Interview with Paul Downie, Royal Society of Biology’s UK Biology Teacher of the Year Award Winner

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Paul Downie. I’m a biology teacher based in Glasgow, where I’ve been faculty head of science. I’m currently on secondment developing West OS [part of the National e-Learning Offer in Scotland providing recorded video lessons created by teachers] and the creator of the Higher Biology Podcast.

You have just won the Royal Society of Biology’s UK Biology Teacher of the Year Award – the first Scottish teacher to have won. Can you tell us about the award, and why you won?

The award seeks to identify and celebrate the UK’s leading secondary teachers. For me, it provided an opportunity to reflect on my practice and share the work that I’ve been involved in over recent years. Hopefully, that work has played an important role in educating and inspiring the next generation of biologists – it’s not an award that I could have won without being surrounded by some fantastic colleagues.

What made you decide to be a biology teacher?

I like my subject, I’m passionate about it, but the biggest thing was that I wanted to leave work at the end of the day – or week – and feel like I’d made a difference. There is a lot of hard work involved in teaching, but it’s a special career, in that you get an opportunity to make a difference to others every single day, and I don’t think that there are many jobs that can give you that feeling.

Can you tell us about your teaching philosophy?

Primarily, my teaching philosophy is to enthuse young people about the subject. To ensure they understand why we’re learning something and why it’s relevant to their life. We need our young people to leave school as both responsible and informed citizens, equipped to participate in debates around global issues which will impact their lives and also to have an understanding of the world they live in.

You took a class of students on an expedition to the Galapagos a few years ago. What gave you the inspiration to do this and what was the primary goal of the trip?

I was lucky enough when studying at the University of Dundee to participate in a research expedition to Trinidad led by Professor Steve Hubbard. It had a big impact on my studies and the direction that I took after that.

It was an incredible experience. It allowed me, at the time, to play a very small part in what I believe is now the largest data set of its kind, looking at the survival rate between tropical and temperate bird species. I always said that if I had the opportunity to give pupils even a little taste of that experience, it was something I’d try to do. 

A young person in an S3 class had asked the question “could we go on a school trip to Galapagos?” and the rest of the class laughed, but the thought in my head was “why not?”

Two years of preparation, two years of fundraising and a lot of hard work by the students and everyone else who was involved, and we got the Galapagos. We wouldn’t have been able to have that experience if it hadn’t been for a range of partners, all of whom played a big role in supporting the trip and we were incredibly grateful for that support, especially our fantastic expedition shirts which were provided by Twig.

Any advice you would give to teachers planning on undertaking such a big trip in the future?

It’s certainly going to be more challenging, given the ongoing pandemic, but what I would say is that you don’t have to travel across the world to find excellent learning opportunities. It was a fabulous trip and a fabulous experience, but there are loads of great places to visit in Scotland, with amazing learning experiences, right on our back doorstep.

Tell us about The Higher Biology Podcast, and the inspiration behind starting it?

I created the Higher Biology Podcast during the first COVID-19 lockdown, really as a response to my own frustration and trying to be able to deliver a more engaging learning experience for young people at that point. Myself and my wife listened to a lot of podcasts, and I started wondering if it was possible to produce something with educational value and add depth to their learning. 

There was a lot of learning [for me] as I went and a bit of DIY, but it was good fun, and hopefully it has provided young people a platform to be able to access really interesting and fantastic subject experts from across the planet to add a little bit of depth and insight into different areas of the higher course, which has been really exciting. 

One of my own students summed it up really well, saying it’s far more interesting than just listening to me talk.

You’ve been a Twig user for a long time. What attracted you to the program?

The quality of the videos on Twig are excellent, simple as that.

How do you use Twig in your lessons?

I’ve used Twig in lots of different ways. The materials can be really good for putting a learning point into context, sharing as part of an example in a lesson, or summarising a piece of learning. They can also be useful for supporting revision as well.

There’s a lot of different ways you can use the videos, depending on what they are. I’ve certainly utilised the heart dissection videos, for example – the class can do a live dissection along with the video and we just stop and pause it on the projector and it gives a really clear visual explanation of the steps involved in the process. Then we might bring the class together to discuss different bits and have a closer look at what we’re doing, and then break back into pairs to do the dissection and get that hands-on practical experience.

You’re also a regular Twig Science Reporter user. What do you like about the news updates?

The quality of the weekly Twig Science Reporter updates are fab. They give really good weekly topical news stories and they never fail to capture the imagination and interest of my classes, particularly in the BGE. 

