Pedagogy: Phenomenon Based Learning

What Is Phenomenon Based Learning?

year by Quang Nguyen from Pixabay


A fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question. For example, why do professional athletes make millions of dollars/euros while people who provide life-saving services (firefighters, police men and women, and doctors) make much less money?

  • Phenomenon-Based Learning is learning that is trans-disciplinary and collaborative. It is equally focused on the process of learning as it is about the results of learning.
  • Phenomena-Based Learning mirrors reality, where situations, problems, and phenomenon are multi-disciplinary. For example, the phenomenon of war can tie in the topics of economics, psychology, culture, and religion.
  • It emphasizes collaboration between teachers of different subjects matter expertise, the involvement of outside experts, as well as collaboration between students.
  • Students chooses a question to investigate, or a problem to solve. Teachers facilitate from the point-of-view of process integrity rather than subject matter expert.
  • A phenomenon can be an event (current or historical), a notable person, a scientific fact, a topic, or an interest.
  • In Finland, Phenomenon-Based Learning has been in use for more than three decades.
  • In the USA, this learning approach is referenced in science education to connect science and engineering practices linked to real-world observations.

An Example of Phenomenon Based Learning: City of Helsinki & Phenomenon Based Learning

How Phenomenon-Based Learning Works?

Vast plains horses

How Phenomenon-Based Learning Works?

  • A real world topic is chosen by the student (or a group of students). For example, why the weather forecast does not always work accurately? Why is there a billion people who go hungry everyday? Why are countries around the world governed in different ways
  • It is preferable that this topic is directly observable by the students in the places they live and visit. For example: why do the days lengthen during the summer and shorten during the winter. Or, why are there homeless people on the streets?
  • In the absence of directly observable topics which interests the students, the students can also choose topics based on videos and images that intrigue them, such as documentaries related to environmental degradation, the loss of biodiversity, or the promises and perils of social media.
  • The process usually involves the following steps described in a simplified manner below. For further details, consult the sources we have cited:
    • Teacher(s) prepare for the project: identifying the timeframe, primary learning goal(s), learner-centered strategies, assessment methodology, subject matter constraints, content and skills focus, and more.
    • The teacher(s) introduce to students the concept of phenomenon-based learning with set parameters and concrete examples.
    • Student(s) individually (or in groups) choose a topic of interest, share what they know already about this topic, what they want to learn about it, their motivation for learning about this topic, and how they will assess their own learning outcome.
    • Students identify the various ways to research this topic and then research it.
    • Teachers facilitate the learning process by supporting the students’ thinking and collaboration process, encouraging the students to provide positive acknowledgment as well as developmental suggestions to each other, and relate the students’ learning progress back to the goals they have set initially (and revise when necessary).
    • Students present the results of their research and learning at the end of the Phenomenon Based Learning process.

Benefits of Phenomenon Based Learning

Pixabay - sunrise mountain -nepal

With the understanding of what Phenomenon Based Learning is and how it works, you may see that this is a learning approach that…

  • Engages the interest of the learner, because the learner chooses what to learn (within a given framework and context) and has the opportunity to engage with “real” people, environment, and context from outside of the school.
  • Provides the opportunity for the learner to examine a question or phenomenon in a way that cuts across subject matters, which leads to the exercise of the critical thinking faculties (e.g. what are the different aspects and explanations for a given phenomenon or problem to be solved? How are these various aspects related? How might the solution or the explanation itself be multi-faceted? What is a systems perspective of this phenomenon?).
  • Encourages the learner themselves to synthesize and retain knowledge themselves through inquiry, research, and collaboration. This leads to knowledge that is more “durable” and “usable” compared to the short-lived and dead knowledge that is gained through repetition and insulated from real life scenarios.
  • Supports the development of 21st century skills through proper support of the teacher-facilitators by virtue of reflection questions and group discussions throughout the learning process. Some of the skills development include critical and creative thinking, learning to learn, communication, collaboration, agency, resourcefulness, multi-literacy (scientific, media, cultural-contextual, media, technological-computational).

Examples of Phenomenon Based Learning

Pixabay - astronaut