Learning starts from a phenomenon

UEF Bulletin 2017

The new curriculum designed for Finnish comprehensive schools is internationally unique and even revolutionary. Phenomenon-based learning breaks boundaries between subjects, changes the role of teachers, and highlights students’ learning skills.

Text Sari Eskelinen Photos Tuija Hyttinen

The new curriculum of Finnish comprehensive schools is built around phenomena. On some international forums, this has been interpreted as Finnish schools no longer having separate subjects, Professor Laura Hirsto says.

This, however, is not the case. Different subjects continue to be taught in Finnish schools, but the phenomenon-based approach strongly encourages teachers to cross subject boundaries.

The trend is also visible in teacher education. According to Academy Research Fellow Teemu Valtonen, student teachers are actively introduced to methods that are suitable for phenomenon-based teaching – but that’s nothing new in Finnish teacher education.

“Hopefully our new curriculum and phenomenon-based approach haven’t led people to think that Finnish schools have been shaken to the core and everything has changed,” Valtonen says.

But what has changed? Professor Kati Mäkitalo-Siegl says that the phenomenon-based approach highlights students’ learning processes better. Teaching no longer focuses on content alone – emphasis is also placed on students’ individual learning skills.

“This is where the viewpoint of student evaluation comes into play. Teachers now need to be able to evaluate the entire learning process, and changing old evaluation methods may prove challenging,” Mäkitalo-Siegl says.

With the phenomenon-based approach emphasising students’ individual agency, the role of the teacher also changes.

“Teachers are required to have more and more skills relating to the regulation of the learning process. It is their task to facilitate questions posed by students and to further help refine these questions within the framework provided by the curriculum," Hirsto explains.,” Hirsto explains.

Mäkitalo-Siegl points out that the phenomenon-based approach is just one way to deliver teaching, and that’s something that should be borne in mind.

“Unfortunately, we often see issues relating to teaching in black and white. The advantage of the phenomenon-based approach is that it is built on questions stemming from students and their existing knowledge structures.”

Hirsto emphasises that the phenomenon-based approach is primarily about seeing learning as a process that is built around students’ personal knowledge-building and regulation of their own learning.

“It is important to identify how the new curriculum sees learning and what kinds of methods support it.” 

Personal interest in the thing to be learnt enhances motivation for learning.

“The way something is taught should be rooted in what it is that we want students to learn. The phenomenon-based approach is good for learning problem-solving and teamwork skills. These are things that students won’t learn by listening to lectures,” Valtonen says.

According to the researchers, the new curriculum doesn’t mean that traditional teaching and learning methods will be completely forgotten.

Moreover, the phenomenon-based approach doesn’t mean that the Finnish comprehensive school will be based on various phenomena and related projects alone.

“If this happened, students’ knowledge structures could remain scattered. It is important for schools to think about how they can support students’ individual identity formation and learning processes, and how to direct them,” Hirsto says. 

The researchers point out that the concept of phenomenon-based learning is not a new one, but its inclusion in the school curriculum is.  

“I imagine that the phenomenon-based approach in schools will largely be built on what used to be done in project-based learning and integrated learning,” Hirsto says.

Finnish teachers have been exposed to new kinds of thinking since the mid-1990s. That’s when Finnish comprehensive schools started to prepare their own, school-specific curricula, forcing teachers to think about how to implement the national curriculum in the practices of their own school.  

According to Hirsto, the new curriculum is relatively radical when compared to school systems in other countries.

“We trust our teacher education system, and our teachers have plenty of influence in learning-related issues. In the Anglo-American school system, for example, teachers are often seen as implementers of standardised objectives, and this undermines the significance of variation in teacher education and different qualifications.”