Educational System Flaws and the Finnish Silent Revolution

by Ciro Borriello

Stop for a second and try to remember your time at school. You will soon recognize that the most precious part of your memories lies in the human relationships with your classmates and teachers. Notions and raw information are easily left behind.

Now, think of the new generations of digital natives, living in a world of exponential change, shaped daily by an educational system rooted into the past. They grow with no guidance and are constantly underprepared for future challenges.

Education is always one step behind technology and this represents a dangerous gap in our modern societies.

Tests and standardized competition

Nowadays, the educational system promotes competition and rewards merit in one single direction: academic excellence. To store information and respond to questionnaires. To attend nation-wide standardized tests and compete with your peers. Often, creativity and individualism are confined to “extra” activities. Failure, indented as an outcome of experimentation, is stigmatized.

Thus, we worry about robots and artificial intelligence replacing us and stealing our jobs. Clearly, if we persist in competing on the same battle ground – that is information storing and processing, and standardization – we are doomed to lose.

Shift to causation

The old educational model (with some fine exceptions), focuses on the WHATs, and verifies the learning effectiveness based on the quantity and quality of information digested. This approach is rapidly losing touch with the reality, as today we live in close contact with the widest encyclopaedic knowledge that any human being has ever owned: the Internet. From paper volumes we moved to personal computers, then to smartphone, and soon we might be able to access the information flow directly, by means of mind-web interface devices, ready to retrieve any detail in a blink of an eye. Our desire to know any fact or detail will be enough to… well, to actually know it.

Aren’t we the pioneers of the information era after all?

But how do we deal with the overwhelming amount of information that steadily pours into our brain? How do we interpret it? How do we draw valid conclusions? How do we find innovative solutions to old problems or apply old patterns to new pressing issues? How do we discriminate any cause-effect relationship? Causation is not correlation.

It took me less than 5 seconds to retrieve the surprising data showing that the divorce rate in Maine has a striking 99.26% correlation to per-capita consumption of margarine in the US. Or that Miss America age has 87.01% correlation to the number of murders by steam, hot vapours, and hot objects.

These are just simple examples. However, the major world phenomena are complex and intertwined, and require a flexible education that keeps up with the radical changes happening today and tomorrow.

What we apparently miss the most is an explicit focus on the WHYs of the world around us. And we risk missing the basic causation links that support reality before our own eyes.

The Finnish lesson: phenomenon based education

A small country in Northern Europe, with a population slightly above 5 million people, is getting ready to teach the world a big lesson on education. Finland has always been at the forefront of pedagogic innovation and, recently, it has set out to promote a revolutionary approach abandoning the old subject-base system. It is the phenomenon based education.

As described on the website dedicated to the initiative, “Phenomenon based teaching and learning use the natural curiosity of children to learn in a holistic and authentic context. Holistic real-world phenomena provide the motivating starting point for learning, instead of traditional school subjects. The phenomena are studied as holistic entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects. Phenomena are holistic topics like human, European Union, Finland’s Independence, media and technology, water or energy. This enables students also to learn 21st century skills like critical thinking, creativity, innovation, team work and communication.

The dynamics marking this new kind of learning facilitate social interaction and nurture a wide range of different talents. The focus is no longer on the WHATs of history and actuality, but on the comprehension and questioning of holistic themes and problems.

The students are now in charge of creating the content and the context for the learning, and are able to set customized pedagogic objectives.

Each single element in the process is linked to the broader real-world implications on society, technology, national, and local community.

Instead of remembering an endless series of dates of battles, or the day of the week Finland was declared independent, the shift is to HOW that happened, HOW to preserve that achievement, and WHY it is important. Because the independence of one country is not only an historic event, it is a symbol of freedom – it’s a flag up there for future endeavours and efforts.

Do you remember the day and hour of the moon landing? Do you know who was leading the expedition? Do you know about the technical features of the spacecraft? Well you may, or you may not. Just ask Google and now you know. But WHY did J.F. Kennedy push America towards that goal? And WHY was that important at the end of the Sixties? Well you cannot ask Google to provide you instantaneously with this information. Without adequate education, you will get lost in the myriad of different explanations and contradictory sources. You cannot oppose any educational filter, and maybe you will end up believing that Americans did not even land on the moon after all.

Educational atomization

The phenomenon based approach allows for creating new learning processes and educational models, which are heavily intertwined with the context that generates them. For example, the same theme or phenomenon taught in one school in Spain could produce extremely different results compared to what would happen in Finland.

And this is the key.

Decentralization and differentiation of human knowledge and education can produce an enhanced variety of talents and solutions, which would ultimately represent our last outpost against artificial intelligence and massive automation.

“There is not one way of determining intellect because we are all unique in our own way. That’s the beauty of duality; our differences are our strengths, and we shouldn’t have to suppress them and conform to society. The public education system should embrace this and teachers should educate their students from the heart and in their own unique way!”

Extreme decentralisation and individualisation, the cultivation of local practices, the promotion of creativity and entrepreneurship, these are all essential to grow a renewed spirit that gives purpose to the future of human beings.

Individualized evaluation

Now, if we change the whole educational approach, we need to re-think the evaluation process as well. If what I call educational atomization occurs, the standard evaluation against a set of objectives defined at national level becomes pointless. Yet if we push at the extreme the concept of individualized education, we need to adapt evaluation accordingly.

New criteria shall come into play or gain dominance: team building and coordination, leadership, technological integration, cognitive flexibility, complex problem solving, ecological and environmental awareness. Innovation (even if it leads to multiple failures) shall be encouraged.

Peer competition will lose ground and will be replaced by self-competition, where we compete against ourselves and our own individual objectives, and problem-competition, where we compete against a shared issue and fight for a different solution.

Deep down, our ultimate purpose should be that education leads us to become a better person than the one we were yesterday, and to make the world a better place than the one we inherited.

About the author

Ciro Borriello holds an aerospace engineering MSc at the Politecnico of Torino and an MBA at the University of Cambridge. Previously R&D and Innovation Project Manager at Airbus, now Space Programme Management officer and Risk Manager at EUMETSAT, futurist author and space entrepreneur.

Further learning

Do Schools Kill Creativity? [Ted Talk] by Ken Robinson

Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson

How to create the school of the future – The revolutionary thinking and design from Finland [free PDF eBook] by Pasi Mattila and Pasi Silander


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