Why the western education system needs an overhaul

Meet Finland's Education Expert

For years, Finland has loitered in the upper echelons of global literacy and numeracy tables, leading politicians from other Western nations to see its education system as a model of inspiration. Why, then, is the Finnish government submitting it to a radical overhaul?

Dr Marjo Kyllonen is the Education Manager for Helsinki. Having devised the blueprint for the future of Finland’s school system, she is playing a pivotal role in driving these changes through. She is doing so because she sees the structure and aims of current education systems in the West as increasingly irrelevant and obsolete, relics of an Industrial Age that we started to leave behind a long time ago. She argues that we need to rethink our entire relationship to education to equip future generations with the tools they need to face the challenges to come –challenges such as climate collapse, automated workforces, urbanisation and social division. The key to her blueprint is an emphasis on collaborative, holistic, “phenomenon” teaching – a routine that is less beholden to traditional subject-based learning and instead teaches pupils to work together to deal with problems they will face in their everyday lives, including those they encounter online and in the digital world.

VICE: What do you think we have to do to drag human education into the future?

Dr Marjo Kyllonen: We have to rewrite the entire narrative for our education system. We have to ask: If schools were invented today, what would they be like? Our current system is built for the needs of a totally different society and era: the Industrial Age – think, for instance, of the typical classroom, with kids sat in lines. That’s a reproduction of factory assembly lines. So, do we need a place called “school” in the future? And if so, what is the main task for education?

What do you think the answers to those questions are?

Instead of studying different subjects in isolation, learning should be anchored to real-life phenomena, things that kids see around them, so they see the connection between what they’re learning and real life. The traditional way of teaching isolated subjects with a teacher as the sole oracle of knowledge is widening the gap between the lives kids are living today and what they do at school.

Can you explain more about the links you see between the Industrial Age and traditional education systems in the West?

The traditional way says that everyone in the class has to do the same thing, at the same time, at the same rate, just like people did when they were on assembly lines. And that was relevant for those days. Today, we should be focusing on how to enable individuals to achieve their utmost potential.

With the help of digital solutions and big data analysis, we can take education to another level.

What are the biggest changes coming in, say, the next 20 years that are going to redefine the way we look at education across the world? And how will that affect our relationship to time?

One will be digitalisation. Things like automation and artificial intelligence, robots and smart machines being able to cover labour tasks – not only routine work, but also the work of experts. With increased lifespans and advances in healthcare, it’s likely that kids entering the labour market today will still be active in it in the 2070s, maybe even the 2080s. The world that exists today won’t then. So we have to think, what skills will people need in 60 years? Life is not split into subjects, so why is learning? What is more crucial for future society is cross-disciplinary thinking; all the experts say that the big problems of tomorrow won’t be solved if you only have one approach.

What about the social side of things – should we be looking to mould individuals in a certain way to meet the challenges of tomorrow?

Of course, there are qualities like creativity, vigilance, braveness, collaboration – things that help bring you to a better future both as individuals and communities. We will need a lot of resilience, the capacity to cope with an uncertain, unpredictable, changing world. And these types of qualities are not really taught in school. We teach our kids to know the right answer, and you get a tick – but how much do you celebrate failure and trying again? We know that for every one innovation you need hundreds of tries and failures.

So we should also be thinking, how should we celebrate trying, and mistakes?

Marjo in Helsinki city centre, photo by Aya Brace

Do you think we should give much priority to teaching children how to become wealthy?

No, I don’t think that’s the role of the school. Of course, we’d like everyone to have a good life and be successful. But the way you’ve put it makes me think of a world where individuals are looking out for themselves – a “me first” culture. My picture of future society is totally different – I think people need to have social responsibility and understand that no one is doing well if there are others in society who are insecure and suffering.

What should our legacy be to future generations?

It’s not only us and our kids, it’s our grandchildren and their children – if we want our little human “club” to survive in the future we really have to think: what is sustainable? And how do we teach that to our kids? Not only ecological sustainability – social sustainability, too.

If you could change one thing about the way politics on Earth works right now, what would that be?

My friend, the former NASA astronaut Ellen Baker, told me that when she was in space, she saw how beautiful our world is. And there are no boundaries. Go far enough away and Earth looks very peaceful, no borders. She said to me that our politicians should go and have a space-trip, to see how beautiful our planet is and make peace because then they’d see there’s not really any “us versus them”, it’s just “us”.

Interview: Kev Kharas

Photography: Aya Brace