Collaborative Teaching for Integrated Learning: Lessons from Finland

We encourage students to collaborate all the time, but as teachers, we often work alone. This is unfortunate because some of the best work I see at conferences occurs when groups of teachers come together to share their ideas and compare approaches.  Not only do such interactions lead to new ideas, but they also help teachers from different disciplines develop integrated strategies to teaching.

Yet integrating subjects is difficult when teachers are specialized in different fields.  School districts in Finland are working on a unique solution: teachers are now working together to teach everything by “topic” rather than by “subject”. Two periods of the school year are reserved for “phenomenon- based” teaching.  During these periods, students work on projects with integrated subject matter.  Teachers who take the lead in implementing the new changes receive a small increase in their salaries. By 2020, the Finnish goal is to have moved away from teaching traditional subjects altogether.

Because Finnish students already have some of the highest international test scores in the world, there has been a great deal of opposition to the fully-integrated approach that educators are proposing. The main concern is that removing subjects will undermine the foundational skills that students need to make larger connections. Those who support the new initiative argue that an integrated approach does not remove the teaching of any concepts, it simply shows students how such concepts can be relevant in more than one discipline simultaneously.

In the United States, the Common Core has served as a catalyst for curriculum reform, including an increased emphasis on cross-curricular learning to prepare students for 21st-century careers.  In theory, this approach seems perfect.  Why wouldn’t we want to show students how concepts can be relevant by demonstrating real-world applications? In practice, such integrated approaches take hard work and planning.

Yesterday, Hekademia curriculum coordinators from every discipline came together to brainstorm new ideas for personalizing learning in our courses.  The conversation led to a discussion about how we can maximize student choice in projects to highlight the learner’s individual interests. We also considered how we integrate subjects to teach broader concepts that are seen across disciplines. In math, we use chemistry and biology to teach balancing equations.  In English, students read science fiction texts, and in science, students are learning about the historical context surrounding scientific theories. These conversations are the most engaging and inspiring part of my week. It’s not surprising, really. We know that collaboration supports immersive learning in students, so it’s a shame educators can’t do it more often.

In Finland, government support in terms of time and funding allowed teachers to produce a more systemic approach to learning. In North America, private and public schools alike take up the challenge of integrating studies. We hope that the recent debate about integrated learning in Finland will encourage discussion in North American about how we can collaborate to create a web of disciplines.  Break down the silos! It’s time to chat!

Tune in to next week’s blog for a case study of how our sister company, Virtual High School.com, incorporates an integrated approach to learning.  

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