have to rebel and go against old schooling traditions that persist very strongly among teachers. Educational leaders have to lead teachers to the new profession to be activators and facilitators of student’s personalized learning processes.