What does phenomenon-based learning mean in practice? Come find out!

What is phenomenon-based learning in practice at the schools of Helsinki? Helsinki Education Week provides a good opportunity to find that out, as the schools invite guests to have a look at their everyday operations.

For example, visitors at Vesala Comprehensive School can look into workshops led by the pupils, the themes of which cover topics such as robotics, animal rights and research work.

“The contents of the workshops are based on the pupils’ own thoughts and interests. The contents were created in collaboration,” says teacher Panu Keskinen.

The school has a long history of maintaining a culture in which the pupils get to explore and work on things themselves. The school has had a designated plant and animal room for a long time, and several teachers are interested in robotics, for example.

Keskinen says that when pupils get to think about perspectives and take their time to look into each theme discussed, their learning deepens as well.

“The most enthusiastic pupils even work on things on their free time.”

The pupils’ knowledge and skills are built together, and the teacher acts as an instructor. Keskinen finds it essential that the pupils’ suggestions and questions are not rejected immediately. It is equally important to discuss themes through perspectives that motivate everyone to take part. The teacher plays an important role in creating a positive atmosphere.

Emphasis on learners’ questions

Studying cross-subject topics is key in phenomenon-based learning. The studies focus on real-world phenomena, and the pupils’ understanding of the topics is built together. The schools allocate time for phenomenon-based learning as an important supplement to the other forms of learning taking place.

Heidi Halkilahti laments that discussions regarding phenomenon-based learning are sometimes sidetracked. She works as a project planner in a phenomenon-based learning modelling project at the City of Helsinki.

Phenomenon-based learning has sometimes been seen as busywork that is detached from the goals of the curriculum and leaves the pupils to manage on their own.

“The teachers are bound by a curriculum that also obligates them to take a learner-oriented, communal and multidisciplinary approach. This is not just busywork by any means, but highly goal-oriented, long-term and versatile work with the learners.”

Halkilahti is a teacher herself. To her, the greatest significance of phenomenon-based learning lies in the value of each pupil: the goal is for each and every young person to find the joy of learning and interest in the world around them. This supports them and helps them develop into enthusiastic learners, as well as active and co-operative citizens.

Schools now face a major task in getting pupils to stop, think and focus – in order words, detach themselves from a sense of hurry.

“Schools used to lack a multifaceted, learner-oriented and long-term process in which the pupils themselves get to carry out things, ask questions, think about things and explore. Not everything is considered a viable study topic, as the activities must always have a goal.”

Halkilahti emphasises that phenomenon-based learning steers learners towards problem-solving, functionality, a multidisciplinary approach and independent responsibility.

No one knows what kind of a skill set will be required from people in the future. Thus, today’s learners must learn how to update their knowledge and skills while also discussing things, being critical where necessary and resolving matters together.

“Practising these multifaceted skills must be included in the school week from the start in order for learners to gradually learn to take responsibility for their own actions and learning,” Halkilahti notes.

“Best pupils in the universe”

Helsinki Education Week is full of events that enable participants to look into new ways of learning.

Teacher Panu Keskinen aims to attract visitors to Vesala by boasting that they will get an opportunity to meet the best learners in the universe.

After Vesala, visitors can move on to another school, such as Hiidenkivi Comprehensive School in Tapanila. Phenomenon-based learning is emphasised at Hiidenkivi as well, and visitors will have an opportunity to see how the school applies group pedagogy.

Teacher Katariina Räkköläinen says that the pupils of Hiidenkivi all sit in four-person groups. The teacher selects the pupils’ table groups, and the pupils are in the same group for around ten weeks. After that, new groups are formed.

The pupils’ roles change as well. They take turns acting as chairpersons, bookkeepers, organisers, environmental managers, etc. The groups also take various discussion and co-operation exercises.

During Helsinki Education Week, Hiidenkivi Comprehensive School will offer presentations open to all visitors, as well as designated presentations for pedagogues.