The Envy of the Education World Is Ditching Academic Subjects in High Schools

No more math class? Finland's adopting an approach called 'teaching by phenomenon.'

(Photo: Dr. Heinz Linke/Getty Images)

Mar 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Arguably the global education leader, Finland has the results to back it up: Its schoolchildren consistently top global math, science, and reading assessments, with scores that leave American kids in the dust. That’s why U.S. educators and ed policy experts have practically worn a path to the small Scandinavian nation, studying its most innovative techniques.

There's one new advancement that may be too edgy for the Finns, or anyone else: demolishing the walls between individual subjects, such as science and reading, for an integrated approach that groups some academic disciplines and teaches them all at once.

Called "teaching by phenomenon," the technique has already eliminated English literature and physics for some high schoolers in Helsinki. Elsewhere, in the traditional school day, language class might follow history, geography, or economics. But in a teaching by phenomenon class, all three subjects are combined and taught as the topic the European Union.

The approach is intended to show how classical education works in the real world: not as separate subjects but as disciplines that relate to one another. It’s also intended to update education for the digital age—think smartphones that can browse the Internet, function as a calculator, and take photos—as well as eliminate a perennial complaint of students around the world: “Why do I need to know this?”

“What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life,” Pasi Silander, Helsinki’s development manager, told The Independent. “Young people use quite advanced computers. In the past the banks had lots of bank clerks toting up figures [in ledgers], but now that has totally changed.”

Teachers, however, aren’t necessarily excited by the change. As part of the overhaul, they have to collaborate on curricula, lesson plans, and teaching approaches, increasing the pressure.

“There is a certain logical kernel to this,” says Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a public policy think tank. English proficiency, he says, is “a necessary component of learning in every subject. One is not able to master history or science or social studies without a solid foundation there.”

Although the cross-disciplinary approach has been used in the U.S., “I do think you can take it too far,” Casey says, noting that most American teachers are trained in a particular specialty.

”My experience in a New York City high school, in the years I taught there, was when they combined social studies and English and they would call the class humanities,” he says. “What would happen is that whichever was the teacher’s license and whichever the teacher had training in really began to dominate.”

Another concern: whether the interdisciplinary approach would adequately prepare students for college—and college entrance exams in particular.

James Fraser, a researcher and education scholar at New York University, wrote in an email that the U.S. “is rather far from” adopting such advanced reforms. At the same time, he said, “it seems to me that the Advanced Placement Exams that the College Board offers are quite discipline specific.”

Though he can see advantages to the Finns’ approach, “I think the best interdisciplinary work is done after one has a strong discipline-specific base,” Fraser wrote. “Otherwise it is not really interdisciplinary but rather just free floating.”

Casey seems to concur—cross-disciplinary learning can help students link the classroom to the outside world.

“They see the thing which is true: that knowledge is more interdependent,” he says. “And it’s important for students to see those connections.”