Finland's classrooms are very different from America's -- far more permissive, with less of an emphasis on academics. There are no standardized tests until high school, and children get 15 minutes of recess in between lessons -- more than an hour of recess a day. "Play is important," one Finnish teacher told the Smithsonian magazine. "We value play."
Yet Finnish kids always get good grades on comparisons of student achievement between countries. Their average scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, a test that's given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries, are among the highest in the developed world. As a result, critics of education reform in the United States often cite the Finnish example. It's a stark contrast to America's reliance on using test scores in public school teacher evaluations, or the strict, "no-excuses" model of discipline in charter schools that many have touted as improving academic results.
Now, Finnish schools are embracing an even more radical approach to teaching. One major initiative is to encourage teaching by topic instead of by subject. According to The Independent, instead of teaching geography and foreign language classes separately, teachers will ask kids to name countries on a map in a foreign language. Instead of separate lessons on history and economics, they'll talk about the European Union.
In the new system, Finnish schools must give each student at least one unit of instruction combining two or more subjects per year. Teachers are supposed to collaborate with students in planning the interdisciplinary courses.
"We think it's awfully important that when students are involved in the planning process, the topics or phenomena they choose must be interesting to them, so that they are inspired," said Irmeli Halinen, head of curriculum development at the Finnish National Board of Education. "All our work is based on trust, and this trust must also be expressed in schools toward students."
The new approach would be dramatically different for today's students and teachers, but in fact the idea of combining subjects is at least a century old and dates to the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, "who believed that school should be connected to real life," said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.
"When you teach subjects separate from one another -- you teach science, you teach math, you teach reading -- that means that there's a divorce between these contents, when in real life, they're not," Cuban added. "When you're cultivating a garden, you've got to know a lot about botany, insects, fertilizer, math, and a whole bunch of other things."
As Finnish educators describe their goals, the program sounds similar to the approaches that U.S. teachers adopted briefly during Dewey's lifetime -- before World War II -- and again four decades ago, during the years of "open classrooms."
Teachers abandoned the technique for a few reasons, Cuban said. The interdisciplinary approach didn't fit well with public schools' general format, in which students are expected to learn a certain amount of material before moving on to the next grade. Not only that, but the system demanded more of teachers, who had to know multiple subjects in depth and be able to develop assignments based on individual students' strengths and interests.
These are goals that every teacher aspires to, of course, but Finnish teachers are arguably better prepared to achieve them. Finns must meet rigorous requirements in order to become teachers, as Krista Kiuru, the education minister, explained last year. "Teachers have a lot of autonomy," she told The Atlantic. "They are highly educated--they all have master’s degrees, and becoming a teacher is highly competitive."
There are other important differences between the two countries. Only 9 percent of Finnish children live in poverty, compared to nearly a third of American kids, according to the United Nations. With so many children under so much stress, it's hardly worth comparing pedagogies between the two countries, said Martin Carnoy, an education economist at Stanford.
"It's a different ball game," he said.
It's true that students in the lower Finnish socioeconomic classes do better than their disadvantaged peers in the United States, but Carnoy noted that test scores have been declining in Finland for this group, while poor U.S. students have made rapid gains. And educators don't need to look abroad to find successful schools: students in Massachusetts are doing nearly as well as Finnish kids in math and slightly better in reading. (That's before accounting for socioeconomic differences.)
That doesn't mean that the idea of interdisciplinary lessons has no value for teachers here. Indeed, proponents of the Common Core have argued that the standards encourage a more inclusive approach to reading.
The goal is for students to practice reading in all of their subjects, said Kathleen Porter-Magee, the superintendent of a half-dozen Catholic elementary schools in New York City. Still, she doesn't like the idea of eliminating the subject of reading entirely.
"Literature should have its rightful place alongside the content courses, like science and history and the arts," said Porter-Magee, who is also a fellow at the Fordham Institute, a think tank for educational research.
The sections of the Common Core on reading have proven controversial, as many English teachers feel they're being asked to eliminate literature in favor of informational material in various subjects. Supporters of the standards say that wasn't the intention, and that teachers in other subjects should be making those assignments.