The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enhancing professionalism in education since 1965

The Finnish line

We learn about the place of Learning for Sustainability within the recently reformed Finnish curriculum

 Our planet’s multiple ecological predicaments and evolving challenges pose complex sustainability questions. Yet a relatively simple lesson from near neighbours in Finland proves early adoption of a broader, more contemporary curriculum in first and second stage education may offer at least some long-term answers.

Defining a fresh approach, Learning for Sustainability (LfS) is a concept with which Scottish teachers have only comparatively recently become familiar. According to the Finns and convinced Scottish educationalists, the intended outcomes of LfS can benefit individual students across a range of school learning and future life endeavours, as well as society at large.

A commitment to enrich and interrelate subject disciplines with the sustainability topic is implicit; aiming to make minds more inquiring, creating better informed attitudes. Learning to learn, some would say.

Irmeli Halinen is Head of National Curriculum Development with the Finnish National Board of Education. She recently addressed a gathering of academics and other interested parties at the University of Edinburgh on Finland’s lead in LfS and its brand of applying LfS. When outlining how Finland reformed its curriculum to offer a quality education with sustainability knowledge and understanding interwoven across studies, she first underlines a significant foundation block.

We believe cultural trust and collaboration in education is the basis of sustainable development

“Finland is a country where practitioners, researchers and policy makers collaborate intensively, all the time, in order to improve the system,” she insists. “We make progress, there is a continuous dialogue.
“We don’t talk about accountability – we don’t have a word for that – but we talk about autonomy and responsibility. Teachers’ professionalism and pedagogical autonomy is one of the keys to the success of teachers. Inclusiveness in learning is another.

“Think from the point of view of the learner and what is happening in the learning process. When we talk about learning we do not talk only about academic learning - but the all round development of children and their sustainable wellbeing. For their lifelong learning – and life-wide learning.”

“In our curriculum reform we believe that this cultural trust and collaboration in education is the basis for sustainable development. Instead of controlling systems there is this collaborative mindset.” For “controlling systems” read standardised testing and school inspections, neither of which are a feature of Finland’s basic general education. Consequently there are no league tables, no competition between schools based on what some see as a narrow concentration on examination attainment.

“We have evaluation and assessment systems but we use them as a feedback for improvement,” she explains.

SITRA (the Finnish Innovation Fund) states that sustainable wellbeing is the pursuit of a good life “within the Earth’s carrying capacity”. All core aspects are included – economic, social, cultural and ecological. These are embedded in education. “That’s what our curriculum reform is about,” says Halinen.

It breaks down into four fundaments:

  1. The impact of a changing world on students’ living environment.
  2. Changing the concepts of learning and competence as a consequence.
  3. The role of pupils, not just as recipients of education, in a fit-for-purpose modern learning environment.
  4.  As a consequence of the first three, the changing role of teachers – and teaching itself.

How to combine academic learning with broader aspects of environment, embracing an outdoor curriculum, while improving student engagement might sum-up those bullets in the Scottish context. The ethos is embedded in Scottish Government future education policy for all learners.

Professor Peter Higgins at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education is Chair of the Scottish Government National Implementation Group on LfS - integrating education for sustainable development, global citizenship and outdoor education.

“Research shows that if you engage people in broader environmental sensitisation by spending time in nature, by thinking about how the natural world works, you actually get the ideas for education for sustainable development and global citizenship more readily,” he remarks. “People develop a stronger action focus.”

So where and how does this fit in the available-to-all current curriculum? “That’s the next stage,” Higgins assures. He hesitates to offer a precise date but it is clear this is a priority work in progress.

“If you think about what happens at Advanced Higher or Higher level, that’s one kind of curriculum that’s subject oriented. If you go down a bit to the Nationals, these are broader and there are elements within the Nationals where you can pick-up on these (LfS) themes through the geosciences (and) across other areas. LfS could be built into several subject areas, English, History, etc.

“In broad general education, primary, the thematic approaches expected are quite amenable for LfS being integrated - that’s where the bulk of what’s being done at the moment is focused.

“With that broader education development it is much easier to take in issues like, for example, how we investigate hurricanes in America. You can take one subject like that and it can be built into the broad thematic approaches which are in Curriculum for Excellence.”

Underscoring practical improvements, and even employability advantages, Higgins concludes: “Just think about the way anybody’s job involves a range of joined-up ideas. The difficulty with the current school system is that it doesn’t join-up those ideas well enough after the general education phase. We need to find ways of building that into the fabric of our system.” 

Teaching Scotland

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Editor contact: Evelyn Wilkins

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