There have always been questions about what and how we should teach, as well as both student and institutional autonomy.
While there are many examples of cross-disciplinary education through problem-based learning, simulated learning, and case-based learning, these can often be tightly contained within traditional structures and patterns of teaching, leading to disjointed blocks of knowledge that are siloed within modules.
Phenomenon-Based Learning (PhBL) could protect discipline knowledge while empowering students.
Behind the phenomena
In PhBL, students work in groups across disciplines with diverse subject knowledge, skill sets, and social context to explore and create explanations of a selected phenomenon.
Their learning is framed around, provoked, and stimulated by current phenomena, events, concepts, or occurrences. It is multidisciplinary, enquiry-based, student-led, and project-based.
Discipline knowledge is not artificially lifted, segregated into blocks, or placed into topics but explored as it applies to real-world phenomena.
This approach responds in real-time, with students as partners, to the societal wicked issues that we should be preparing graduates for and fits with the increased civic agenda of higher education institutions to reduce social inequalities.
Having achieved a significant presence in Finnish education systems (e.g. Phenomenal education), there are a few examples of educationalists developing PhBL in other contexts, notably Phenomenon-based Learning Modules – Science On a Sphere (noaa.gov) and Donna Fields Phenomenon-Based Learning with Donna Fields PhD – Bing video. There are also small pockets of adoption in Higher Education; Elizabeth Marsland at Queensland University of Technology has, over four years, supported MBA students to learn accountancy in this way.
We have been commissioned by QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) to explore the potential of PhBL working alongside current students. We are partnering with Harper Adams University to facilitate workshops incorporating micro-PhBL sessions/ experiences, where students respond to critical questions that bring in aspects of pedagogic design, engagement, and experiences. Throughout the collaboration, we are curating a “toolkit” for embedding PhBL.
As we developed our understanding – alongside our students – of the potential of PhBL, we learned the following about the approach:
- It promotes a change in the roles of learner and facilitator and positions students as partners. The ownership of knowledge and enquiry ends up not with the course team or department but with the group of students interrogating the phenomenon.
- It doesn’t replace but compliments valued teaching and learning methods. Phenomenon-based learning experiences would coalesce with lectures, workshops, seminars, and online learning. It provides a platform where students can practise/apply and play out learning from traditional methods.
- Discipline identity remains intact PhBL creates an appreciation of other disciplines’ expertise and helps shape understanding of different fields.
We have also come across areas needing careful consideration around course timing. These include:
- Anchor points: Adopting a system of agile placeholders and using student-led outputs to form the next interaction within a course – in real-time – takes bravery. This may challenge our traditional linear model, and facilitators may need to rethink rigid course structures.
- Pace: Inviting students to explore their own lines of enquiry has forced us to re-evaluate the pace of a course. While PhCL encourages deep, co-produced understanding, when is the right time to introduce core concepts or hold assessments?
Our journey has encouraged us to question our practices, explore our experiences, and examine our pedagogic assumptions. And the toolkit we curate must be flexible enough to accept that immersion in PhBL might be on a spectrum from the whole curriculum right to selected PhBL experiences or episodes.
As with all pedagogic approaches, there needs to be criticality on the feasibility of cohort sizes and the varying discipline synergies.
In true PhBL style, we continue our exploration with ‘what if…’
For more information about our project, please visit our project webpage @SCOLPPStaffsUni