Helsinki University was recently honored to host the visit of the educational psychologist, professor emeritus Lee S. Shulman from Stanford University. The lecture was a part of Helsinki University’s 375th anniversary celebrations. Shulman held an inspiring keynote titled ”Teaching and Learning in an Unscripted World: Pedagogy, Purpose and Assessment at the Heart of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” on 2nd of June. The lecture dealing with curriculum development, assessment and pedagogy in higher education context left the audience in awe.
During the lecture we were listening to what curriculum sounds like. It sounds like the fugues by J.S. Bach. Those familiar with classical music know that every fugue has a theme that is presented in the beginning and repeated in different forms and variations throughout the fugue. Respectively, curriculum also has a theme – something that is always there and stands out, however, rotates and varies in different historical times and places. Shulman used the term ”curricular epicycles” to refer to this. Both in fugues and in curricula there should be harmony, meaningfulness and rotation. Therefore, it is essential to develop the curriculum by new means, although the theme remains the same. It is crucial to shape and reshape our curriculum to respond to the current and future needs of the society and, above all, to engage students in learning:
We adapt and tailor our curriculum to engage the minds and hearts of students.
This message is especially significant in Finland now that we have a new national core curriculum and the local curricula are being renewed. The new core curriculum for basic education was renewed by the National Board of Education in extensive collaboration with municipalities, teachers, teacher trainers, researchers and other stakeholders, and will be implemented in all institutions offering basic education (gr. 1-9) in August 2016.
For the first time in Finland, the general public was engaged in the renewal process by enabling public commentary of the drafts of the new curriculum on the website of the National Board of Education in the end of the year 2012. As I was starting to write my Master’s Thesis at the time, this provided me with an excellent opportunity to examine what kind of feedback the new curriculum draft received. The research question of my thesis, thus, was: What themes did the commentators hold important concerning the curriculum and education in present and in the future? The data consisted of 963 comments that were posted on the webpage of the National Board of Education regarding the first draft of the general part of the new curriculum. The feedback form was open for 17 days in November and December 2012. I conducted qualitative data analysis by coding with the help of Atlas.ti software.
The comments discussed several issues regarding the Finnish school, its mission and the appreciations of the commentators. As a result, four major themes were found: 1) equality in education; 2) the use of authentic learning environments and multi-professional collaboration with surrounding community; 3) the role of Finnish cultural heritage and religious education and 4) sustainable development and global citizenship. These results reflect the values and topics the commentators held important for the future in terms of developing, not only the curriculum, but also the Finnish school culture and society.
When deriving the Shulman’s idea of curriculum as a fugue with a theme to the Finnish curriculum processes, the major result of my thesis, equality in education, could be considered as one of the most important “curricular epicycle” in the history of Finnish national core curricula – or in Finnish educational fugue. Historically, the strive for equality of educational opportunities was the core idea behind the Finnish educational reform in the end of 1960s and beginning of 1970s, which resulted to the implementation of the current comprehensive school system (Sahlberg 2015; Vitikka, Krokfors & Hurmerinta 2012). Since then the aim of the Finnish education system, educational policy-making and the national core curriculum has been to guarantee quality education and equality of learning opportunities across the nation. The core curriculum renewal has taken place roughly every 10 years, updating the value basis, view of teaching and learning, pedagogy, core contents and assessment guidelines in order to respond to the future needs of the Finnish society. At times, like in the beginning of the 1990s, decentralization of curricular decision power to local level has been stronger than otherwise, however, the pursue towards assuring nation-wide equality in education has remained as the core principle and the most important motif in each curriculum renewal or fugue.