The What, Why, and How of Phenomenon Based Learning
By Viviana Nielsen and Anna Davies, International School of Zug and Luzern in Switzerland
Phenomenon based learning is an interdisciplinary approach to learning in which students are presented with a phenomenon from the real world, for example: Why have there been so many hurricanes lately in the United States? Why is the bee population declining? Why did the Genova bridge collapse? How can you develop a more aerodynamic swimsuit?
Students have to investigate the phenomenon by asking their own questions, researching facts, and delivering an answer/solution. Teachers guide them through the process, scaffolding the steps and help them through the complexity.
What Does the Phenomenon Based Learning Process Look Like?
Why Should We Use Phenomenon Based Learning?
- Students are engaged in the learning of the phenomenon because it comes from the real world and it’s relevant to their daily lives.
- Students figure out solutions to a phenomenon like any profession in the workforce. They investigate the phenomenon from multiple perspectives, breaking the boundaries of the typical school subjects.
- Students take responsibility of their own learning because they are working on something relevant to them. They figure out the solution by themselves or answer to the phenomenon, and can surprise you with solutions you have not thought of.
- Students develop 21st century skills like teamwork, communication, and critical and creative thinking during the process.
- Students build their own knowledge, which is transferable, and hence acquire a deeper understanding of the what they are studying.
Authentic Learning “is real life learning. It is a style of learning that encourages students to create a tangible, useful products to be shared with their world.” Not only are we teachers bringing in real world context to our classrooms, but our students are taking real world issues and problems and developing solutions applicable to the world or community around them.
Keys to Successfully Develop Phenomenon Based Learning
After 3 years of working with this multidisciplinary type of learning some important points during the planning of a new phenomenon based learning unit to consider are:
- Choose a phenomena from the real world to which students can relate.
- Present the phenomena in a very broad way to avoid any constraints to its study.
- Basic concepts (subject-wise) should be taught before the project (for example in the Energy Bar Unit: Food and Digestion in Science and Percentages and Ratios in Mathematics)
- Work with an open schedule so that skills are used crossing the boundaries between subjects.
- Be a facilitator during the process, emphasizing the student-led learning.
- Be humble. Try to build better knowledge yourself when student questions arise and be open to different ways students tackle the problem.
Phenomenon based learning is an effective approach to learning that prepare students to the real world. During the process, students learn 21st century skills like teamwork, communication, and critical and creative thinking that are applicable to life and this way of learning motivates students to become independent and active learners.
Viviana Nielsen has been teaching MS Science and Math during 5 years at the International School of Zug and Luzern in Switzerland. She has a background as a Chemical Engineer and has worked in chemical companies for 15 years; this experience inspires her to bring real world problems into the classrooms. She advocates for phenomenon based learning in the classroom and some examples of her units include: “Why can’t we fly?” and “Why is Coca Cola acid?”.
When not in the classroom, she enjoys hiking with her husband Carlos – who is also an engineer and Science and Math teacher – and singing classical music during her free time.
Anna Davies has been teaching middle school Maths for 6 years at the International School of Zug and Luzern in Switzerland. Prior to this, she was Director of Mathematics at a large state school in the UK. Her passion has always been to teach maths functionally and was a pioneer in creating a STEM focus at her school.
She believes phenomenon based learning is an ideal way to teach Mathematics and tries to incorporate her love of long distance cycling and running into her lessons, asking students questions like “How can I cycle across Europe?” She is also keen to develop an all inclusive curriculum where traditional lessons are not the norm, but subjects work together. She believes phenomenon based learning embodies this idea.