Phenomenon-based learning

Teachers around the world will be all too familiar with inputting unsolicited curriculum changes with little to no time or money to get them off the ground. It’s quite possible that teachers may struggle to see the point in some of these curriculum changes but, here in Finland, I think I’ve found one of particular interest and import: phenomenon-based learning.

“We’re not learning because of school; we’re learning because of life.” 

Finland is currently undergoing a curriculum overhaul and phenomenon-based learning is the phrase on everyone’s lips. This certainly wouldn’t scare many UK primary school teachers because it’s a lot like teaching by topic, however, one key difference in Finland is that this cross-curricular method will be implemented all the way through grade school, meaning up until students are 16 years old. Another noteworthy detail is that teachers must base the learning and teaching in its real context so that information and skills are developed regardless of any perceived boundaries between the subjects in the traditional sense.

According to the website, phenomenaleducation.info, “phenomena are  holistic topics like human, European Union, media and technology, water or energy. The starting point differs from the traditional school culture divided into subjects, where the things studied are often split into relatively small, separate parts.” This division of information into subjects has the effect of decontextualisation, thereby making the learning less relatable to young people and demotivating students. Phenomenon-based structure seeks to promote inquiry learning, problem-based learning, and creative thinking alongside being student-led in the true sense of the word. Students explore a topic or question (or phenomenon) of personal interest in their own way and present their findings, whatever their findings, as they choose. This puts the student as the active agent at the centre of the learning process, immediately giving value to any information or skills that they learn along the way.

So far, I’ve been a fly on the wall in two classes taking part in phenomenon-based learning and discussed the students’ progress with their teachers. One teacher commented on how their students have increased their confidence through the opportunities for social interaction on trips and visits; another explained how much more effort she has seen students put into the projects based on questions they posed and answered themselves. She also noted how much project-based learning demands students work together, requiring them to communicate and cooperate with each other- skills much needed by many of us in today’s world of work. This same teacher freely admitted that she doesn’t know what information her students will need by the time they enter employment: “I don’t know what they will need to know, but they will need to be able to think for themselves, solve problems creatively and work as a team. These are the skills they are learning here.”

Perhaps most notably, when I asked the headteacher for her views on phenomenon-based learning and the difficulties of tracking student progress that might arise, she remarked:

“We’re not learning because of school; we’re learning because of life.”

And she sincerely means it. This is not a headteacher under pressure to measure her students, or staff for that matter, against national standards. She is free, and seemingly very happy, to allow both learners and teachers to embark upon this exploratory learning path and see where it takes them. There are no preconceived learning outcomes or targets hidden up her sleeve, just a happy collision of idealism and logic which sees students empowered in the classroom as they develop transferable skills in an authentic context.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Phenomenon-based learning

  1. Wow, this form of education sounds excellent. By allowing the children to find their own way through a learning process would surely be more stimulating than the more dictatorial approach that naturally occurs with subject teaching. Could this be alligned with how art is taught in the UK where a subject or word is selected and the students develop a notebook to map their thought process through the said subject whilst producing various pieces of art to visualise it?

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  2. This makes absolute sense. I wish this school of thought had been around when I was at secondary school. All my knowledge is compartmentalised into subjects and not joined up at all. Our education system is so entrenched in attaining targets in individual subjects that there is no room for exploration or free thinking. Time for a shakeup – it would be phenomenal.

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  3. Very interesting stuff, Lauren. I’ll be following your research with great interest. Do you know why Finnish education is having a rehaul? I thought it was doing well anyway. What were the problems Finns perceived in their old system, and how does phenomenon based learning help address them? And is there anything akin to a core curriculum that guarantees basic skills in, say, numeracy and literacy?

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    1. Great questions Matt! I’ll be investigating the answers in more depth and perhaps should do another blog post to answer in more detail but some brief answers for now… The Finnish curricula are re-written about once every 10 years anyway to ensure they reflect current student needs and pedagogical developments. Perceived problems in the old system included too much teacher-led “traditional” teaching and learning styles being used, whereas phenomenon-based learning puts the student at the centre of an independent learning project which they devise, track and present according to their own wishes. There is a core curriculum which guarantees basic skills in numeracy and literacy but the way that this is delivered and monitored is undergoing a lot of change. Plus, although this information is harder to quantify, there isn’t really the same obsession with proving that students are making progress towards itemised subject targets, particularly when students are under 13 years of age. Many teachers and parents express their concerns about grading and levelling children too much as it is seen to negatively impact their confidence and overall experience of school. Teachers and parents alike are keen that their students/children want to attend school, a place which they believe the “whole-child” should grow and succeed in many ways. Matching this, teachers don’t just record and report academic success.

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