How Educators Engage in Phenomenon-based Learning

Stan Smith / December 04,2019

Giving Compass’ Take:

At the Hiidenkivi Comprehensive School near Helsinki, Finland, educators play a role in phenomenon-based learning that is interdisciplinary and driven by students’ inquires about the world.

How can U.S. educators learn from successful education programs in other countries?

Read about educating the whole-child through project-based learning in the U.S.

At the Hiidenkivi Comprehensive School near Helsinki, Finland, students don’t spend all their time learning what other people have discovered. They set out to discover new things on their own.

The students do this through nine-week long, interdisciplinary projects that the Finnish call “phenomenon-based learning,” a term coined by the country’s National Agency for Education.

Phenomenon-based learning is a lot like project-based learning, a more familiar term in the United States. Both prioritize hands-on activities that give students control over the direction of the project and both emphasize assignments that relate to the real world. They also emphasize student mastery of transferrable skills rather than a narrow set of facts identified by teachers. This gives kids more freedom to explore topics they find most interesting within a broad project theme.

But in Finland, phenomenon-based learning is nonnegotiably interdisciplinary, something that can get left out of projects in the U.S. And it must be driven by students’ own questions about the world, something central to another “PBL,” problem-based learning.

Petteri Elo has taught at the Hiidenkivi Comprehensive School for over 12 years. He described how phenomenon-based learning works at his school during the recent Global Education Symposium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized by EF Educational Tours. While Finland’s education agency requires all schools to offer at least one extended phenomenon-based learning activity each year, schools and individual teachers get wide latitude to do so as they wish.

Teachers have to make sure students know the foundational knowledge they need on a given topic to even consider developing a research question within it. They need to teach students how to craft appropriate research questions that can lead to interesting and engaging, and hopefully even original, research opportunities. And they need to pause the student-directed investigations to teach and model the skills students should be using on their own along the way.

Read the full article about phenomenon-based learning by Tara Garcia Mathewson at The Hechinger Report.

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