Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
Finland has embarked on another daring and big change. It is set to (partially) abolish teaching by subjects and will move to teaching by theme or topic. The reactions from across the globe are predictably mixed, as befits such a radical change. Teachers are reeling, administrators and evaluators are shaking their heads in doubt and innovators like me are thrilled to the core.
For years we have been protesting ‘industrial age’ education: Where the grid of age and time determines the blocks in which teaching will be delivered. What goes into this grid to feed learners is also structured based on content and level. These two grids come together to form our ‘education system’—where teachers and students are both subject to the (admittedly sustainable and stable) bureaucratic design. Educators have been trying to break through this gridlock for years, though much of the protest is at the transition point where students are moved from one box to another via examinations. Standardised testing is under fire for forcing teachers to teach to the test, encourage rote learning and even incentivise cheating to improve results.
It has been time to change for a very long time. But innovation in education is very tough because the ‘product’ is people. Unlike other processes where the outcomes depend upon controlling inputs, there are no such guarantees in education. To make it more complex, one has to acknowledge that the wider range of education outcomes are not served by improving efficiencies in the process at all; in fact a more efficient system may actually damage some students and their capacity to learn and adapt in the future. Take, for example, the highly efficient rote learning system common to India, China and the Far East. As a consequence, many students grow up unable to think beyond the boxes described.
Finally, and possibly most significantly, comes the question of risk. The risk of innovation is ultimately borne by the student (and their parents) as discussed here.
Finland has stirred the pot. For the first time an entire nation is seeking to adopt a change that brings learning to the present, and acknowledges that technology has changed the way we need to do things. Students no longer need a pipeline that showers information or even knowledge; they do not approach knowledge in silos. Their journey of exploration no longer is driven by a single text or source. Facilitation in the classroom also has moved on from directing discovery along known, subject-based pathways to curating and corralling to be able to consolidate learning. The job of the teacher now is less about increasing accessible knowledge units, it is now also about ensuring how that knowledge is embedded and usable.
This is where Finland has scored. They have recognised the learning gains from theme-based learning and made room for embedding these gains in their school system. Theme-based learning engages the learner not just with the content, but builds hooks into real life issues to establish relevance. Our school systems had de-emphasised relevance in their quest to gain reliability and accuracy in the transmission of information in rote learning systems; and others—seemingly more progressive—had emphasised validity. The ‘how is this relevant’ piece was pushed back, as was the ‘what shall we do with this’ question. In doing so we had slowly regressed from knowledge to information instead of progressing to engagement. This is what employers have been calling the skills gap: Even if students know their facts they don’t know what to do with it and are unable to engage with real issues and problems.
Innovation in education on a system-wide scale is tricker than smaller interventions at the school or district levels. This is a commitment one makes for a generation, a cohort. Finland has been a relatively stable system, attributing much of its success to education policy stability, autonomy, late testing and the training of its teachers. Other countries have also tried system-wide innovations, such as Peru and, of course, England with its frequent changes. Those were often in response to a problem. Finland had merely seen its lead slow down. Educators still make the pilgrimage to its classrooms to be able to parse and replicate its success.
The change over from subjects to themes is not complete; some subjects will continue as before. It is to be operationalised by allocating regular time in the school to theme-based learning. This includes it in the curriculum in a way mere theme weeks/events are unable to, and formalises it. Finland believes in low-stakes testing and will probably be content with a teacher’s assessment in class. For other systems this is a more challenging exercise. Moving over to theme-based learning requires a serious investment in all three: Teaching, assessment and administration. Teachers will need to now be conscious of embedding learning outcomes into their lesson plans as they craft a conversation around a theme. This shakes up the current administrative system too, but even more than that, it demands a change in the way assessments are embedded in lessons and are managed. In teaching, say, Colonialism, one would have to be aware of the mathematics of trade, the travels of science, the physics of travel and geographies and more. This would have to vary according to the capacities of the students, and we do not know yet whether they will continue to have levels or whether theme-based learning will be responsive. Much of the operational challenge will be about measuring and validating whether a particular ‘unit’ that was a part of the framework has actually been taught and learnt in the relatively fluid theme lesson. Lesson planning just went up meta one level to include choice in content, not just its delivery.
How does this apply to emerging economies, to far flung mountain schools, war ravaged students, schools in prosperous desert villages and more? Can they move past previous structures and engage with themes when their resources are a small fraction of what is available to students in a Finnish classroom? Can this be implemented at real scale, the kind that countries like India and China face, or even the USA?
I think the real question here is: Can we trust our schools and teachers enough, as Finland does? The day we have teachers we can trust across education systems, that is when true education innovation will begin to bear fruit.