Cooperation skills are at the core of Finnish home economics teaching

In addition to housekeeping and cooking of everyday food, home economics classes teach diversity and equality, interaction, orderliness and responsibility. All of these skills are also needed in family and working life.

In Finnish comprehensive schools, home economics teaching is not just about cooking; it also provides pupils with skills related to the consumption process in its entirety as well as issues related to family life and housing, say University Lecturer, Docent Hille Janhonen-Abruquah and Postdoctoral Researcher, Docent Hanna Posti-Ahokas from the University of Helsinki. Teaching includes many everyday household chores, such as taking care of clothes, cleaning, shopping and learning about home technology.

“Pupils are taught to make choices that support sustainable development. Home economics classes also take into account different learners as well as different cultures and domestic situations. Home economics has always been a subject that has moved beyond the classroom,” says Janhonen-Abruquah.

Home economics in Finland, Estonia and Africa

In Finnish universities, it is possible to complete a doctoral degree in home economics. This is unique. Home economics is a compulsory subject for secondary school students, that is to say 12- to 16-year-olds, and Posti-Ahokas says it is also the most popular optional subject in many schools.

Its popularity may be partly due to its practical and hands-on nature. Experimenting, reading and interaction are combined with the doing. There is no need to make a strict distinction between theory and practice. On the other hand, home economics requires facilities and resources that, according to Janhonen-Abruquah, are not available in all countries.

“The Swedish model is similar and closest to Finnish home economics education. In Estonia, home economics has been merged with crafts to form one subject. In Ghana, West Africa, where I have also taught, home economics teaching is provided at girls’ schools as a legacy of the colonial era. In North America, a corresponding subject to home economics is family and consumer studies, which also includes family education. The Japanese have been extremely interested in Finnish home economics teaching and we have, in fact, conducted joint research with Japan.”

The possibility of pursuing postgraduate studies in home economics has also attracted international students from Estonia: the first doctoral degree was completed in 2017 and another one is in progress. 

HEED helps to pay attention

Right now, there is a great deal of debate at Finnish schools about how multilingualism and the culture of origin of pupils with immigrant backgrounds could be taken into account in the best possible manner. According to Janhonen-Abruquah, challenges to teaching have increased in the last 20 years.

Thinking about diversity is promoted, for example, by the University of Helsinki’s home economics education research project HEED (Home Economics Education for Diversities).

“Nowadays even Finnish society is multicultural. Teachers and pupils may live in entirely different everyday situations: foods that are well-known to Finnish children may be new to immigrant children. Regardless of this, home economics teaching should provide meaningful and useful skills to everyone. Research conducted by the HEED project aims to tackle this issue by highlighting differences in everyday activities and studying the underlying factors. We have, for example, studied the cooperation between the home and the school in preparing immigrants for basic education. Home economics may provide a valuable space for interaction and cooperation between cultures,” says Janhonen-Abruquah.

The English term to “heed” means just that: to pay attention to or to have regard for something.

Diversity and ethics visible on the plate

In home economics teaching, an encounter with diversity finds its concrete expression on the plate. Pupils are taught how to feed themselves and others in a healthy and sustainable way. Decreasing the consumption of meat and increasing vegetarian food is a sustainable choice that teachers of home economics have to consider in their everyday work.

Various special diets and allergies are also part of home economics teaching.

“Teachers have to, for example, consider whether to prepare Bolognese sauce from minced meat or some other alternative protein, or whether all pupils can eat pork,” says Hanna Posti-Ahokas.

“Home economics teachers are extremely interested in special diets and how they could be incorporated into their own teaching. They discuss them and ask for advice about them in their own social media channels. Food must be suitable for everyone,” Janhonen-Abruquah adds.

Teachers are trained to act in a responsible and equal manner. Together with the pupils, they plan the kinds of meals everyone can eat. Vegans are not forced to cut meat and, for example, using coconut milk allows making dishes that are suitable for everyone.

“An informed and educated home economics teacher shows pupils how to encounter and tolerate difference,” says Posti-Ahokas.

The woman cleans and the man is a top chef?

Increasing attention is paid to gender roles and breaking the related stereotypes in home economics teaching.

Celebrity chefs and other role models seem to be saying that even a tough guy can cook. They may well make good objects of identification for boys and spark their interest in food.

“Strong characters, but still inside a kitchen, the traditional domain of women,” says Janhonen-Abruquah.

“However, home economics teaching does partly inadvertently repeat traditional gender roles,” says Posti-Ahokas.

The researchers point out that nowadays boys may be encouraged to become chefs but not home economics teachers.

“Annually on average four of the thirty home economics graduates from the University of Helsinki are men. It is a challenge to think how the replication of gender roles could be prevented,” says Janhonen-Abruquah.

It is not enough to make girls and boys do the same things in the classroom. It is also important, for example, to study the image of domestic roles presented by the learning material. Posti-Ahokas provides an example from a textbook, where the husband is depicted barbecuing wearing a chef’s hat while his wife is cleaning the house. 

Based on the assessment of the learning results, girls get better grades in home economics than boys. Posti-Ahokas asks whether all pupils are evaluated according to the same criteria, whether the expectations are the same for every pupil and whether all pupils are allowed to do the same things.

“We must recognise those situations where traditional roles pop up, for example, stemming from the pupil’s or the teacher’s personal life. This is diversity awareness. In Finland, household chores are still divided between men’s and women’s chores and women do more of them, although the gap is constantly narrowing.

“Simultaneously, many other rigid roles are crumbling. For example, there are many ways to be a father and people no longer shake their heads when men assume various household and food-related duties.”

Faculty of Educational Sciences

History of Finnish home economics teaching

The roots of Finnish home economics teaching are in the 1890s. Anna Olsoni, daughter of a priest, was sent to London on a study trip with a grant from the Finnish Women’s Association. As a result of her subsequent work, the Pedagogic Cooking School in Helsinki was founded with the first students beginning their studies in 1891.

In primary schools, only girls studied home economics, but with the advent of the comprehensive school system in the 1970s, home economics became a compulsory subject to all pupils regardless of gender. Home economics teaching was also developed. The Home Economics Teacher College was established in 1956 and its work continued as university education in home economics at the University of Helsinki from 1975.

A special Finnish phenomenon is the home economics support group (article in Finnish only) operating in Parliament. The support group monitors the field of home economics, issues statements and organises educational events. It provides a connection with political decision-makers on issues related to home economics.