Why do we need Phenomenon-based Learning?

”Finland Will Become The First Country In The World To Get Rid Of All School Subjects!” I look at the headline in international magazine and think: ”Oh, really?” I glance at the current Finnish National Core Curriculum for Finnish Basic Education on my table and think, what are all the 16 different school subjects presented in the curriculum then for?

Even though it would be fascinating to think about an education built around investigating real-life phenomena only, Finland is not that radical. What is true, nevertheless, is that there is a strong emphasis on multidisciplinary studies and integrating different school subjects in Finland’s current curriculum.

There is some confusion about the concepts as well. By multidisciplinary studies we usually refer to the fact each school year every school in Finland must have at least one clearly-defined theme, project or course that combines the content of different subjects and deals with the selected theme from the perspective of several subjects.
Phenomenon-based learning on the other hand implies that holistic real-world phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and from different perspectives (of different school subjects) at the same time. In phenomenon-based learning the phenomenon itself is the starting point and object of studying and learning.

Reference: Hakkarainen, K. (1998): Epistemology of scientific inquiry and computer-supported collaborative learning.

Inquiry-based learning refers to an activating, learner-centered learning method based on students’ own work and research. An inquiry-based learning method is sometimes used to conduct phenomenon-based learning modules. Inquiry-based learning usually follows certain pre-defined steps like presented in this picture.

The need for multidisciplinary studies as well as phenomenon-based learning starts with the same remark: in order to understand the world around us, it is essential to study the complexity of real-life phenomena. Furthermore, if we want to gain skills needed in real life, we must practise them in realistic problem-solving situations.
This holistic approach has raised a lot of international interest. Professor Kirsti Lonka from the University of Helsinki published last year an in-depth book about the topic: Phenomenal Learning from Finland.

In her book, professor Lonka clearly states the need for this kind of wider approach: ”the society is changing so rapidly that creativity, thinking skills, and more wide-ranging expertise are called for. — Holistic and interdisciplinary thinking is important when solving the ill-structured and wicked problems of our time.” (Lonka 2018, 174-175).

The whole idea for strengthening the multidisciplinary approach in Finnish education has been to learn the vital skills needed in the future. These skills are called transversal competences and they play a central role in the Finnish national core curriculum. These transversal competencies should be applied to all subject areas and school subjects.

These broad-based competences have a lot in common with “21st Century Skills”, but the focus here is very practical and down-to-earth. The transversal competencies Finnish basic education aims to develop are:

  • Thinking and Learning to Learn
  • Cultural Competence, Interaction, and Self-Expression
  • Taking Care of Oneself and Managing Daily Life
  • Multiliteracy
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Competence
  • Working Life Competence and Entrepreneurship
  • Participation, Involvement, and Building a Sustainable Future

In her book, professor Lonka gives several examples about promoting all these different broad-based competences and illustrates practical cases of the phenomenon-based learning modules carried out in Finnish schools.

The most important thing after all, might not be the holistic understanding students gain about important issues as such. It is the journey that is meaningful: ”In high-quality and meaningful learning, we can make use of the human readiness to wonder, investigate, and go beyond personal ideas in intensive group work. This kind of creative process is not straightforward. In many cases, creative thinking and knowledge building takes place after taking some delusional paths of reasoning. — Developing high-quality thinking needs space for inquiries and wondering, even though it occurs within formal schooling.” (Lonka 2018, 178.)

Reference: Lonka, Kirsti (2018): Phenomenal learning from Finland.

You can order Phenomenal Learning from Finland book here or as an eBook sold by Ellibs.

Johanna Järvinen-Taubert