The Latest School Reform in Finland Introduces a New Way to Look at Subjects

In its latest efforts to keep improving its curriculum and make its pupils more equipped to succeed in the modern world, Finland has rethought the concept of a subject for its basic schools (students aged 7 to 16). 

Taking education reform seriously since the 1970s, Finland has climbed the international education ratings by doing several things: 1) it bets on highly competent teachers, 2) it recognizes the huge importance of early childhood education, 3) it gives local schools the autonomy to address local needs by decentralizing administration, 4) it guarantees a uniform and free (including meals, transportation and school materials) education for all students. As a result, Finnish students score higher than most of their peers on international assessment tests, despite peculiarities like having minimal homework and tests, and also a curriculum that puts a big emphasis on music, the arts, and outdoor activities.


In its latest efforts to keep improving the curriculum and making its pupils more equipped to succeed in the modern world, Finland has rethought the concept of a subject for its basic schools (students aged 7 to 16). With its new National Curriculum Framework 2016 (NCF), Finland emphasizes the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to education and introduces the concept of “phenomenon-based” teaching, which will result in classes on broader topics such as European Union, Climate Change, Community.

Phenomenon-based teaching will teach students how to apply a variety of skills and knowledge in a single class. This approach resembles much more closely real-life problem solving and will give pupils a more clear understanding of the complexity of the world.

Schools across the country will have to introduce at least one such class or project during the school year. One of the most innovative parts of the NCF is that students must be involved in the planning of phenomenon-based study periods and that they must have voice in assessing what they have learned from it.

Finland's constant strive towards innovating and improving on its educational system is truly commendable. As Ms Irmeli Halinen, Head of curriculum development with Finnish National Board of Education explains:

“We are often asked why improve the system that has been ranked as top quality in the world. But the answer is: because the world is changing. We have to think and rethink everything connected to school. We also have to understand that competencies needed in society and in working life have changed.” 

Photo: Phillipe Put (Flickr)

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.