Based on the definition of a phenomenon, I would say my four months learning about education in Finland is one. My time in Finland as a Fulbright Teacher was nothing but interesting and at times, unusual. For most Finnish citizens, what I constitute as interesting and unusual would be ordinary and traditional. I imagine Finns do not walk around Helsinki with gaping mouths and swiveling heads to admire the architecture (something I did every day). But if you asked a Finn and me about Yellowstone National Park’s geothermal activity (i.e. hot springs, mud pots), we would both agree that that is a natural phenomenon.
People usually tend to agree on what events could be coined, phenomena. Examples include scientific discoveries, trends in technology, natural disasters, and developments in engineering. We marvel at these extraordinary occurrences. Learning about or witnessing phenomena sparks our curiosities. When I first realized a total solar eclipse would be visible from my home town, my mind filled with wonderment and raced with questions. I began following astronomy-focused social media accounts; I watched video clips that explained an eclipse; and I checked out resources from the public library. My excitement for this natural phenomenon was shared by everyone I knew. This solar eclipse happened years after I graduated high school. Yet, I experienced an education like none other because the subject was enthralling and meaningful.
Students of all ages are constantly observing their surroundings. They notice trends that often adults overlook. What if students were given the opportunity to pursue their curiosities during the school day? It worked for me when I studied solar and lunar eclipses. Why not for students?
Phenomena and Teaching
In Finland, this approach to inquiry-based learning has become a reality. In 2016, Finland underwent a national curriculum reform. The new curriculum has changed many things in the everyday life in Finnish schools. Now, more than ever, the curriculum emphasizes skills, community-based practices, knowledge building, problem-solving, ongoing evaluation, self-evaluation, as well as the use of technology. A major component of the national curriculum reform is the implementation of phenomenon-based learning (PhenoBL).
PhenoBL is where students interact around real-world issues to solve a problem or explore a curiosity. Phenomenon-based teaching uses the natural curiosity of children to learn in a holistic and authentic context. Holistic real-world phenomena (i.e. solar eclipse) provide the motivating starting point for learning, instead of traditional school subjects. The information and skills related to the phenomenon crosses the boundaries between content areas. Students make connections between multiple subjects. Like all inquiry-based models, PhenoBL enables students to practice critical thinking, creativity, innovation, teamwork, and communication.
One Phenomenon, Many Perspectives
Phenomenon-based learning starts from the shared observation of real-world phenomena in the learning community. The observation is not limited to a single perspective of the topic. Instead, the phenomenon is studied from many points of view and integrates multiple content areas. For example, The English School in Helsinki, Finland conducted a phenomenon-learning week centered on the idea of “time.” Time was the one phenomenon, but students approached it from many different angles.
The English School’s entire student body from pre-school to grade six participated in the phenomenon-based learning event. First and second graders learned about Finnish clockmakers and then constructed their own grandfather clocks out of cardboard. Third grade classrooms created calendars from different cultures throughout history. Fourth and fifth graders projected the future of their city by designing blueprints and maps. At the end of sixth grade, students in this school go on a class trip to England. For their “time” projects, students created visual itineraries for their 8-day trip, conveying how time is an essential element of every activity. These projects are the result of questions posed by the students. Their inquiries directed the learning process and sustained students’ motivation.
Finland’s phenomenon-based learning is built on and sustained by inquiry. After students formulate the project’s essential question, they begin investigating the phenomenon using a variety of information sources. Research is not about memorizing facts. It is about evaluating sources, interpreting information, and using evidence to develop new understandings and hone skills. Students use information from their research to make sense of the phenomenon and address their driving questions. During inquiry, students will realize that the evidence collected leads to new ideas and even more questions. The information-seeking skills students acquire during PhenoBL will transfer between disciplines and into their everyday lives.
The results of PhenoBL extend beyond a final presentation. Students will experience the inquiry process, develop 21st century skills, and discover a new or renewed passion for learning. Even so, a culminating product is a major component of inquiry-based learning and rightly so. It gives students the opportunity to share their learning with an audience.
There are a number of formats students can choose from to demonstrate their learning. PhenoBL encourages students to consider new alternatives for sharing their projects. I have seen students create digital and physical posters, three-dimensional models, graphic designs, and short videos. If the presentation method is visible, it is acceptable. Through investigative research and product design, students will do more than master learning standards during PhenoBL. They will develop 21st century skills and a love for learning that inspires them to pursue their passions
There are a number of benefits when students engage in PBL and apply 21st century skills:
Wait, there’s more! PhenoBL promotes teacher collaboration. At Espoonlahti School, teachers team up to develop and implement interdisciplinary phenomenon projects. For example, the art and physics classes collaborate on learning to use lighting when photographing. Biology and cooking classes collaborate on a project where students learn about different kinds of fish and the preparation of seafood dishes.
PhenoBL also gives students the opportunity to explore. I observed a sixth grade class using high-tech virtual reality equipment to explore Google Earth. The HTC Vive headset uses "room scale" tracking technology, allowing students to move in 3D space and use motion-tracked handheld controllers to interact with the environment. Students had chosen a specific country they wanted to visit and prepared a detail itinerary based on their research.
During PhenoBL, students create. At one Finnish primary school, students explored “design” during their phenomenon-based learning week. After researching famous Finnish designers, students used Tinkercad, a 3D design program to create models of their own creations. The designs ranged from the practical like furniture to the imaginative like new modes of transportation.
And finally, students use PhenoBL to advocate. For one seventh grade class’ project, students researched the amount of water usage in their community and in their homes. Groups created graphs depicting this information along with facts and statistics to show the need for conservation. In addition to the research, students programmed LEGO robots to solve a set of missions that all pertain to water—how we find, transport, use, or dispose of it. At the end of the project, groups presented their research, programmed robotics, and proposed water conservation solutions to a panel of judges. The project began with the class’ desire to uncover a real life phenomenon. It ended with a group of empowered students who are ready to take action.
Yes, a fascinating phenomenon is at the center of Finland’s newest instructional model. But without students engaged in using the elements of inquiry, the phenomenon is like a star without orbiting planets. Students’ curiosities in the topic, their quest for information, and the efforts to construct products to demonstrate learning is what makes the phenomenon so interesting. PhenoBL inspires students to do more than shoot for the stars. It challenges them to pursue their dreams and shed light on what they once thought were mysteries.
The following video conveys the primary goal of PhenoBL—for students to pursue their passions, think critically, solve problems, and be creative.