EduCluster Finland Expert Blog

Preparing for life through holistic learning

By Ilkka Hendolin, 10 February 2021

Preparing our children for their future is the main task of education. Everyone working with schools recognises that, but still, we quite commonly stick to educational traditions. Some of those traditions are not really designed for life in, say, the 2050’s, when today’s school children are at the summit of their lives as persons, parents and employees.

One traditional feature of schools is that contents are taught as subjects. One hour of Biology, two hours of Maths, two hours of Mother tongue and an hour of Sports for dessert. This system has worked well for long, but the justification for this approach has been crumbling for quite a while already. It seems obvious that in the future there is more and more need for applying knowledge in ever more diverse situations. And getting ready for those situations is difficult if we stick to subject bubbles.

Learning in an integrated way is a skill that can be learned in school. The brain is amazingly adaptive. So why not start teaching our children how skills and knowledge from different areas can work together in real life?

Actually, teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in an integrated way started already a few decades ago. The STEM approach is a very natural one for example to me as a physicist. I see those things belonging inherently together. It did not take too long for people to realise that a creativity component should also be included. Hence STEAM was born, adding Arts to the combo. Arts, in the English language, can be interpreted in several ways, which makes STEAM almost all-encompassing. But why stop there?

Finland, a permanent super achiever in international learning comparisons (such as PISA), took the bold step already a few years ago. The current Finnish National Core Curriculum requires schools to teach transversal competences. That is, things that you need in life in general, the contents between and beyond school subjects and skills in mixing knowledge from different areas. Teaching and learning those competences is seen holistically, and may include elements from anywhere, also from outside school.

So that’s it? Put the idea in the curriculum, and all is well? Not quite that simple, not even for Finnish teachers who are among the best educated in the world. The new approach does indeed require reorganising school operations a little bit, building new types of co-operation between teachers, finding new assessment methods, and of course being able to adapt oneself. It is not just the students who are expected to learn, but teachers as well!

The first steps towards holistic learning can be small and trying out new things doesn’t necessarily require a large Investment.

Wisely enough, everything was not changed at once. I strongly believe that starting small but determinedly and adjusting along the way leads to a sustainable outcome.

Moving towards holistic teaching can also start small and doesn’t necessarily require big resources. Having a pilot group of teachers at a school run through a test program can be a good way of introducing new approaches. Guidance from experienced practitioners will surely help in getting a flying start.

In Finland, after a few years of practice, learning transversal competences has become a routine. We have a whole generation of students with fresh 21st century skills growing up in our schools.

Who knows how they will teach the next generation when their time comes?

Lead Expert Ilkka Hendolin has a physicist / researcher of physics education background and he is a passionate advocate of public understanding of science. He has been sharing Finnish educational expertise with the world at EduCluster Finland since 2017.