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Finland Does It Again--Abolishing Content This Time #FuturesED

Finland Does It Again--Abolishing Content This Time #FuturesED

What’s in that water in Finland?  First they abolish standardized, summative, high stakes testing —and come out in the top 5 in all numeracy and literacy categories on the PISA OECD tests.


Now, they are getting rid of subjects in schools:

The subjects we now use to organize the disciplines, fields, professional schools, methods, tools, and all the other silos of higher education were almost all designed in the same period, 1865-1925, where the American research university was developed from the Puritan college.   Now, most of the interesting scholarship occurs across and between disciplines, either by one person mastering the knowledge-assumptions and methods and contents of multiple fields or by collaborations across fields.

The redundant administrative structures we build in our university are often ways of making spans across areas where some members of each department talk to some members of other departments in a coherent, consistent, and productive way.  I think that is a good thing.

But there is a problem when graduate student training happens according to the content, rules, methods, tools, practices and prejudices of one of those departments, even when ideas, rules, methods, tools, practices, and prejudices flow–in their intellectual centers and motivations–across multiple realms.

Finland is our role model here for K-12.   We’re hoping the Futures Initiative is a different kind of role model for a new way of graduate training, within and across, around and about the silos. 

Let’s think about what it would mean if we were designing higher ed from scratch and didn’t need such workarounds!


Here's a summary of our Futures Initiative student-centered "Finnish" lab model:



Click image to enlarge

President Emeritus Bill Kelly and I teach a graduate course to twelve students who are teaching courses in a range of fields.  "Teach" is actually a strange word here since it is a student-centered class where the students created the syllabus and formed their own groups.  We provide the conditions for co-learning.   That is what makes us Finnish in our approach! 

The graduate students are teaching the introductory courses in the fields in which they are doing doctoral work—so it is good for their own research.  (Nothing helps you understand the deep structure of your own profession and your own thinking better than explaining it to undergraduates.) 

The interdisciplinary part comes in the pedagogy—nine fields, across such radically diverse institutions. 

Whether these graduate students end up teaching at the finest research universities or the finest community colleges in the next part of their careers, they will know more about institutions, equity, access, innovation, pedagogy, and, indeed, about one another’s fields than most of us learn in a lifetime.  I predict several will go on to be leaders.   

And next year we will field five courses on this model:  five team-teach graduate courses, each with up to 15 students who are teaching undergraduates in the CUNY campuses. 

Deputy Director Katina Rogers built our C-Box tool so that the students in the undergraduate classes can communicate with one another and with students in other classes---and the graduate students communicate with one another constantly.  One may be teaching data mining and one may be teaching narrative and another audiology but they face similar challenges and use this tool to discuss them together.






The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA has built its entire curriculum using "programs" which are interdisciplinary topic based classes taught by teams of professors from different curricular areas.  Students usually take one 16 credit program each quarter although there is some variation.  Topics vary widely, but always combine disciplines so that students learn not only about the topic of the program, but also about the relationships between different disciplines and how they interact in the real world. For example, a program on food might teach about how to grow food, nutritional science, chemistry (i.e. how food changes when cooked) and culture--why we eat what we do, how and why it varies across the country and the world. A language course includes not only grammar, conversation and writing in the target language, but perhaps also culture, art, music, history, geography, economics, the European Unon, business, combined according to the expertise and interests of the professors and students. In many ways the professors are facilitators and coaches as much as instructors, and since they typically teach only one program per quarter, they really get to know their students.  Check it out at The Finnish model is not as new as one might think.


There's a long and lucious history of innovations in colleges, and many, many reflect the kind of warmth and interdisciplinarity Duberman so charmingly caught in his portrait nearly 40 years ago of the "innovations" of thirty years before his history.

The important thing to recognize is that it doesn't make it any less brilliant not to be the first, the only, or the exception to rules that have long since lost their punch. Just because Josef Albers,, shared a similar insight nearly a century ago doesn't make it any less insightful. Congratulations on what you've done at CCNY, and lets hope others are inspired - as they were by other innovations of the past several centuries - to create their own style of teaching, learning, and proof that ideas can still flourish.



With March Madness on the minds of many these days, why not take some lessons from the best basketball teams to vastly improve the way our schools persuade teenagers to work their butts off and get clear on where they're headed?

Imagine, for example, an educational program called Fast Break that applies the principles of basketball to help students learn fundamentals and keep getting better as they coalesce as a team. The program would be a module in the school curriculum, an intensive 5-8 hours a day pre-season “camp” that gets students ready for the “season”. To ensure rapid learning and develop in students a compelling vision of success, courses would be team taught, cross-disciplinary, computer-assisted, competency-based, highly experiential and applied. Students would end each day by practicing a skill they had just learned, never leaving school just having failed. Coaches (teachers) would always would be available to counsel and give pointers. Like members of teams that make it to the Final 4, students would help one another succeed. Indeed, even if they made good academic progress, they wouldn’t graduate unless they demonstrated good teamwork, were willing to exceed expectations and never quit when the going got tough.

Actually, Fast Break exists. This 300-hour program concentrated into 8-12 weeks was developed by a major community organization in Detroit, replicated in Los Angeles with a National Science Foundation demonstration grant and expanded by two state governors in the early 2000s. Students typically make 2+ grade-level gains in reading and math (1-2 WorkKeys levels) in just 2-3 months, and they obtain employable skills in computer applications, as well as communications, teamwork, customer service, conflict resolution and other job readiness skills. The model has been very successful in helping young adults in Detroit, Los Angeles, Flint and other communities move ahead to career entry positions or college. Employers and colleges are highly satisfied with the graduates, describing them as “self-starters” who learn fast and collaborate effectively within and across workgroups both “live” and virtually.

Fast Breakattracts young people and persuades them to work hard because it operates like a high performance sports team, orchestra or robotics team. The program emphasizes teamwork, daily practice of fundamentals, daily feedback on individual and team performance, effective time management, continual communication among staff and students on how and why to do better the next day, continual opportunities to integrate theory and practice and to apply skills in game-like ("real world") settings, expectations of helping fellow teammates to improve, and the targeted use of technology to diagnose and improve abilities and communicate results instantly to accountable professionals and those who foot the bill (boards and taxpayers). 

Members of the best teams like the best companies want to be driven, want discipline, want to exceed expectations, and want to be part of a group with a higher purpose and winning mission. Moreover, they want to stay together long enough to produce excellence. Sustained time together in search of a noble cause also helps teenagers and young adults develop what they want most of all—good friends.

The Haberman Educational Foundation ( invites school districts to team with us to use Fast Break as a template for leaving behind the century-old factory model school. Simply reply to this post or write for further information.