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What Finland’s phenomenon-based learning could mean for US schools

In this week's column, Kimberly Pfeifer from the US explains why she wants to travel to Finland to learn about the education system.

I loved school – well, until the seventh grade that is. Within months of middle school beginning, I came to believe that I was not a math person. I felt pushed out of the classroom space and devalued. Interestingly, my distaste for numbers pushed me into a love affair with words, novels and poetry. And it was my passion for the latter juxtaposed with my aversion of the former that caused me to see these subjects as distinct, as opposites. So, while I was not a math person, I was becoming a language person. A belief that has detrimentally stuck with me well into adulthood.

But what does this have to do with Finland?

Finland’s approach to learning as phenomenon-based rather than subject specific allows students to no longer label themselves as a single type of thinker. It pushes students to see all intelligences as valuable in all spaces, rather than hierarchical. And once students come to understand the classroom as a space in which all intelligences are not only valued, but connected, schooling develops an authenticity not present before. Because when, in the world outside of the classroom, are we ever told to shut off one way of thinking to access another?

The reason I hold up authenticity as the transformative key is because the moment schools become spaces connected to real-world phenomena outside of the classroom, two incredible things occur: 1) Students become meaningfully engaged as they realise that learning in the classroom directly connects to their lives and worlds. 2) We move away from a banking system of education in which students come to believe they are empty vessels waiting to be filled; rather, students are seen and see themselves as citizens of the world. This renders the deficit theory obsolete as each student’s experience is honoured, each lens deemed necessary and each identity celebrated.

Finland has become a revolutionist in the educational sphere; yet, I often hear the same criticism, “Finland is a homogenous country; what they do there could never work in a country as heterogeneous as the US.” I believe it is true that no country can replicate another’s educational system and expect it to work in an entirely different context; but while we cannot copy and paste the Finnish system into the US framework, we can surely benefit from understanding the paradigm shifts Finland is so courageously leading and redesign them for our contexts.

Thus, rather than the US’s heterogeneity being a stumbling block to phenomenon-based learning, it oppositely has the potential to become a catalyst for culturally and linguistically responsive teaching that has yet to be realised.

Published on 29.06.2017