Conceptually influential

Today Finland, tomorrow . . . .

Recent changes in the Finnish national curriculum has prompted  Isabel Du Toit to reflect on the increasingly influential ideas of concept-based learning and curriculum design.

Scrapping subjects?

This education headline in The Independent, a well-respected mainstream newspaper in the UK caused quite a stir recently :

Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with ‘topics’ as country reforms its education system

It was quickly followed by other newspapers attempting to clarify the reforms; for example, in the Washington Post we read

No, Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Here’s what’s really happening.

What’s going on?

“Scrapping subjects in Finland” may have been the headline, but as so often happens with headlines, it is not the whole story. Nevertheless, there is an interesting shift in educational thinking towards making learning more related to real life and more meaningful for students. Finland, for example, wants students to develop ‘projects’ that link learning in the different subjects, but also embrace ‘real world’ learning and to help students with meaning-making.

Finland is not alone. Earlier, in 2016, Singapore’s Education Minister, Ng Chee Meng, said “Let’s help our children make good use of their time to branch out to explore other interests and passions and to pursue what they want to do in life.

“Let’s help them make good choices about their educational and career pathways based on their aptitudes and aspirations. Let’s help them be ready for the future.”

Meaning-making is especially crucial to students’ learning in early adolescence. Neuroscientific researchers, like Jay Giedd and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, have found that the brain specialises during adolescence, pruning connections between brain cells like you would prune a rose bush. Any new learning that does not have meaning for the adolescent risks the pruning scissors.

Why do some governments think change is needed?

Traditionally, curriculum design is driven by what Lynn Erikson (Transitioning to Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction, 2015) calls the ‘two dimensional’ model, well known for its focus on facts and skills. It assumes deeper conceptual understanding will automatically develop, creating ‘inch-deep, mile wide’ learning. This is especially frustrating for adolescents trying to make meaning of learning; trying to figure out, ‘Why should I learn this?’

The ‘Backward Design’ model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design, also reasoned that curriculum should be specifically structured to help students develop conceptual understanding. They identified two main types of understanding, topical understanding – similar to Erikson’s ‘micro concepts,’ and overarching understanding – similar to Erickson’s ‘macro concepts’. Overarching understanding involves big ideas, beyond the particulars of a topic toward more transferable knowledge, whilst topical understanding identifies particular understandings we wish to cultivate about a specific topic.

Developing conceptual understanding has its own challenges. Wiggins and McTighe warn: “While teaching for understanding is a vital aim of schooling it is only one of many. We are thus not suggesting here that all teaching be geared always towards deep and sophisticated understanding. Clearly, there are circumstances when this depth is neither feasible nor desirable.”

The paradox

This is the paradox we are all grappling with as curriculum designers and teachers. How do we make sure that the students develop the essential knowledge, skills and understandings needed in the subject disciplines, but at the same time ensure they build meaningful conceptual understanding, both topical and overarching? And in the case of the adolescent, how do we keep them interested in or curious about what they are learning?

Interdisciplinary projects – the answer?

As explained in The Washington Post, Finland is adding interdisciplinary units or projects to the subject learning that already takes place, to better prepare students for the world they will face once they leave school. This approach is very similar what is also known as ‘concept based’ teaching and learning as defined by Lynn Erikson, and of course, the approach of Wiggins and McTighe.

Many curriculum writers have tried to create authentic interdisciplinary units, but the challenge remains that tracking progress in specific subject disciplines is very challenging if all subject learning is organised in this way. Teachers, under pressure to ensure students are prepared for external exams that follow the middle years, often undervalue these kind of projects as one-off learning opportunities outside the ‘real curriculum’.

Part of the answer?

Erikson warns that, “crafting macro-ideas will address breadth; but will fail to provide disciplinary depth of understanding. To ensure conceptual depth, most of the unit generalisations should be written to represent more micro ideas.”

In my opinion, students benefit most if they are taught through a concept-based and international curriculum. It should be one that helps them make meaning of their learning, without sacrificing essential subject discipline learning, keeps them interested and gives them the qualities and tools to be globally mobile. Finally, we must ensure that we are properly preparing students for the next stage of their education, whatever that might be.


Isabel Du Toit, is Head of the International Middle Years Curriculum from Fieldwork Education.

For more about their work see:





Feature Image: Pixabay – Oulu Lighthouse, Finland

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