Is it possible to change upper secondary school?

A somewhat skeptical title refers to Finnish educational system, in which primary school teachers have a lot of freedom because one teacher is responsible for teaching almost all subjects; lower secondary teachers have still somewhat freedom although their days are structured by a timetable which navigates them to new classes after every 45 minutes, but the upper secondary school teachers are tied with very heavy curriculum, very tight seven-week course and furthermore, the matriculation examinations which close the twelve-year schooling.

There are several calls for change at upper secondary level, now especially in the Finnish school. The final examinations will become digitalized in autumn 2016. Previously, especially upper secondary level teachers have used digital technology less than teachers of other levels. Now they all need to learn to use technology in teaching. Another requirement for change is expressed both by practitioners and researchers: students don’t learn in school what they need. Three recent studies* have produced results that upper secondary school students don’t gain in school the necessary competencies for further studies and work life; among the insufficient competencies are what we in the KNORK project call knowledge work competencies. The third reason is the changing curriculum. National Board of Education has accepted new curriculum in which integration of school subjects as well as project- and process type of work are brought forward (see It has become impossible for an upper secondary teacher to continue in a traditional teacher-centered way, if she or he has any interest to answer the demands.

Then, how easy it is to make changes in pedagogical practices? Our research results and collaboration with three nice upper secondary schools, Helsingin Medialukio, Tapiolan lukio and Olarin lukio, indicates that even when teachers are very willing to improve their course practices towards student-centered, longitudinal and authentic process-work, there are obstacles that are almost impossible to overcome. The courses are full of issues that students have to learn, and the new curriculum does not differ from the previous one. In Medialukio we faced this challenge in a very concrete way: when a course was 18 hours during seven weeks, for a teacher it is impossible to use, e.g., an hour every week for an assignment which does not cover more than a limited area of the content. Only 3-4 hours is possible for a teacher to reserve for a specific project but even then the teacher has a guilty conscience: “I don’t teach my students all they should learn.” In addition, integrated project with teachers of other subjects is very difficult to organise because, again, of the lack of the time, but also because students don’t participate in the same courses. A natural integration of two (or more) courses so that the students would be the same on the courses does not succeed. Even time for teachers’ collaborative planning is difficult to find – they are busy and free on different times.

Conclusion: if we set up new aims for upper secondary schools, something in the structures have to be profoundly improved. The change is not based on individual teachers being willing or unwilling but on structures that need to be changed on national level.

Liisa Ilomäki

University of Helsinki

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