Personally Meaningful Learning Through Phenomenon-Based Classes

Finland’s ranking on international tests has slipped in recent years. What should it do in response? Increase homework? Lengthen the school day and the school year?

These approaches might seem logical to an American, but this is not the direction the new curriculum is taking. As education theorist Pasi Sahlberg has noted:

“You may wonder why Finland’s education authorities now insist that all schools must spend time on integration and phenomenon-based teaching when Finnish students’ test scores have been declining in the most recent international tests. The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were.”

I love this final sentence: instead of punishing students for “falling” in international competition, educators are instead trying to figure out how to better prepare them for life. “[I]ntegration and phenomenon-based teaching” are not the only changes the new core curriculum is bringing, but I want to pause and think about phenomenon-based learning for a moment.

What is phenomenon-based learning? Here is a two-paragraph explanation by Pasi Silnder, who leads a project to digitalize education in Helsinki:

“In Phenomenon Based Learning (PhenoBL) and teaching, holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects. Phenomena are holistic topics like human [rights], 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 (decontextualisation).

“Phenomenon-based structure in a curriculum also actively creates better  opportunities for integrating different subjects and themes as well as the systematic use of pedagogically meaningful methods, such as inquiry learning, problem-based  learning, project learning and portfolios. The phenomenon-based approach is also key in the versatile utilisation of different learning environments (e.g. in diversifying and enriching learning while using eLearning environments).”

Here is a brief video that offers an example of phenomenon-based learning at the elementary level.

The goal is to engage students directly in creating their own learning environments and to invest them in that learning by allowing them to consider topics that are important to them. This doesn’t mean “traditional” classrooms disappear: phenomenon-based learning is one of many strategies Finnish teachers, respected as professionals and trusted to pursue successful methods, are encouraged to use by the National Board of Education.

This is appealing to me because it shows real potential for learning. Not learning for a test, but learning which means taking personal hold over meaning. When we care about something, we learn it. When asked to remember “a bunch of facts,” students load them in their short-term memory before an exam and let them go immediately after as the next truckload of data comes in. Can you imagine HOW COOL it would be  to take (or teach) a class that looked at the history of energy and energy production before shifting to a focus on the science and policy of the transition to low-carbon alternatives?

So how could this work in an American History classroom in the US? Here is a thumbnail, back-of-the-matchbook sketch:

  1. On the first day of the course, break the class into groups and then ask each group to come up with a topic for investigation. This process would take a (structured) week, each unit would be given roughly a month. The idea being each group could find something they were all interested in knowing more about and they would have to do a little preliminary research to make sure it is a broad enough topic. “Sexism” would be too broad and some thought might lead students to “why aren’t women paid equally?” The teacher might suggest aspects of history to consider, but care must be taken not to press the students into a topic already favored by the teacher. Each group will also make a written proposal by the end of the week.
  2. The teacher then selects the order of the topics of study for the term and begins gathering useful resources. They might decide on aspects of the topic for each group to focus on as well, using the proposals as a guide.
  3. For any given unit, the members of the group who picked that topic would then disperse into the other groups as leaders for that unit. The teacher sequences the unit and work with each group to structure the project. Then each group with its leader investigates their aspect of the chosen topic. The teacher’s job is to help the students overcome difficulties in their information-gathering process, while not giving in to the temptation to “give the students the answer.” After gathering their materials, each group puts together an oral presentation and some other “product” by the end of the unit, “Videos, Animations, Wikis, Mind-maps, PPTs and Documents using online platforms like Google Classrooms, Wikispaces, Storify, Flickr etc. to develop and demonstrate their understanding of the phenomenon.”  The final week of the unit is given over to presentation and discussion.
  4. During the presentation week, students’ homework is self-assessment (this is key, but I can’t fit any more on the back of this matchbook). They explain their learning process, what they learned and what they still want to know, using a rubric provided by the teacher. They also evaluate their own pattern of work (what worked for them and what didn’t) and their contribution to their team. They consider what the project left them wondering about and what they would like to study next. This way, students get into the (natural) habit of investigating something interesting to themselves.

This (simplified) concept could be carried out on an individual basis as well–or in pairs. It depends on the size of the class and how many moving parts the teacher wants to manage. What is key is student agency in determining the topic and self-assessment.

It is likely that such an approach would tug the study of the past into the present because teenagers are likely to begin with questions relevant to their own experience. Before using this as a reason to dismiss such an approach, we might ask ourselves how much colonial history we really remember from 11th-grade and why-oh-why we wouldn’t want history to be “relevant.”



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