Phenomenon Based Learning

Phenomenon Based learning (PhenoBL) was introduced in the Finnish Core Curriculum 2014. It is a form of webbed integration and thematic teaching. Different topics are studied from an interdisciplinary perspective. One could also argue that it is one type of a Content Based Instruction (CBI) model or Problem Based learning (PBL) or Inquiry learning. The city of Helsinki has made PhenoBL as one of their major target areas in instruction and all the K-12 schools are expected to include PhenoBL units in their curricula.

According to Silander (2015) PhenoBL starts from holistic real-world phenomena as the starting point. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied interdisciplinary. It differs from the traditional school which is divided into subjects, where the things studied are often decontextualized, making it sometimes problematic for the students to understand larger concepts and the relationships between different phenomena.

The PhenoBL structure creates excellent opportunities for integrating different subjects as well as the systematic use of pedagogically meaningful methods, such as Inquiry Learning, Project and/or Problem Based Learning (PBL), and portfolios. (Silander, 2015) One aspect of PhenoBL is that questions and problems arise from the learners. Under the given phenomena learners together, collaboratively pose the questions and problems they want to study.

Aki Luostarinen: Ilmiöprosessin suunnittelu – planning the learning process

PhenoBL also emphasizes that knowledge needs to be presented in authentic contexts. It can be seen as a continuum form the Situated Learning Theory (Jean Lave) and Anchored Learning, where the settings and situations that would normally involve that knowledge are an essential part of the learning. Learning, both outside and inside school, develops through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge. Situated learning is related to Vygotsky’s notion of learning through social development and it can also be traced to Dewey’ s Pedagogic Creed “I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activities” (Dewey, 1897, p.78)

A list of reflective questions to use with your team

When working with your team, its necessary for you to reflect on your work regularly. Here is a list of reflective questions you can use:

A list of Reflective questions

Answer the questions first by yourself. Then share your answers with the team, do you agree or disagree?

Can you state the purpose of this group as well as the routines and procedures?
Do people on the team know who you are and what you have to offer?
Do you feel like a valued member of the team with equal voice?

Are you clear on why you are a member of this team and what part you play?
Do you feel that someone needs to tell the team what to do?
Is there confusion about goals, roles, timelines, or tasks?

Are there disagreements within or outside of meeting times?
Are people choosing sides or forming cliques?
Are some people just doing their own thing?

Is there intolerance for different opinions?
Is leadership shared among members?
Is the team focused on the quality of their work and communication?

Do people trust each other?
Are you honest with your team members?
Does the dialogue follow the guidelines of voicing, listening, suspending and respecting?

Are you proud of the quality of work your team produces?
Is the team analyzing their work and learning from their mistakes?
Is the team dedicated to helping each other learn and grow?

Are conflicts handled in respectful and helpful ways?
Are you celebrating your success regularly?

a list of Reflective questions

Professional learning community (PLC)

The term professional learning community is used in various ways. It can be used to describe every possible action that takes place in the field of education, as long as multiple persons are involved. It can refer to a grade level teaching team, a school committee, a department in a school, a whole school district, a national professional association, and so on. This is probably the most common form of collaboration or team work in all the schools around the world.

In my school we use teams for two different purposes. First, we have teams that organize the everyday life in school. One team that takes care of all the events we have, one team to organize PD events and materials for our teachers (I belong to this team and will write about it more later on), one team to take care of our international collaboration projects with European schools, one team to take care of the emotional well-being of students and personnel, and so on.

Second, we form a team to plan and execute the team-based learning unit that we have every year. We start the forming of the teacher team in the spring. The team usually consists of 5 teachers from different academic fields. One of the goals of the unit is to give the students possibilities to work on cross-curricular topics. The planning of the unit starts with setting the goals and common values. This phase usually takes a lot of time, because the teachers have to familiarize themselves with all the curriculums for the different subjects and then set COMMON goals. Sometimes it helps if the team decides on different roles to help goal setting. Here is one example of a handout you can use:

Roles handout

2016-02-25 07.11.13

Richard DuFour in his book Learning by Doing (2006),  introduces some principles that should be applied when talking about professional learning communities.

