It’s that time of year. Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. Love is in the air, so to speak. Naturally, I am going to co-opt this energy for a moment and talk about education and learning.

In its latest installment, HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, brought up the topic of love and learning during the show’s “New Rule” segment. Bill Maher told the story of his first love: learning (watch here). Of learning, Maher says:

I did fall in love with books, and ideas, and knowledge. There is no doubt that it is a truly kind of love affair when you go off to a place where you have intellectual epiphanies because learning is so revered, and the celebrities are the smartest people… I got my mind blown on a regular basis.”

His profession begs the question: “How do we as educators cultivate this love of learning?” This monologue came at a time when I was already mulling over articles about Finnish education reform and my own ideas. I think part of the answer lies in the reforms they are undertaking. Their updated National Curriculum Framework, their Common Core, emphasizes multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning are as well as traditional topics (Strauss 2015, and Abrams 2017).

One of my ongoing frustrations with public education is what I call the “departmentalization of knowledge.” That is, the teaching of topics in isolation (for the most part). I think this method, to a certain extent, dampens excitement for learning and encourages people to sort themselves into categories. People say, “I am more of an English person” or “I have a math brain,” or “I was never good at math.” This departmentalization at the institutional level and compartmentalization at the individual level sets out artificial limits on what people believe they are capable of. I believe that this cycle needs to be broken.

Stauss, of the Washington Post, covered the reforms earlier in their development. She includes an explanation of the changes from a leading Finish educator and scholar, Paul Sahlberg. Sahlberg’s statement explains the changes:

“What will change in 2016 [and beyond] is that all basic schools for 7- to 16-year-olds must have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, phenomenon-based teaching and learning in their curricula. The length of this period is to be decided by schools themselves.” (Strauss 2015).

Because Finland’s education system is decentralized and leaves it up to districts to implement the National Curriculum Framework as they see fit. Different districts can choose different length periods for such inter-disciplinary endeavors. Many schools, like those in Helsinki, have adopted the approach with enthusiasm. The capital’s school system requires two annual periods that must include all subjects and all schools.

You say, “Okay, that’s all well and good for Finland, but what about elsewhere? It’s just not practical here.” Abram’s piece takes exception to that statement. Working within a Britain’s rigid curriculum structure and the United State’s Common Core, a number of schools have many similarities in structure to those in Helsinki. The article focuses on the XP school in Doncaster, South Yorkshire and mentions a similar school in San Diego, California, High Tech High. Both schools, one on each side of the pond, implement expeditionary learning models that emphasize project-based learning that connects learning to the wider world. Charter, magnet and even some public schools in the United States are shifting to this approach.

Realistically, do I think the inter-disciplinary approach, which flies in the face of departmentalization, can take hold in school’s across the America? My short answer is, no, not immediately. I do, however, think we have a lot to learn from Finland.

Co-teaching models would be a great way for public schools to experiment with the idea. The possibilities are exciting for me as a teacher, imagine it as a student. You learn math and its application. Take a moment, imagine these co-taught classes that could run for double blocks:

  • Algebra One/Biology (Topics like probability and Punnett squares could be taught in unison, lines of best fit and correlation with biology labs)
  • Statistics/Civics (Topics like confidence intervals and hypothesis testing could be taught along side polling and current events)
  • Algebra 2/Physics (Topics like quadratic/polynomial functions and projectile motion)
  • English/US History (Study literature from each historical period and rhetoric’s effect)

Now, that sounds more like it to me. A school designed for the love for learning. A school designed for minds to be blown. A school designed for enterprising scholars. A school that is not designed to departmentalize learners and compartmentalize learners.

Abrams (2017) “‘We’re not hippies, we’re punks.’ School that has projects, not subjects, on the timetable.” The Guardian.

Maher (2017) Real Time with Bill Maher. Video clip. Produced by HBO.

Strauss (2015). “No, Finland isn’t ditching traditional school subjects. Here’s what’s really happening.” The Washington Post.


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