Phenomenon-based learning, multidisciplinary study units and Education Outside the Classroom (EOC)

To deal with today's complex challenges, we must enable students to gain a holistic understanding of the world around them - and this is where phenomenon-based learning can make a difference.

By Johanna Järvinen-Taubert, Elena Chukhlantseva & Päivi Valtonen (Learning Scoop)

The goal of phenomenon-based learning is for students to explore various real-life phenomena from different perspectives. Phenomenon-based learning as implemented in Finland aims to add new multidisciplinary study units for all students at different levels of education. Such multidisciplinary learning modules promote establishing connections across a range of subjects and develop a more holistic understanding of the world around us.
The concepts of multidisciplinary studies and phenomenon-based learning have a slightly different emphasis. By multidisciplinary studies we usually refer to the fact that 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 from different perspectives (of different school subjects) at the same time. 

The themes for multidisciplinary study units and phenomenon-based learning

The themes for multidisciplinary study units and phenomenon-based learning are formulated according to the curriculum, students’ age, interesting current topics and sometimes students’ own interests also. Here are some examples:
-    Me and my community, Books are my friends (ECEC, 3–5 years)
-    Wonders of the forest, Space (pre-primary, 6 years)
-    What it was like in the old days in our own home town (1st graders, 7 years)
-    Well-being, Global world (1st–6th graders, 7–12 years)
-    Stories in our world (3rd–6th graders, 9–12 years)
-    Sustainable development, recycling (5th–6th graders, 11–12 years)
-    Sustainable living and circular economy (7th graders, 13 years)
-    Climate change (7th–9th graders, 13–15 years)
-    World of energy (8th and 9th graders, 14–15 years)
-    Democracy in today’s world (1st and 2nd graders in general upper secondary school, 16–17 years).
The themes of the multidisciplinary study units can be decided by the municipality (city), school, group of teachers or individual teachers. Sometimes the student union can decide the theme for multidisciplinary studies; sometimes the students of one class suggest a topic they would like to investigate closer. 

Learning the vital skills needed in the future

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 the skills needed in real life, we must practice them in actual problem-solving situations.
The whole idea of strengthening the multidisciplinary approach in Finnish education has been to learn the vital skills needed in the future. These skills are called transversal competencies, and they play a central role in the Finnish national core curriculum for basic education. These transversal competencies should be applied to all learning areas and school subjects.

Education outside the classroom 

Since schools and teachers have a high autonomy in Finland, there are multiple ways of organizing multidisciplinary study units and phenomenon-based learning. Education outside classroom (EOC) is easy to implement as part of them: it creates great opportunities for studying phenomena and combining different school subjects. 
Education outside the classroom doesn’t have to be anything ambitious and mind-blowing, the local areas and sites offer many excellent opportunities. If you look at the examples given above, you can see that many of those themes can be implemented, at least partially, locally in the nearby area. 
Wattchow and Brown (2011) have stated that when planning lessons, teacher should keep in mind that students’ living environments, such as surrounding school or home areas, are ever-changing phenomena. Local areas and sites offer a lot of opportunities for making observations, doing research, measuring things, having hands-on activities, interviewing people, gathering ideas etc. An authentic real-world site activates and inspires, even if it is a very mundane and familiar place for students. Therefore, all schools should be aware of their own uniqueness in terms of their location. 

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Järvinen-Taubert, J. & Chukhlantseva, E. 2021. Phenomenon-Based Learning in Finnish Education. In Järvinen-Taubert, J., Valtonen, P, & Chukhlantseva, E. (Eds) What, why and how – Finnish education in practice. Malta: Kite, 45–48.

Wattchow, B. & Brown, M. 2011. A Pedagogy of Place. Outdoor Education for a Changing World. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing.

Phenomenon-based learning, multidisciplinary study units and Education Outside the Classroom (EOC)