Phenomenon-based learning: a case study

If you’re not sure what Phenomenon-based Learning is, have a look at my previous blog post or, if you’re very keen, this is a great website to get you started: http://www.phenomenaleducation.info/ 

During my WCMT travels I visited Tampere, the second largest city in Finland, where I observed a class of sixth graders (C6) starting the new school year with a phenomenon-based learning (PBL) project on the topic of Forests. They have previously undertaken PBL projects about Europe, The Human Body and Vikings with the same class teacher (T1).

When interviewed, T1 expressed her belief that school should, above all, provide a place for students to develop their self-knowledge and personal character as well as being a centre of academic learning. She believes that, because knowledge is everywhere in our society, students must focus on learning skills, most importantly perhaps, learning how to work together, to respect everybody, to plan and manage projects, to find and process relevant knowledge in a world where information is in abundance and to learn for themselves.

How was the PBL project organised?

The planning stage places students at the centre of the learning process. In their groups, the students discuss what they want to find out, set personal learning goals and decide how they will present their learning at the end of the project. This planning is usually completed as a group mindmap or padlet and students decide how they will create a common display to showcase what they’ve learnt.[1]

T1 then begins a class discussion, where students plan how best to learn those things, for example by taking a trip into the forest, visiting a museum, researching online or in the library, or by asking a professional such as a doctor to deliver a class talk. When they start to work, the students decide what they are most interested in learning more about and begin to research this in their groups, using the methods discussed.

How are students monitored or assessed during a PBL project?

During the project planning process, students consider how they will present what they have learnt at the end of the project. For example, at the end of their Vikings project, some groups made large, intricate model Viking boats which they presented to the class explaining the finer details of their models. This predominantly revealed their historical knowledge but they also communicated what they’d learnt in terms of design and technology, art and geography, alongside other skills. Another group researched and painted detailed cliffs which Vikings would have had to descend with their boats alongside presenting what they had learnt about cliffs as a geographical structure.

However, the final piece of work or presentation is not the only assessment or the most important one. T1 carefully tracks each student’s progress throughout the project through observations and 1:1 discussions with individuals. For each student, T1 makes careful notes from these discussions and shares this information with parents/carers.Parents are encouraged to return this monthly report with their feedback, enabling an on-going dialogue between teacher and student.

T1 also records the role that each student took in each project to ensure that students vary their roles from project to project. She also ensures groups can explain their project plan during the process and clarify their next steps to meet the deadline (time management is an important skill for students to develop through PBL).

T1 expresses that variation in assessment styles and grading is essential in changing education. Alongside written tests, T1 incorporates oral tests at the end of projects where students are given the opportunity to tell her what they have learnt in a discussion of their project. T1 has found many less academic students (in the traditional sense that they do not enjoy or excel at writing or written tests) express that they find oral tests much easier than written and have been very pleased, sometimes shocked, by the positive outcome of these oral exams.

Perhaps most notably, when grading their projects, T1 emphasises that it is not the final result that determines their grade, but the process they went through to achieve the final piece of work. For example, if a student decided to produce a painting, it’s not the painting that is graded but how they did it: the planning, the thinking, the ideas, the process.

 

The students also partake in peer assessment at the end of a project where the focus is on providing positive, constructive ideas on how to improve and achieve further. This leads into the class establishing a class goal (usually put on display in the classroom) to which all will aspire, such as, “We will listen when others are speaking.”

T1, like most teachers and headteachers who I spoke to in Finland, does not believe it is enough for parents to know how their child achieved in an exam. Instead, she relays an account of the child’s personal goals, news and feelings about their school experience to give parents/carers a broader perspective on how their child experiences school day-to-day gleaned from a monthly 1:1 with each student. Alongside test scores, T1 shares the students’ perception of their strengths, how they want to develop socially, emotionally and any personal goals they hope to achieve, even if related to a hobby, rather than an academic subject. T1 believes this to be the key to students’ self-knowledge, a balanced education and thereby, towards the student’s understanding of their direction in life.

 How successful is this teaching and learning method?

  • When interviewed, students emphasise that they enjoy the freedom and independence afforded to them by this learning structure.
  • Students work independently and develop a range of skills required in the modern workplace: discussion, teamwork, planning, time-management, online research, information processing and presentation skills.
  • Subjects are integrated and students learn in a variety of contexts which makes the learning more relatable and meaningful.
  • Students feel they are learning for themselves, not for the teacher or to pass a test. They have planned their own project and are motivated to take part for themselves, often deepening their knowledge through independent research which they choose to conduct at home.
  • Students feel motivated because they have set their own learning goals and project outcome. Often, what they choose to find out is available in the textbook but, because they have chosen what to discover in their class and group discussions, they are self-directed which appears much more interesting and motivates the students.
  • Project-based learning fires many problems at students which they are required to solve independently so they learn to think for themselves.
  • Working together develops their social-emotional intelligence. T1 has found students improved their ability to solve disputes without her intervention possibly due to the improved communication and empathy skills developed via PBL.

Are there any disadvantages to this learning style?

  • It can take time for students to acclimatise to this learning process. At first, T1 found there was a student who did very little, who claimed they didn’t know what to do or who complained that other students didn’t let him/her join in, but now they have completed one project and are more familiar with the process, they have vastly improved their ability to self-manage.
  • It can be more work for the teacher to prepare in terms of planning, preparing the progress-tracking process and making time for monthly discussions with each student. Nevertheless, T1 finds the long-term benefits of her students’ self-confidence and the social coherence of the class to be very fruitful.
  • The classroom can be quite noisy during PBL hours compared to a traditional image of a classroom of students working quietly at their desks but that is because students are active and at the centre of a truly student-led learning process. T1 explains that we don’t know what sort of jobs we’re preparing students for so it’s important that they have excellent team-building and social skills.
  • Some students are very reliant on computers or tablets to complete their research so it is up to teachers to direct students to a variety of resources and learning contexts to develop their range of learning experiences.
  • Schools, such as UK secondary schools, who organise the timetable into discrete subjects would need to alter school timetabling to enable PBL due to its cross-curricular nature and make time for teachers to collaborate during the planning process. This could be challenging given the workload of most UK teachers.

[1] Padlet is a quick and easy to use formative assessment tool for everyday use in the classroom. See padlet.com to create one or YouTube for a quick padlet how-to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c9vWCPn8ys

 

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