Finland’s education system made international headlines for being the first country to get rid of traditional school subjects after implementing their new National Core Curriculum for Basic Education in 2016. The headlines were misleading, however—the Finnish curriculum does still teach subjects throughout comprehensive education from first grade onwards. What’s changed is that the emphasis is now on transversal competences as opposed to subject-specific content.
Known as phenomenon-based learning (PBL), this new pedagogical method, which focuses on teaching 21st-century skills, requires subject teachers to collaborate to design and implement holistic, student-centred, multidisciplinary learning processes. It’s all about making sure children are prepared to adapt to whatever the future holds.
In today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, there is an absolute abundance of information readily available at every student’s fingertips. Schools are faced with the challenge of helping students to understand how to effectively search for and categorize information and stay both focused and motivated.
Phenomenon-based learning engages students with wider transdisciplinary phenomena and gets students actively designing their own learning path whilst collaborating with each other. In this approach, a phenomenon is an observable event, and phenomenon-based learning is a way of using overlapping methods and perspectives to understand that observable event. That observable phenomenon will be something that interests them—environmental challenges, for example, or transport solutions. This represents a transformative shift away from teacher-centred pedagogy towards more student-centred methods.
Phenomenon-based learning empowers students to be agents of their own learning and equips them with the essential skill of collaboration which will bode them well whatever their future paths may be. The goal is to help students find meaning in their studies and gain an understanding of real-world problems. By studying across subject boundaries, students learn about shared expertise, how to become an active and collaborative citizen, and how to understand the relationships and interdependencies between different subjects. Students also become better at combining the knowledge and skills provided by different subjects to form meaningful and a more holistic understanding of the phenomena. Phenomenon-based learning teaches students problem-solving, critical thinking, responsibility, collaboration, inquiry-based learning, and how to tackle real-world problems.
Phenomenon-based learning may require extra time allocated towards it as planning, executing, and assessing one’s work takes time. 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. According to the National Core Curriculum, schools across Finland are obliged to introduce one multidisciplinary module of phenomenon-based learning at least once per year for each student. These learning modules can last several weeks. In Helsinki, however, the reform is proceeding at a faster pace with schools encouraged to design at least two learning modules per year. Some schools have managed to do as many as four to six modules spanning several weeks each per year.
The acquisition of the transversal competences highlighted in the curriculum can be accomplished in various ways. Phenomenon-based learning moves through the following five stages.
1. Begin by setting common goals and specifying the assessment criteria. The goals stem both from those set for the subjects’ curricula and those related to the phenomenon, and others based on the learner’s own goals.
2. Researching the phenomenon through texts, images, videos, visits, and brainstorming, learners become curious and motivated about their chosen topic. Learning starts from a shared observation of genuine real-world phenomena in the learning community. The observation is not limited to one single point of view; the phenomena are instead studied in a holistic way from different points of view, crossing the boundaries between subjects naturally and integrating different subjects and themes.
3. The students collaboratively chart their personal preconceptions, prior knowledge, and their expectations about the phenomenon. It is extremely important that the students set their own personal goals in relation to the phenomenon under study.
4. During the research and data acquisition stage, learners immerse themselves in the phenomenon through research, visits to museums or other information sources, or interviewing experts. Knowledge is built and shared in collaboration with one another. Deep learning comes from learners applying and using new information throughout the process.
5. Learners are constantly sharing their learning outcomes with one another. Throughout the process, students are asked to model their thinking and explain their findings. Portfolio assessment is very important as it demonstrates the student’s way of thinking and documents the process from beginning to end.
Liisa Pohjolainen, the Chief Executive Director of the Education Division in Helsinki, received the Helsinki Design Award for phenomenon-based learning in 2017 for encouraging schools to implement the new methodology creatively and in collaboration. Funded by a grant from the Finnish National Agency for Education, the City of Helsinki launched a project aimed at providing practical tools to aid teachers in planning and execution for PBL. One of the tools was launched during Helsinki Education Week in November 2019—it’s a special deck of cards for planning a phenomenon-based learning process. These were developed by expert teachers who analysed the key elements of PBL and then co-created planning tools for teachers and students to be used across the city’s schools. Other online tools have been developed that help both teachers and students to plan and assess their PBL processes. The teachers and students started putting these tools into practice across Helsinki’s schools in 2020.
This is just the beginning. The necessity to have a transdisciplinary understanding of the world will be inevitable across all levels of education, and Finland intends to be at the forefront of this new approach. With the implementation of a new core curriculum for secondary education in 2021, the baccalaureate final examinations, the only standardized testing done in Finland, will also incorporate a multidisciplinary approach reflecting phenomenon-based learning principles. Finland will be the only country in the world to incorporate such aspects into a standardized exam. The 2019 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (WEFFI) rated Finland as the world leader in teaching skills for the future. While their famously high Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have decreased recently, Finland is still among the highest-performing OECD countries along with Canada, Ireland and Estonia.
For the Finns, however, there is something much more important than PISA rankings. For them, the purpose of education is to prepare students with skills for the future. Through phenomenon-based learning, students learn to solve complex real-life problems in a collaborative way while learning to learn. Whatever challenges the future holds, these students will be ready to tackle them.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ilona Taimela & Heidi Halkilahti
Ilona Taimela is a Pedagogical Expert at the City of Helsinki.
Heidi Halkilahti is an Innovator in Phenomenon-based Learning at the City of Helsinki.
This article appears in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2020 issue.