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Finnish officials push schools to improve gender diversity teaching, leave behind traditional gender roles

Education authorities have rolled out new guidelines to help schools broaden concepts about gender in their teaching and to move away from traditional gender-based teaching. The ground rules provide practical tools to help teachers incorporate concepts about gender diversity in different subjects.

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Finland’s National Agency for Education is prodding schools to abandon teaching that emphasises traditional gender roles and embrace gender diversity concepts in their lessons.

The new guidelines mean that since students went out to school in August, teachers should have been paying greater attention to gender diversity in classroom discussions and lesson plans.

Finland’s main LGBT rights organisation Seta, has distributed a manual about gender diversity and is hoping that teachers will use it in their work.

"The National Agency for Education has noted that there are also trans young people in our schools and that they should be taken into consideration. The teaching curriculum doesn’t say what to teach and how to do so, but the idea is that these subjects should be incorporated into each subject," said Seta education planner Marita Karvinen.

Personal attitudes

At Kouvola’s Valkeala high school, Principal Pauli Pölönen said that the new rules will also require individual teachers to consider their personal attitudes in discussions with their students.

"The choice of words and even the slightest expression carry great meaning. We need to pay attention to that, because young people are sensitive and are only just maturing. No one likes to be judged," Pölönen pointed out.

The head teacher said that his school has not had to make major adjustments to its curriculum, since it had already begun dealing with gender identity even before the reform. For example, students in the arts and craft class are no longer automatically divided into boy and girl groups to use hard and soft materials.

"We have had mixed groups for arts and crafts since lower school and everyone learns the same basic content," Pölönen explained.

No more men’s and women’s professions

Guidance counsellors are also paying special attention not to automatically steer students towards professions based on assumptions about what are "men's" and "women's" fields.

"In some respects young people themselves can be conservative, but on the other hand they are also much more modern than us adults."

The school’s swimming classes still observe traditional gender divisions and students are separated into male and female groups. However gender diversity means the recognition that people may identify as something other than these two distinct groups – in short, the understanding that there are more than two genders.

Practical advice for teachers

Pölönen's school is ahead of the curve, but there's now a national effort by LGBT activists to ensure schools have a sophisticated approach to gender issues across the school curriculum.

The Seta guide encourage schools to introduce gender concepts in lessons dealing with the environment, biology and health, as well as in Finnish and foreign languages. Social studies and history lessons were also highlighted as good opportunities to discuss themes relating to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as their root causes and how to prevent them.

It calls on teachers to use religion lessons to familiarise students with different faiths and their beliefs about gender roles and changes in them. Art teachers are advised to discuss gender diversity by shattering rigid ideas about family and gender. "Let’s make a pink card with roses for Dad and an awesome card with a Mercedes or a knight for our Moms."

The guidelines suggest geography teachers could address the concepts by looking at gender systems in different cultures as well as gender diversity in different eras and cultures.

Love and relationships

"We couldn’t think of anything for Physics and Chemistry, but a Mathematics teacher could introduce a question based on fact or fiction about the percentage of a certain group that has checked “Other” to describe their gender. Or they could calculate how the number of people who have undergone gender reassignment surgery has grown in recent years,” Seta's Karvinen suggested.

The guide also offers ideas for teachers to discuss the concepts of love and relationships in different subjects. It advises schools to discuss love in language classes, for example by considering what would happen in a love story if the readers swapped the pronouns "he" and "she".

Karvinen, who organises supplementary training for teachers who request it, said he can see the level of preparedness of Finnish teachers to deal with gender diversity.

"It varies depending on the school and the teacher, how well prepared we are to deal with these things. One teacher may say that he or she is already talking about gender diversity in classes and the condept may be totally new for another," she concluded.

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