Phenomenon based learning in Finland
Apr 29, 2020
Finland has gained a world-wide reputation for it’s educational system after repeatedly performing well in the PISA rankings, as well as it's high level of teacher job satisfaction and retention. Other attractive things about the Finnish education system include the level of respect and autonomy given to teachers, the lack of standardised testing, shorter school days and a more flexible curriculum. As a result of this, many educational researchers have studied the Finnish education system in order to see if their principles can be applied elsewhere in the world.
A somewhat recent initiative in Finland is the mandatory incorporation of Phenomenon Based Learning (PhBL) into the curriculum. This involves choosing real-world phenomena to study, such as ‘human’, ‘water’, or ‘energy’. It is integrated across learning areas and includes the use of inquiry, problem based and project based learning. All subjects are taught within the context, or through the 'lens', of the phenomenon.
The definition of the word 'phenomenon' is: a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question. Whilst similar to 'theme' based learning, it's not exactly the same - the main difference being the requirement of it being an authentic, real world fact or situation, whereas themes may not be (for example, a common theme in English is 'dystopia', which is fictional). Similarly, it could be argued that the theme of 'sustainability' is not a phenomenon, but rather a practice or idea to aspire to, whereas 'climate change' would be considered to be a phenomenon.
Through PhBL, students have a large degree of say over what it is that they study - in fact the Finnish curriculum states that students must be involved in the planning of the project. Students pose questions or problems related to the phenomenon and then all knowledge and skills that are taught in each subject are applied to the phenomenon. It is more of a constructivist approach, where students take the lead in finding information and making sense of it.
The aim of this style of teaching is to equip students with 21st century skills such as real-world problem solving and collaboration. The philosophy behind it is that many of the real-world challenges that need to be dealt with today and into the future, such as climate change or immigration, can not be pigeon holed into one subject area - rather, students need to be able to draw upon knowledge and skills across learning areas and make deep connections. It is believed that through the integration of learning areas, a deeper and more holistic understanding can be achieved and problems can be solved from a variety of angles.
When teaching through PhBL, you are streamlining content and avoiding unnecessary duplication. This then frees up time to spend developing important skills such as critical and creative thinking, collaboration, real-world problem solving, self-regulation and emotional intelligence, all of which are critical to future success. In addition, through teaching it through a real-world situation, you are making the content more meaningful to students who are therefore more likely to engage with it.
Obviously this approach is very different to what we are currently doing in Australia and other places around the world. Here, learning areas are taught in isolation from each other, even when there is obvious overlap in the curriculum. Departments are also very separate from each other and do not tend to work together at all. Even subjects within learning areas are taught in isolation of each other. For example, the Humanities learning area comprises of civics, history, geography and economics, often with a term dedicated to each topic. However, there is quite a bit of overlap (for example, globalisation is taught in both Yr 9 geography and economics), so it's worth considering if some elements of PhBL could be implemented here as well. In addition, there are often overlap between learning areas (for example, the topic of water is covered in Yr 7 geography and Yr 7 science). Even when there is not obvious overlap in content, there are still opportunities to work in a more integrated manner through the lens of various 'phenomena'.
Whilst our curriculum here is unlikely to mandate PhBL anytime soon as Finland has done, for those who are interested, there are some ways of trying out this approach in your own classroom. First of all, check your curriculum. You will most likely find that there isn't anything in your curriculum that prohibits you from using this approach, and there may even be statements that clearly allow it - for example, our curriculum here in Australia states that in regards to the Humanities and Social Sciences learning area, Civics and Citizenship, Economics and Business, Geography and History can be taught separately, or through programs created to link to more than one subject or to link to the content in other learning areas. So integrating 2 subjects within the same learning area would be a good place to start, by teaching them in tandem over the course of a whole semester. Or, you could team up with a colleague from a different department that share the same class as you, and create a short project that could be done between the 2 learning areas. There are all kinds of possibilities that could be explored further, and ways that you could test the waters, to decide if it is a method that you would like to make further use of in the future.
In terms of creating meaningful and inspirational learning experiences, and allowing time to develop and embed important 21st century skills, phenomenon based learning seems to have many positives worth considering.