Phenomenon-Based Learning

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Should Schools Scrap Individual Subjects?

Imagine a school without defined periods for English, Mathematics or Science. Anarchy! No distinct subjects, no preset rigidity or structure. Anarchy! Yet scrapping these traditional subjects is an essential component of a new type of educational philosophy called “phenomenon-based learning” (PBL) which is being tested in some of the most progressive and successful school systems in the world.

PBL, also known as topic-based learning, has recently gained momentum as an alternative to the platform of subject-based learning, upon which most schools are built. It’s a response to the idea that distinct school subjects are outdated and unrealistic, far removed from the world in which solving problems requires a multitude of cross-disciplinarian skills and the ability to examine issues from different perspectives.


How phenomenon-based learning works

In theory, PBL is simple. Instead of spending an hour in the afternoon on Mathematics, for example, the teacher will choose a topic: let’s say the Statue of Liberty. The class can then approach this topic from a number of different angles. What is the history of the Statue of Liberty? How was it made and transported? What is the Statue’s French name, and how does that translate into English? The topic then becomes a central crossroads at which different subjects intersect.

An important aspect of PBL is that students can examine real-world phenomena that interest them in a classroom setting. This, proponents of PBL say, increases the “authenticity of learning” and therefore provides students with skills that can be applied to actual situations. The PBL process is driven collaboratively by the students, giving them additional experience in teamwork, leadership and decision-making.


Jacks of all trades…

Multidisciplinary instruction is an excellent method of teaching students to think critically and approach problems from multiple angles. It encourages students to follow logical connections and hone a variety of skills simultaneously. It’s also, as the National Council of Teachers of English points out, a philosophy that reflects our experiences beyond the classroom: “educational experiences are more authentic and of greater value to students when the curricula reflect real life, which is multifaceted – rather than being compartmentalized into neat subject-matter packages.”


…Masters of none?

Some opponents of PBL might argue that sharing a single lesson across a number of different subjects might spread students too thin – deterring them from excelling in any one particular field. But statistics from the Ringstabekk school in Norway, which introduced PBL decades ago, prove otherwise. Ringstabekk students perform well above average in the individual subject portions of the national assessment system. Its headmaster, Bjorn Bolstad, attributes this to the engagement of students with their subject matter, which promotes an understanding and a love of learning.


Everything in moderation

So far, the evidence seems to suggest that PBL is the way forward; a fine-tuned method of preparing students for life after school and promoting engagement with the learning process. But before we all go tossing out our timetables, it’s important to note that PBL is still fairly untested, especially on a broad international scale.

While Finnish schools, as of 2016, are all required to introduce some weekly element of PBL, by far the majority of their classes are still subject-based. And what works in one country – for reasons political, social, fiscal and philosophical – may not necessarily work in another. What is clear, however, is that the greatest educational benefits occur when students are involved, engaged and interested; when they can recognize that classes aren’t just some interminable ordeal they must survive, but something useful, enjoyable and relevant to their lives.

Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.