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. At Hiidenkivi, students in grades one* through nine tackle two nine-week-long assignments per year that cross four academic subject areas each. Students recently explored topics within “sustainable development” across physics, chemistry, geography and math. In geography, for example, they focused on the Arctic and global warming; in math they practiced statistics.
Elo is a champion of phenomenon-based learning and its value to students. But some of his colleagues took a while to adopt his enthusiasm. After the elementary grades, when teachers specialize in individual subjects, it can be complicated to coordinate an interdisciplinary project. Many of Elo’s colleagues also struggled to understand their role in a learning process that is supposed to be student-centered.