Sunday, March 22, 2015

On Teaching Topics Instead of Subjects

Finland's got one of the best education systems in the world, but it doesn't follow that every idea they have is necessarily and entirely a good idea.  This newest one seems to be forced on them rather than born out of teacher innovation.

Their newest idea is to get rid of subjects and to teach by topics instead.  So instead of history class, you'd have a class on the European Union that incorporates history, geography, economics, and language. Their goal is "to prepare people for working life...to make the changes to education necessary for industry and modern society." Students in vocational streams will take courses geared towards their vocation, like "cafeteria services" which incorporates math, language, and communication skills. This is a means of further streaming students based on their abilities and interests.

At the vocational end, that could be very useful for any students who have a pretty clear vision of their future. If they can spend time immersed in a few different careers for the last few years of school, then they can come out well prepared for the job market. Too bad we used to do that but stopped in favour of integration. We had an entire vocational school fully equipped and geared towards learning specific occupations, but we closed it over ten years ago in the wake of the destreaming song and dance.  

But I'm really curious what their course offerings will look like for the more academic stream. So far it sounds like they'll just try this approach for part of each year, but what would happen if it were stretched out to be the primary means of delivery? What would the students get to choose each year if not math, science, English, history...?  Is "The European Union" one course taught all year in great depth, or just a topic within a broader course? Where does differentiating equations fit in? And in applying for university, how will they know if you've gotten enough math to get into a math program?  Entrance exams would work, and I could get behind that.

The approach is interesting in that teachers who adopt the new system get their pay "topped-up." And once they start, they don't want to go back. Does that speak for the benefits of the new approach, or have they just gotten used to the money?

One concern, however, having taught grade 10 careers, is that many students don't have a clue what they want to do in life. For many, having general skills in many areas is more beneficial than being more focused towards specific topics. I always caution them not to close any doors. They might hate math now, but if they stop taking it, they'll cut off many fields that they might find they love later on.

My bigger concern is around specialization. As students move up in the grades, it's imperative that they have teachers who are specialists in their area. The article suggests teachers will work together to co-teach classes, and I'll be interested to see how that ends up running. I taught in a program that aimed for some of the same goals, and suddenly I was teaching academic English (I fear) horribly. I haven't the background nor a passion for the subject. The following year, at my insistence, I started co-teaching with an English teacher, and we ended up dividing the class into periods, as if they had two separate subjects anyway, because it was easier for us and clearer for the kids. Neither teachers nor students found benefits in mixing civics and English, which created the ridiculous restriction of limiting novels studied to those with a political focus.

And it's not to say subject teaching has hard walls around it currently. When I teach philosophy, I bring in history and science and English to augment the content. And in social sciences, I often get into economics and statistics. That happens pretty naturally. I can't imagine any teacher preventing that from happening: "Stop calculating your percentage grade during a history course. That's for math class. We're just doing history here!" How is it possible to teach history without getting into geography a bit?

If, however, the current curriculum were looser, then we could get much more in-depth into topics within each subject. I sometimes have students very interested in one idea, but we have to move on to cover all the necessary essential learnings. I used to let the students lead the show and often didn't get to the final unit of study, so I just took it off the exam. That's not possible anymore.

I found the link to this article on a friend's facebook page and expressed my concerns in a comment thread there, and I was met with two objections: that now education can be more progressive and innovative, and that this new system will teach students how to think instead of what to think.

I'm not clear how making teachers shove subjects together under topics will necessarily lead to student innovation or critical thinking. It could lead to that, but it depends on how openly the topics are presented. And what both of those comments suggest is that students aren't challenged to be innovative or to think in our current system that divides content by subject. How does teaching by subject tell students what to think beyond basic information like WWI started in 1914 or y=mx+b? I don't know about other subjects, but, in a history department, we're all about critical thinking: always questioning interpretations and perspectives.

Finally, I'm concerned that Finland is changing its excellent system for the sake of change. New isn't always better. Sometimes it's good to keep in mind the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

ETA Dennis Hayes writes that Finland's throwing away everything that made its schools best in the world.

ETA Greg Ashman agrees.

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