Tag Archives: curriculum reform

Clarifying the Latest “Reforms” from Finland

Although recent reports in Finland have made a number of specific recommendations for improving student learning, the focus outside Finland has centered on Finland’s interest in promoting more of a focus in schools on interdisciplinary topics.   Following an initial report from the Independent that the school subjects would be “scrapped” around the country, Pasi Sahlberg explained in The Conversation “Finnish schools will continue to teach mathematics, history, arts, music and other subjects in the future.” But he also outlined aspects of the new Core Curriculum and the extent of local authority that will affect how an interest in promoting more interdisciplinary approaches is playing out in Finland.

The Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) has also responded to the reports and explained some of the changes in the new core curriculum that might have led to the misunderstandings:

“In order to meet the challenges of the future, the focus (in the core curriculum) is on transversal (generic) competences and work across school    subjects. Collaborative classroom practices, where pupils may work with several teachers simultaneously during periods of phenomenon-based project studies are emphasised.

The pupils should participate each year in at least one such multidisciplinary learning module. These modules are designed and implemented locally. The core curriculum also states that the pupils should be involved in the planning.”

Notably, a more radical version requiring much more of a focus on grouping subjects together though more generic competences was proposed earlier in the curriculum renewal process. However, that proposal was stalled by political debates, particularly objections by one of the six political parties that were involved in the coalition government at the time.

Irmeli Hallinen, Head of Curriculum Development at the FNBE and a key participant in the most recent renewal of the Finnish Core Curriculum, provides further clarity on the new emphases in latest curriculum renewal in a blog post (What’s going on in Finland – Currriculum Reform 2016). As she puts it:

“Developing schools as learning communities, and emphasizing the joy of learning and a collaborative atmosphere, as well as promoting student    autonomy in studying and in school life – these are some of our key aims in the reform. In order to meet the challenges of the future, there will be much focus on transversal (generic) competences and work across school subjects.”

Hallinen goes on to explain that the curriculum framework identifies learning goals in seven different competence areas, with local authorities able to consider their own ways of reaching those goals. Hallinen points out that the emphasis on the competences will be reflected in assessments as well:

“The competences will also be assessed as a part of subject assessment. In this way every school subject enhances the development of all seven         competence areas. This is a new way of combining competence-based and subject-based teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the traditional school            subjects will live on, though with less distinct borderlines and with more collaboration in practice between them.”

Thomas Hatch

Curriculum reform in Australia

In 2010, Australia established its first national curriculum: the Australian Curriculum. The Australian Curriculum has defined content and achievement standards for the entire country. After a staged process of development, it is now being implemented. Recently, this curriculum was reviewed for the first time by the Australian federal government. The review raised a number of concerns that have led federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne to announce he will work with advisors to make sure it is serving the needs of Australian students. Pyne has stated, however, that any changes to be made as a result of the review won’t be implemented until at least 2016, due to the difficulty of earning the support of states and territories.

To learn more about this curriculum reform and the context of reform in Australia, I spoke with Dr. Glenn Savage of the University of Melbourne. Dr. Savage, with Kate O’Connor, recently published an article in the Journal of Education Policy titled “National agendas in global times: curriculum reforms in Australia and the USA since the 1980s.” From his perspective, there may be similar driving forces for reform in the US and Australia, but the reforms themselves have been quite different.

Savage and O’Connor (2014) wanted to understand how curriculum reform in Australia and the US were playing out, given that both countries have federal systems and histories of state and local control over education. Their research identified three key historical phases in the development of curriculum, which are shared by both nations. The first is the late 1980s, when both countries developed national education goals for the first time. They see this phase as a shift towards thinking in national terms, but also as a precursor to the standards movement of the 1990s and the push towards nationalizing aspects of the curriculum. The second was in the 1990s, when both countries attempted to create national curriculums or frameworks. In both countries those efforts failed when the realities of actually having to put the reforms into practice came along. For example, in both countries there was strong pushback against the idea of moving towards a national approach. The third phase was when each country rejuvenated their national reform efforts as a result of global economic and social pressures in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Influences included the global PISA testing program, which put the performance of each country in a global perspective and helped put standards-based national reforms back on the agenda. 

While there have been common historical driving forces in both countries, Savage and O’Connor (2014) see current reforms as very distinct in scope and form. In the US, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are voluntary national standards that focus on the areas of literacy and numeracy, whereas in Australia the national curriculum is more extensive and discipline-based. Savage and O’Connor (2014) argue that the distinctive nature of reform in each country can be explained to a large extent by four key differences in the ‘national policy space’ of each nation: 1) contrasting system diversity and complexity; 2) different roles and expectations of federal governments; 3) different forms of state-to-state intergovernmental cooperation; and 4) the contrasting involvement of non-government policy actors. The authors argue that the distinctive features of each system mean that each country provides different “conditions of possibility for reform” (Savage & O’Connor, 2014, p. 18). Their key argument is that while global flows of policy ideas and practices are powerful, these influences manifest differently in different national contexts. As such, reforms must be thought of as both national and global

Looking ahead, Savage identifies several issues that Australia will need to work through in relation to the curriculum.

