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“Time to do things differently” – Upheaval at Finland’s music institutes

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

The new National Core Curriculum for Basic Education in the Arts in Finland was adopted two years ago. This represented a considerable upheaval for music institutes; for instance, the level performance examinations that were standard for a long time have been largely discontinued. The reform facilitated developments that many had hoped for and also helped music institutes understand their operations in new ways. How has all this worked in practice, and what experiences have been gained?

Finland’s basic education in the arts is a system unique in the international context. Our National Core Curricula – frameworks on which local authorities and individual schools build their specific curricula – are also a very special feature of our system. The curriculum reform undertaken in Finland in recent years resulted in a considerable upheaval for music institutes. Most music institutes decided to discontinue the traditional system of level performance examinations and instead to build learning pathways more flexibly according to students’ needs and abilities. Also, improvisation and composition have acquired a more prominent role.

There was some inevitable change resistance, and the fears voiced included suspicions that without examinations and repertoire lists, would all teaching be dumbed down to just feelgood music-making with no particular goals? Yet to balance this there was also great enthusiasm: teachers hungry for change now have the tools to do things differently.

The reform has required huge amounts of extra energy and work from educational institutions. Procedures have had to be planned, tested and revised as necessary. Experimentation and the search for best practices are still going on.

The National Agency for Education decided on the new National Core Curriculum for Basic Education in the Arts in 2017, and the curricula based on it were introduced in August 2018. The National Core Curriculum sets forth the value base, learning paradigms and operating culture; its key elements include student-oriented studies and diverse feedback, and there are now more specific goals for the various subjects in the arts. Although the National Core Curriculum is valid nationwide, as its name says, and although the provision of teaching is mandated by law, the preparatory work is always carried out in cooperation with the field. The National Core Curriculum being the framework within which arts education institutions plan their respective curricula, the new National Core Curriculum in fact stresses the importance of local applications. 

Working with the field

Since the 1990s, the number of children and adolescents attending educational institutions providing basic education in the arts has almost doubled. Music institutes have always been at the forefront of this sector, followed by dance and visual arts.

What makes Finnish music institutes so special? “Basic education in the arts is seen in Finland as a healthy component in the general education system. When the National Core Curricula are drawn up, the same educational trends manifest themselves both in general basic education in schools and in basic education in the arts. There is a solid holistic approach to education in Finland, and music education is thus seen as an integral element rather than something separate and extracurricular,” says Eija Kauppinen, formerly a Counsellor of Education. She notes that it would be useful to make a comprehensive comparative study of arts education in various countries but that so far this has been difficult. 

Eija Kauppinen C Opetushallitus Marja Leena Juntunen C Eeva Anundi
Left: Eija Kauppinen (Photo: Finnish National Agency for Education)
Right: Marja-Leena Juntunen (Photo: Eeva Anundi)

The European Association of Conservatories (AEC) and the Polifonia network recently surveyed the current status of music education institutions in Europe, but there were numerous inaccuracies in the report. “As far as I know, most countries do provide for arts education institutions by law but do not necessarily have a curriculum for them. Other countries have a government-mandated curriculum with which all arts education institutions must comply,” explains Kauppinen.

Local decision-making power within the framework of the National Core Curriculum is one of the most remarkable traits of the Finnish system. Marja-Leena Juntunen, Professor of Music Education at the Sibelius Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, has been studying Finnish curricula extensively and has first-hand knowledge of this.

“There is great variation in practices from one country to another. France, for example, has interesting forms of collaboration geared towards making arts education more accessible. The Finnish system, meanwhile, has two particular strengths: national leadership and national uniformity on the one hand, and robust empowerment of the grass-roots level on the other,” she explains. “These national core curricula are not just written by policymakers at the National Agency for Education; input from the field is always broadly solicited. Then again, teachers are trusted to follow the guidelines and have a lot of autonomy in implementing the core curricula.”

No wonder, then, that not only Finland’s school system but also Finland’s music education system have attracted widespread international attention.

Juntunen ventures that the diversity of content found in Finland’s music education is well ahead of the curve compared with many other European countries. “The debate on the relationship between classical music, folk music and popular music is already a venerable one, and in Finland the various genres now coexist pretty much peacefully,” she says. Advanced use of technology is of course another strength in the Finnish system.

What should we do instead of the old level performance examinations?

Eija Kauppinen is now retired. Watching from the sidelines, what has been her experience of the curriculum reform being deployed at the local level? The discontinuing of level performance examinations, which emerged as the major talking point in the reform, prompts her to discuss the importance of developing evaluation practices.

“Evaluation criteria are a major issue now. There is still work to be done at many arts education institutions in this respect,” says Kauppinen. The evaluation criteria are principally intended for when a student has completed an entire programme and is given a verbal evaluation. Number grades are no longer given.

Level performance examinations were actually never required in the earlier incarnations of the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education in the Arts. The level performance examination system of the Association of Finnish Music Schools (SML) was included only as an example of an evaluation scheme, though it was the de facto standard for a long time. The National Core Curriculum allows for a lot of freedom, but it does require institutions to draw up evaluation criteria, as Kauppinen points out.

The level performance examination system had the effect of making everyone think that evaluation consisted of a single event on the basis of which a student’s competence was judged. Inevitably, examinations tended to send stress levels through the roof. Today, music institutes come up with concerts, multi-discipline performances, videos and what have you – multiple ways in which student competence can be evaluated over a wide range of skills. “It is actually stated in the Act on Basic Education in the Arts, which dates from the late 1990s, that the purpose of evaluation is to improve the student’s learning and self-evaluation skills, but somehow we keep forgetting that,” says Kauppinen. “The main thing is to consider evaluation as part of everyday teaching. Students need detailed feedback all the time in order to improve.”

Music institutes have introduced features such as skill boards, or learning roadmaps if you will, and video portfolios that allow students to monitor their progress themselves and to analyse the feedback they receive. The student management system Eepos, which is widely used by music institutes, is also a useful tool for this.

Markku Klami 02
Improvisation and composition have a prominent role in the new core curricula.
Photo by Markku Klami: Graphic notation.

Freedom to explore in depth

Hearing Merja Ponkala, violin teacher at the Pirkanmaa Music Institute, describe the impact of the curriculum reform, one gains the impression of a change for the better that was worth all the trouble.

“When the National Agency for Education sent out the new National Core Curriculum, our staff joined forces to draft our own curriculum. Everyone was involved in thinking about what things we should focus on and what our strengths are. The fact that we took the time to stop and really think about these things was valuable and became the first step towards real change,” says Ponkala, who was on the curriculum team at her institution. The Pirkanmaa Music Institute has some 1,700 students and more than 90 teachers and operates at several locations, for instance in Tampere and Ylöjärvi.

Ponkala says that without doubt the greatest change was giving up the old level performance examinations. Not all music institutes have discontinued them, because it is not specifically said in the National Core Curriculum that you cannot use them any more. The Pirkanmaa Music Institute team felt that the spirit of the new National Core Curriculum would not be fulfilled if the old examinations and therefore the structure of studies were to be retained unchanged.

“It’s time to do things differently. But it was important for us to not just put new labels on old things but to genuinely think up new ways of doing things,” says Ponkala. Progress in studies always requires goals, and thus the old, stress-inducing examinations were replaced by less formal proficiency demonstrations to be given at regular intervals.

‘Student-oriented’ is the keyword. When students are allowed to have a say in how they are studying, they are also more committed, according to Ponkala. “We set our goals together, appropriately for the needs and capabilities of each student. Teachers are now freer to consider what students actually want to get out of this leisure pursuit.”

As a result, students may have widely differing repertoire. Instead of a uniform repertoire structure focusing on progress in technical proficiency, students can specialise in things that interest them. This has also inspired Merja Ponkala as a teacher. “Of course, it’s not all about just playing to students’ strengths, but it does boost student motivation that they are allowed to pursue their individual interests as well,” says Ponkala. “As a teacher, you want your students to have positive achievements.”

To share music with others

Saara Nilkku, 15, is studying violin with Ponkala and is enthusiastic about folk music. “As I prepare for my fifth proficiency demonstration this year, we’ve planned the repertoire so that it reflects my interests. It does include classical music, of course, but also klezmer and bluegrass,” she says. Nilkku feels that the reform has created fresh potential for her music-making. “The pressures and anxieties of having to play examinations have decreased at least for me, though not completely gone away. Now that proficiency demonstrations are divided into smaller portions and the repertoire selection is freer, I’ve been able to do my own thing more and use my musical competence to better effect.”

Ponkala feels that both she and her students are now in less of a hurry to get ahead. They may work in parallel on ambitious repertoire and technically easier pieces for improving expressive and performance skills. “It’s important for performing to be a positive experience, and what helps there is to perform not just pieces that are pushing the envelope of your technical competence. The aim is not to be able to play a piece from memory or to ‘get through’ a piece; the aim is to share music with others.”

Merja Ponkala Vaaka C Ismo Ponkala
Merja Ponkala
Photo: Ismo Ponkala

Critics of the new curriculum have feared that the reform will undermine ambitious, goal-oriented music studies. Because music institutes have a great deal of freedom in planning their offering of advanced studies, there have been concerns about this offering becoming skewed. Ponkala points out that the basics of music-making are not going anywhere: students still play scales, but those are now seen as tools for practical music-making rather than a terrifying obstacle course. “It is important to understand that we are working with the same thing as before, but with a different approach to teaching. Our conception of learning has changed, and music institutes must follow along.”

The ethos of the new curriculum is also apparent in its holistic approach. Instead of students only learning their own instruments, the aim is now to build up a comprehensive understanding of music for them, to foster their creative skills and to nurture their self-awareness. “My hope is that we could bring up musicians and music lovers with broad horizons and that they would be still opening their violin cases long after they have finished their studies here,” Ponkala sums up.

Times they are a-changin’

Educational institutions have been working at their new curricula for some years now, and the reform is slowly becoming part of everyday life. Now is an appropriate time to start doing research on how well the reform has been carried out. Marja-Leena Juntunen, Professor of Music Education, is heading the recently launched project Musiikinopetus muutoksessa [Music education in transition] at the Centre for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts (CERADA) at Uniarts Helsinki. The purpose of this project is to chart the experiences of stakeholders at arts education institutions in applying the new National Music Curriculum Framework. 

“We are interested in the practical solutions that teachers have come up with and how well they feel they are able to put the guidelines outlined for music in the National Core Curriculum into practice,” Juntunen explains. She adds that it is not the intention to exercise judgment or oversight on teachers; on the contrary, the study is motivated by a genuine interest in the choices of and input from teachers and rectors in the field.

Juntunen notes that many of the elements of the reform that have attracted much public attention, from composition to multi-discipline approaches, have been included in some shape or form in the National Core Curricula for decades. It is just that education is slow to change. Now there are more specific learning objectives, but at the same time there is a greater degree of freedom for individual learning paths and local decision-making.

"Now that proficiency demonstrations are divided into smaller portions and the repertoire selection is freer, I’ve been able to do my own thing more and use my musical competence to better effect."
Saara Nilkku

Juntunen was also involved in creating an evaluation tool named Virvatuli [Will-o’-wisp] to help arts education institutions to assess their own activities. She has also led the ‘Arts Education for All’ group under the Arts Equal research project, examining the accessibility of the system of basic education in the arts. The results of the survey circulated among rectors of arts education institutions were reported in the Finnish Journal of Music Education last year. Arts Equal is a major arts education research project, exceptionally large even by international standards.

Juntunen points to available resources as a challenge for accessibility. Teachers are not necessarily able to differentiate their teaching and to address students with special needs as much as they would like. “There are a lot of new things going on in the field, and there’s ongoing change and unfinished business wherever you look. Practices are transforming, slowly but surely. Some arts education institutions are resilient and eager to improve their practices, while others are less flexible,” says Juntunen.

The curriculum reform fired up disagreements about for whom music studies are intended. The music institute system in Finland was established in the 1960s initially to provide professional musicians for provincial orchestras, and the aim of turning out future professionals is still very much part of the ethos of music institutes, even if only a couple of per cent of students actually go on to become professional musicians.

The challenge with basic education in the arts is to make it accessible to everyone and to support multiple ways of growing up into a life that embraces music. If and when an arts education institution manages to build its learning pathways so as to match students’ needs and capabilities, as allowed by the new National Core Curriculum, both the students with their sights set on music as a career and those simply enjoying music as a leisure pursuit can gain the maximum benefit from their music lessons.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Markku Klami