Mathematics curriculum development in Finland – unexpected effects

Olli Martio – University of Helsinki, Marticulation Board in Finland, via a kind Richard Askey email:

Curricula changes in the Finnish school system have taken place in 8-10 year intervals. They have been recorded in the official curricula for schools by the Finnish Ministry of Education. However, these texts do not provide a complete picture since they are rather short of details. Schools can freely choose their textbooks and there is neither an official inspection nor an official approval for the textbooks. The system is based on the free market principle. Because of this textbooks, and the practice of teaching, should also be studied in order to understand the Finnish mathematics curriculum. A similar situation prevails in many other countries.
The leading ideas, from the point of view of people working in pedagogy, from 1960 on were “New Math” (1960-1970), “Back to Basics” (1968-80) and “Problem Solving”(1978- ), see [M1] and [PAL]. These trends have appeared in many other countries as well. However, these key words do not give a proper picture what really happened in the mathematics curriculum and education.
In Finland these trends had the following effects on the mathematics curriculum.

  • Mathematics at school became descriptive – exact definitions and proofs were largely omitted.
  • Geometry and trigonometry were neglected.
  • Computations were performed by calculators and numbers and not on a more advanced level.

“Problem Solving” and putting emphasis on calculators have taken time from explaining the basic principles and ideas in mathematics. It should be also remembered that with the invention of calculators and computers the pressure to traditional mathematics teaching increased enormously since a general believe in 1960-70 was that all the mathematical problems can be solved by computers and hence the traditional school mathematics is useless. This criticism did not come from ordinary laymen only but from well known scientists as well and this attitude was very much adopted by people working in education and didactics. These ideas had a profound effect on the changes in the Finnish school curriculum.