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Breaking Down Siloed Educational Subjects & Learning with Computer Games: Finland Leads the Way

Recently, I asked about the possible effects of “one-size-fits-all educational methodology with predetermined curricula and standardized testing” and, especially, “conditioned learning of siloed educational subjects detached from personal experience in large classes solely determined by year of birth.” That, of course, was purely a rhetorical question as these effects are clearly visible to everybody. Rarely do schools instill in us a deep and abiding love for learning and for the subjects taught, the historical events envisioned, the works of literature read, the math problems solved. Rarely do we fondly remember our school days and sentimentalize them into nostalgic yearnings for a lost pleasure. In my 2013 inaugural lecture “Knowledge Attacks!: Storyfication, Gamification, and Futurification for Learning Experiences and Experiential Learning in the 21st Century” which, alas, I still haven’t managed to put online, I developed two sample scenarios to break down educational silos in our schools.

The first sample scenario took off from the topic of “calculus,” typically siloed and restricted to “math” courses. Why don’t we confront students instead with the exact same problems Newton and Leibniz faced and connect the invention of calculus with learning content from its historical context: Newton’s Principia and the Great Plague of London; the English civil war and the Bill of Rights; the baby and toddler years of the Scientific Method and the principles of rational inquiry; the Great Fire of London and modern city planning; the formation of the United Kingdom and colonial power struggles; the journalist, author, and spy Daniel Defoe and Protestant work ethic; the transition from Baroque to Rococo in painting and music; the Newtonian telescope and Newton’s laws of motion; the dissociation of physics and metaphysics. Interim summary: math, physics, philosophy, religion, English language, history, geography, music, art, literature, astronomy. Oh, and sports: the evolution of cricket during this time in post-restoration England as the origin of professional team sport.

Or “democracy,” aspects of which are usually siloed in history courses and/or a variety of elective courses like “politics” or “citizenship.” What if students were given the task, perhaps in a time-travel setup, to convince the Athenian assembly in 482 B.C.E. via political maneuvering to distribute the new-found silver seam’s wealth among the Athenian citizens instead of following Themistocles’s proposal to build a naval fleet? So that the Battle of Salamis would never happen, the Greek city states swallowed by the Persian empire, neither the Roman republic nor large parts of the world become hellenized, and the European Renaissance as we know it would never happen? The potential in terms of learning content: the dynamics of democracy and political maneuvering; the history of classical antiquity; general economics, trade, and the economics of coins and currencies; the structure and ramifications of democratic systems built on slave economies; Greek language; rhetoric; comedy and tragedy; myth; Herodotus and the beginnings and nature of historical writing; geometry; the turn from pre-Socratic to Socratic philosophy; sculpture and architecture; ship building; astronomy; geography; the Olympic Games. Strategy, probably—especially naval strategy if the plan to change history fails to succeed: Salamis from the point of view of Themistocles on the side of the Greeks and from the point of view of Artemisia—the skillful and clear-sighted commander of a contingent of allied forces in Xerxes’s fleet—on the side of the Persians. Infinite possibilities.

Now, what’s being introduced in Finland right now as “cross-subject topics” and “phenomenon-based teaching” looks quite similar in principle to my developing concept of “scenario learning.” As the Independent's headline puts it, “Subjects Scrapped and Replaced with ‘Topics’ as Country Reforms Its Education System”:

Finland is about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state—scrapping traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic.” […] Subject-specific lessons—an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon—are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching—or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union—which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

This sounds exciting already, but there’s more:

There are other changes too, not least to the traditional format that sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.

Many teachers, of course, aren’t exactly thrilled. But a “co-teaching” approach to lesson planning with input from more than one subject specialist has also been introduced; participating teachers receive a “small top-up in salary,” and, most importantly, “about 70 per cent of the city’s high school teachers have now been trained in adopting the new approach.”

And even that’s not the end of it. A game-based learning approach, upon which my scenario learning concept is largely built, will also be introduced to Finland’s schools (emphases mine):

Meanwhile, the pre-school sector is also embracing change through an innovative project, the Playful Learning Centre, which is engaged in discussions with the computer games industry about how it could help introduce a more “playful” learning approach to younger children.

“We would like to make Finland the leading country in terms of playful solutions to children’s learning,” said Olavi Mentanen, director of the PLC project.

Finally, from the case studies:

We come across children playing chess in a corridor and a game being played whereby children rush around the corridors collecting information about different parts of Africa. Ms. Jaatinen describes what is going on as “joyful learning.” She wants more collaboration and communication between pupils to allow them to develop their creative thinking skills.

What I feel now is a powerful urge to immediately move to Finland.

(h/t @JohnDanaher)