1. The very core of a PLC is the focus and the commitment to the learning of all students. To be able to do this the members of the PLC must have a clear vision what the values and visions of the organization are. The assumption is that if the organization wants to become better in helping the students learn, the teachers must also be learners.

2. Collaborative teams that are working towards a common goal form the PLC. The team members work interdependently to ensure learning for all. Collaboration is a way to get to the results. “In a PLC, collaboration represents a systematic process in which teachers work together interdependently in order to impact their classroom practice in ways that will lead to better results for their students, for their team, and for their school.”

3. The teams are action orientated and engage in collective inquiry. They are interested in both best practices in learning as well as teaching. They understand that the most powerful learning involves action. Learning by doing develops a deeper understanding than just learning by reading or thinking. Teams are also constantly searching for better ways and do not settle for status quo. They implement new ideas and strategies, analyze change and apply knowledge for continuous improvement.

4. Finally, the members of PLC teams understand that their work must be continuously assessed. Ongoing assessment of the concrete results helps the teams to develop and improve.





Team based learning and my school

The learning in the Finnish high school has previously had a strong focus on the individuals and the Matriculation Examination. Learning and teaching have both been lonely jobs. Today, there is a change towards more collaborative methods, but the change is slow.

In fall 2016 the schools in Finland started to work with the new core curriculum, and we were definitely taking a step into a new direction. The new core curriculum emphasizes co-operation, student-centered methods, problem-based approaches and the use of technology. But, the students are still too often educated into a system where they are told what to learn, how to learn and when to learn. I want to teach the students to take responsibility of their own studying as a way to become more aware of themselves as learners. I strongly believe that when students “own” their own learning, learning becomes more meaningful and interesting.

In my school, we have experimented with team-based learning (TBL) for four years. Our goal is to develop a learning environment, where the teachers more or less “coach” the students in their studies. We focus on personalized learning environments and we do it together. Teachers work as a team to plan, execute and assess learning. We use problem-based and phenomenon-based methods and students also work in teams.

Our next collaboratively planned unit for our freshmen class will start in two weeks (October 1st). In the unit we’ll combine 5 subjects: Two languages English and Finnish (students’ mother tongue), Social Studies, Sports and Student counselling. There are six teachers who plan, execute and assess the unit. I will write more about the planning and also the execution later on, so don’t forget to subscribe to get the new posts! If you are in Facebook, I’ll share there photos and videos from the unit so join my community there as well.

One of the first planning sessions last spring

Eleven facts about Finnish education

This post is a very brief introduction to Finnish education. I chose 11 facts which I feel describe our system the best. Later on I’ll write more about our schools and especially about collaboration, but this is to get you acquainted.

One of the basic principles of Finnish education is that all people must have equal access to high-quality education. The same educational opportunities should be available to all citizens irrespective of their ethnic origin, age, wealth or where they live. We have very few private schools and they actually follow the same core curriculum as state schools.

1. In Finland education is free at all levels from pre-primary to higher education. Even the few private schools are publicly funded. After grades 1-9 students usually have to buy their books, laptops and other materials themselves, but there are no tuition fees.

2. Every student has the right to educational support and we think that the potential of each student should be maximized. Therefore, educational guidance is seen as essential. Guidance and counselling are seen as part of evert teacher’s job.

3. Special needs education is generally provided in conjunction with mainstream education. Every student has the right to general support.

4. The Finnish education system has no dead-ends. Students can always continue their studies to higher level, no matter what choices they have made earlier.

Photo: Finnish National Agency of Education


5. Most education is publicly funded and the responsibility for educational funding is divided between the state and the local authorities.

6. The national education administration is organized at two levels. On the state level: Ministry of Education and Culture. and The Finnish National Agency of Education. On the local level: municipalities or joint municipal authorities.

7. Educational autonomy is high at all levels Education providers are responsible for practical teaching arrangements as well as the effectiveness and quality of their education.

8. Teachers have pedagogical autonomy. They can decide themselves the methods of teaching as well as textbooks and materials.

9. Quality assurance is based on steering instead of controlling In Finland school inspections were abolished in the early 1990s.

10. Teaching is an attractive career choice in Finland. Thus, the teacher education institutions can select those applicants most suitable for the teaching profession.

11. Teachers in basic and general upper secondary education are required to hold a Master’s degree.


Source of the facts: Finnish National Agency of Education

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