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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.

“When you say that phenomenon-based learning has to be student-centered, teachers think I can’t do anything, I just have to step back and let the students do their thing,” Elo said.

He hasn’t found that to be true.

Teachers have to make sure students know the foundational knowledge they need on a given topic to even consider developing a research question within it. They need to teach students how to craft appropriate research questions that can lead to interesting and engaging, and hopefully even original, research opportunities. And they need to pause the student-directed investigations to teach and model the skills students should be using on their own along the way.

Elo finds he constantly shifts from a more traditional direct-instruction approach to a hands-off one depending on what students need. Importantly, this back-and-forth ensures students get instruction on given skills or content right when they need to incorporate it into their projects. Before they would interview a professor via a video call, Elo would help them prepare good questions, for example, then leave them to run the interview on their own.

This system makes everything they learn more relevant to the students, a core goal of phenomenon-based learning in the first place.

“I withdraw when I see the kids don’t need me and they got it,” Elo said. There is still plenty for him to do in the classroom, however. “In my mind, I am teaching and modeling like crazy, but it’s not the content, it’s the skills.”

*Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that students in all grades complete phenomenon-based learning assignments.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about phenomenon based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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