First is the fall-out from the recent review of the curriculum. It is the first review of the curriculum and it has been heavily politicized. There are ideological arguments around it and it has raised questions about what a contemporary curriculum should look like. There is the possibility that the review could lead to the reshaping of certain elements of the Australian Curriculum.

Second is an ongoing debate about federalism and the role of state and tertiary governments in education. A Reform of the Federation White Paper, which was developed by a taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was released in late October. The goal is to work out the appropriate division of responsibility between states and government. In contrast to the US, national intergovernmental organizations have long been essential to the Australian reform process and have the capability of bringing all of the states together with the federal government to consider a number of education-related issues.

Another issue Savage identified is that even though Australia now has a national curriculum, there are differences in how states interpret and enact the standards. Despite a common national framework, state-based inflections emerge. While this can be positive, in that it allows for tailoring to state-based needs and issues, it can also present problems of consistency, which is partly what the national curriculum set out to tackle in the first place. In one example, the state of Victoria has adopted a hybrid curriculum called “AusVELS” that takes some from the national Australian Curriculum, and some from the prior Victorian Essential Learning Standards.

Savage also said that since federation in 1901, there have been debates around the role of academic knowledge versus vocational knowledge and skills. From the early 1900s, for example, many Australian states tracked students into either high schools (academically-focused) or technical schools (vocationally-focused). In 1980s, most states eliminated tech schools and established a common, unified school system that aimed to provide all students with the opportunity to go to university. While this effort was intended to be a more inclusive model, it has also led to an increase in high school drop out rates. In order to address this, the pendulum has swung back and there are now proposals at Federal and State levels to return to a more vocational curriculum.

Finally, Savage said there are now debates about what a curriculum should look like for the future. Some argue that the curriculum should prioritize disciplinary knowledge, while others argue more for 21st century skills and competencies so that students are ready to participate in global workforce. There are huge tensions around this issue as many feel the skills focus is too short-sighted and too focused on what students should be able to do, rather than what they should know.

As Savage explained, the issues that Australia is grappling with at the moment are also educational issues that many countries across the globe are dealing with, illustrating the point that educational policies need to be recognized as simultaneously national and global in nature.

Deirdre Faughey

Teacher selection, turnover, and curriculum reform in Finland

This week in Helsinki we met with Auli Toom and Kirsi Pyhältö (members of the Faculty of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Helsinki), and several PhD students from their research group including Lauri Heikonen, Henrika Häikiö, Ulla Karvonen, Emmi Saariaho, and Sanna-Mari Salonen. They shared some of their research and perspectives on the education system here, and our discussions highlighted several things:

School of Education, University of Helsinki

School of Education, University of Helsinki

First, while we know that teacher candidates in Finland come from the top quartile of students, those who go to University to study to become teachers are also often somewhat older than other University students. In fact, some of the teacher education applicants are just completing their secondary education, but some applicants have already graduated and have taken jobs as substitute teachers or are working in other fields and are career-changers from other professions. Furthermore, the annual selection process to become a primary teacher is so challenging, applicants often fail on their first try, and some have to apply several times. The process includes an interview as well as an entry exam called the VAKAVA. The VAKAVA is offered once a year in the spring and requires applicants to read a set of research articles and then respond to a series of related multiple choice questions.

Second, although teaching is a highly-regarded profession, there is teacher turnover in Finland. Precise figures are hard to come by, but turnover rates for teachers within their first five years could be as high as 20% across the country, and even higher in the area around Helsinki. Those we talked to suggested that reasons for leaving teaching are similar to those in the United States including seeking a higher salary; opting for a career with more possibilities for advancement (the primary advancement opportunity for teachers in Finland is to become a school leader); as well as stress and burnout.

Third, Finland is engaged in a major core curriculum reform, but that effort is perhaps more accurately characterized as “curriculum renewal” as it is part of a regular cycle of revision that takes place every ten years. Furthermore, the reform of the core curriculum represents a collaborative project that engages numerous people and organizations from all parts of the education system including teachers, school leaders, policymakers, educational publishers, parents, students and others. (As we mentioned in our last post, our 9 year-old’s teacher in the practice school is a member of one of the curriculum reform committees and we hope to talk to her next week about her role in the process). Furthermore, the core curriculum provides guidelines and principles that serve as the basis for curricula created at the municipal level by teachers, school leaders, and administrators working together. Schools and teachers then have the autonomy to adapt the curriculum in their classrooms. In other words, whether PISA scores go up or down (or stay the same), everyone knows that the core curriculum will change over time and educators are expected to revise and adapt their curricula to keep them current and forward-looking.

Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness