Project Based Learning Goals in Finland's Schools

When I travelled to Finland with Bookbag Tours, I was most excited to learn about the ins and outs of their elementary curriculum.  I learned that a huge component of what they do, and one reason for their overall academic success, lies in project-based learning (PBL).

By definition, project-based learning is a teaching method where students gain knowledge by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex problem, question, or challenge.

While at the Finnish Education Center, we learned more about PBL, thanks to our host and fellow elementary teacher, Petteri Elo.

He explained to us that PBL must be student-driven, collaborative, and flexible.  Students (and teachers) must have ample time and there must also be a guiding problem.

While not everyday will be productive, the teacher is there to coach and hopefully, the next day will be productive.  In other words: it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Petteri explained five key components of PBL and I’ll do my best to share with you:

1.       Cross-Curricular: We’re talking phenomenon-based
2.    Student Centered: Students are driving the process and creating for themselves.
3.    Process Orientation: the lens isn’t on the end product but the celebration of primary goals embedded in the process (hardest for me because I realize that I love tidy finished products!).
4.     Skill Orientation: It’s not just facts and content but transferrable skills.
5.    Wide Range of Resources: Students use experts to “open the doors of school.”
American teachers exchanging ideas about PBL implementation at our own sites.
In Finland, they do at least one PBL project per school year but in Helsinki, they do two phenomenon-based learning experiences.  Each one is 9 weeks long.

Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy in relation to the questions students answer, always encouraging them to go a little above or beyond the basic understanding level.

Students find a topic and then write research questions.  Lower level questions are okay at first, since they build understanding.  As the project continues, teachers coach in to raise the level of thinking and problem solving.

One example that upper elementary students had done last year was all about sustainable development.

Weeks one through three were spent learning about physics, chemistry, geography, and math as applied to sustainable development.

During weeks four through seven, students went through the investigative learning process.

Finally, the last two weeks (eight and nine) were spent back-tracking and assessing.
Finnish high school students shared their own positive experiences with PBL.
For me, the biggest takeaways were to focus on the PROCESS and not the product. Also, the teacher is a coach (a guide on the side and not a sage on the stage!).  I’ve done genius hour projects and the process of that does ring true or similar for much of this!

Have you tried PBL in your classroom?  It’s an area I’d like to explore and grow in so I’d love to hear from you!


  1. Thank you so much for this post! First for me to learn about Bookbag Tours! I will for sure be taking one of thse trips! Second for posting about the weeks of PBL. I took a week long PBL class but I was having a hard time understanding how to fit lessons needed to cover objectives and student self exploration. I want to do a math PBL through a science subject. I was having a hard time figuring out how to teach the math concepts while doing science exploration. Your post has helped me better understand what I can do! Thank you!

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  3. I would love more information on this!