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The Global Search for Education: Meet the Minister – From Finland – Sanni Grahn-Laasonen

SANNI Grahn-Laasonen says her country’s vision for education is a nation that is “continuously learning;” Finland wants an education system that gives everyone “strong, transferable skills, and also allows everyone to return to education when they need it.” In the workplace, this requires a culture that “allows for continuous professional development,” and she believes it is the government’s job “to encourage people to learn.”

As Minister, she is in charge of national education policy and leads all improvement efforts including national legislation, guidelines and strategies. Decision making in the Finnish system, she says, is characterized by a “broad consensus rather than dictating things from above.” While the government determines how much time is spent on individual subjects, the National Core Curriculum (developed by the Finnish National Board of Education in close cooperation with all stakeholders in education, especially teachers) sets subject-specific guidelines. The bottom line, she notes, is that it’s up to “teachers to determine what activities take place in classrooms. Finland is renowned for teacher autonomy. They are the ones that are doing the valuable work; we must value and respect their opinions.”

We welcome Minister of Education and Culture, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, to The Global Search for Education.

Minister, what are the key initiatives of the education ministry at present?

Finland is a small nation, which is why our success and prosperity must be based on knowledge, learning and education. We live in a world where everything is changing at an ever faster pace. I believe that learning to learn, being able to acquire new skills, and thinking critically and creatively are some of the key factors for the education of tomorrow. Equal opportunity for everyone is an important value for us Finns.

Finnish people want consistent, long-term policy-making. There is a broad commitment to a vision of a knowledge-based society. This vision is widely shared and accepted by the employers and labor organizations, as well as the industry and their interest groups. We recognize the need for continuous improvement of learning environments and practices that take place at the local level. Professional, highly-trained and highly respected teachers are a key factor in our success: teachers have pedagogical autonomy so they decide by themselves which teaching methods and materials they use.

Our current big reform deals with renewing our comprehensive education. Key words are the new National Core Curriculum, a new way of thinking – student-centered, phenomenon-based learning that makes use of digital learning environments, and a new culture of collaboration.

A second initiative is a total reorganization of vocational education and training. We aim to move from a system that measures time spent studying to a system that measures the skills acquired. Vocational education will increasingly move to work places; this deepens the collaboration between schools and local businesses.

We are also working on facilitating the transitions from secondary education to higher education, and from higher education to working life. Other key projects include bringing more art and culture to school days as extra-curricular activities, and providing school kids with one hour of physical exercise in its various forms every day. We call this ‘Schools on the Move’. The idea is to integrate physical activities in the teaching of all subjects, not just specific sports classes.

We are underlining the need for pedagogically trained teachers in ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care), particularly now that we have, for the first time, a National Core Curriculum for ECEC.

Our vision for Finland is a country that is continuously learning. We need an education system that gives everyone strong, transferable skills, and also allows everyone to return to education when they need it. In workplaces, we need a culture that allows for continuous professional development as individuals and as organisations. We feel that it is the government’s job to encourage people to learn.

What kind of input do educators on the ground (teachers/principals) have in policy making? What kind of input do you think they should have?

Decision-making at school level is based on a collaborative approach where, by law, also the students must have a voice in the process. The leadership team and teacher teams take part in decision-making in matters concerning educational and practical issues in schools.

At the local level, teachers and principals are a vital part of the planning process, including the crafting of the local adaptation of the National Core Curriculum. Technically, final decisions are made at the local political level. However, generally speaking, politicians don’t meddle with school activities and the local curriculum.

At the national level, teachers and principals take part in different working groups. One such group is responsible for preparing the National Core Curriculum. The Teachers’ Union is also an important stakeholder, working in collaboration with the government prior to the decision-making on different issues.

What kind of curriculum changes do you believe are essential for students to succeed in both the future labor market and life?

Each and every child must be empowered to find their place as an active member of society. The new National Core Curriculum includes transversal competences, which are embedded in every subject. These competences are thinking and learning to learn, cultural understanding, interaction and self-expression, taking care of oneself and life skills, multi literacy, ICT skills, working life competence, entrepreneurship, participation and involvement in the society and building a sustainable future. These skills are important for young people in their future working life, and consequently, they are part of the new curriculum and integral to our new approach to learning.

Multidisciplinary learning modules are required at least once every year. Students’ own interests are taken into account when planning these modules. The purpose of this integrative instruction is to enable students to see the relationships and interdependencies of the phenomena under study. This helps students link their knowledge and skills in various fields, and working in interaction with others, to learn about meaningful entities and phenomena.

What steps are being taken to update and improve teaching skills and methods to accommodate a rapidly changing world?

Teachers play a crucial role. I mentioned earlier our comprehensive school reform that aims to develop a new way of thinking. How do we intend to realize this reform? By renovating teacher training. I have nominated a Forum on Teacher Training, consisting of representatives from all universities providing teachers, whose task it is to develop new guidelines and contents for the formation of Finnish teachers. The government will then provide grants to teachers so that they have better access to complementary education so that they, too, may upgrade their skills in, for example, using digital technology at school. We aim to have tutor teachers who instruct their colleagues on new pedagogics and the use of new technology. We encourage teachers to collaborate, to form networks and support one another.

A school system is never finished, and teachers are the change makers. The answer to your question lies, I believe, in three steps: First, grasping the need for a fundamental change, then making the right conclusions, and finally putting the conclusions to work. Our current government has realized the need for change. We are now at the stage of getting to the conclusions, as the Teacher Training Forum is finishing the first stage of their work. The next step is starting to implement change, and luckily, we have already set aside the money to do the work. We are going to spend 90 million euros on this, which is a big sum for a country as small as ours that is going through economically tough times.

What initiatives are helping ensure that high school graduates have the skills to enter local universities and succeed in the modern workplace?

While Finnish students already have good subject knowledge skills for further studies, there is room for improvement in generic skills and knowledge of the modern workplace. This is one of the goals in the new National Core Curriculum for General Upper Secondary Education (high school) to be used from 2016. In these guidelines, the cross-curricular themes – which are transversal competences crossing the boundaries of individual subjects – have been updated.

The cross-curricular themes like active citizenship, entrepreneurship, and the world of work provide students with learning experiences that encourage them to take responsibility and to engage in constructive and knowledge-based critical thinking.

The modern workplace also requires skills in sustainable ways of life, safety, understanding different cultures, multi-literacy and technology. The student body has a very important role when it comes to the school culture and the learning community. The law requires decision-makers at the local level to hear the students’ voices prior to making important decisions. This is one way to encourage students to take responsibility, learn to take part in the decision-making process in society, and, in the big picture, to become responsible members of society.

How do you make sure today’s youth grow up more globally competent than previous generations?

Today’s world is deeply interconnected, and information communicated by multiple forms of media, networks, social media and peer relationships shapes the moral compass of children and young people. In education, people of varying backgrounds come together and get to know many different customs, communal practices and beliefs. Learning together across the boundaries of languages, cultures, religions and beliefs creates a setting for genuine interaction and communality.

Global education and sustainable development are integrated both in the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education and the National Core Curriculum for General Upper Secondary Education. They encourage schools to open up to their surroundings.

The curricula are based on the idea that the world is becoming more and more interconnected. The challenges of today’s world are often simultaneously both local and global. Their understanding requires broad competences and authentic learning, both of which are contained within the new curriculum. Comprehensive global challenges require cultural know-how, communication, interaction and cooperation skills. In my opinion, global learning is a question of learning to be at the same time a Finn, a European and a world citizen.

Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

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