[I use them] at the end or the start of the week to stimulate a little bit of conversation around topical science stories that are in the news. Equally, I’ve found myself using them in assemblies or in other circumstances with larger groups of young people to take that 3, 4, 5 minute spot in the day and just focus on some different stories from around the world and use it as a stimulus to spark some curiosity and discussion. 

What is a piece of advice that you would give to young people who want to go into a career in teaching?

If you are enthusiastic about your subject and you’re passionate about it, and you’re looking for a career that you can make a difference in, then there is no better thing than teaching. There’s a lot of hard work, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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Topical Science—September 2021

The back-to-school season is upon us, and it’s time to get inspired. We’ve collated another month of fun topical science content that hopefully inspires a great start to the new school year.

Clic aquí para ver el blog en Español

Saturday, September 4

National Wildlife Day

First founded in 2005 to honor wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin—famously known as the “Crocodile Hunter”— National Wildlife Day brings attention to the world’s endangered animals and celebrates animal sanctuaries for their preservation efforts. Today, why not learn about Global Positioning Systems (GPS), used to track the movements of wild animals in Namibia, Africa? Learn more.

Tuesday, September 7

International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

This day, facilitated by the United Nations Environment Programme, aims to raise awareness of the importance of clean air and encourage actions to improve global air quality. Watch this video and learn why our sky is blue: Watch now.

Thursday, September 16

International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

The ozone layer is a vital part of Earth’s atmosphere, absorbing almost all of the Sun’s ultraviolet light. In the 1980s, scientists discovered that a deep hole had developed in this protective layer, attacked by harmful greenhouse gases used to make products such as hairspray. 

This UN day commemorates the signing of an agreement between 197 countries to minimize the use of ozone-depleting substances. Learn more about the ozone layer:

Saturday, September 18

International Coastal Cleanup Day

International Coastal Cleanup Day is a global movement that encourages people to remove trash from their beaches and waterways. Since the event’s conception 30 years ago, over 100 million volunteers across the globe have contributed to the cleanup of more than 300 million pounds of trash. On this day, take the opportunity to teach your students more about keeping Earth tidy: Learn more.

Wednesday, September 22

World Rhino Day

There are five species of rhinos and, fun fact, their horns are made of keratin, a protein that also forms the basis of human hair and fingernails. World Rhino Day celebrates rhinos and aims to bring international awareness to how critically endangered they are. Today, why not learn about ecotourism ventures in Namibia? Learn more.

Monday, September 27

World Tourism Day

World Tourism Day brings awareness to the myriad benefits that international tourism has societally, economically, and politically—from bringing cultures together to having a global contribution to GDP of 2.9 trillion US dollars in 2019 alone. Today, why not learn about Butler’s Tourism Model? Learn more.

Wednesday, September 29

World Heart Day

Heart disease is one of the world’s leading causes of death—tragically, however, up to 80 percent of cardiovascular deaths could be avoided. World Heart Day aims to bring attention to cardiovascular diseases and educate people on the factors that can increase the risk of developing such a disease, such as tobacco use and unhealthy diets. Learn more about the heart: 

Wednesday, September 29

International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste

Did you know that an estimated one-third of all food produced goes to waste? Designated by the United Nations General Assembly, this day aims to generate awareness of this problem and makes a call to action for both public and private businesses to increase efforts to reduce food waste. Today, let’s watch a video about the cities implementing innovative policies to reduce food waste: Watch now.

Thursday, September 30

International Podcast Day

First celebrated in 2014, International Podcast Day highlights the power of podcasts and gives an opportunity for podcasters, and podcast enthusiasts, to connect with one another. Today, why not listen to Twig’s podcast: Twig Education On..? Listen here.

Thursday, September 30

World Maritime Day

World Maritime Day celebrates the seafarers of the world and brings attention to the importance of the shipping industry, which accounts for the transport of around 80% of international trade. Did you know that shipping is one of the oldest industries in the world, with a history that dates back thousands of years? Today, why not learn how sailors in the 18th century first mapped the sea? Learn more.

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¿Qué impacto ha tenido la pandemia en la educación?

Para estudiantes y profesores de todo el mundo, el último año ha sido una experiencia turbulenta. Cuando la pandemia golpeó a principios de 2020, países de todo el mundo impusieron el cierre de escuelas, con el objetivo de “volver a la normalidad” lo antes posible. Sin embargo, muchos estudiantes y profesores están aún ejerciendo la enseñanza a distancia a tiempo completo, mientras que otros se están adaptando a la educación híbrida entre la escuela y en el hogar.

A mediados de marzo de 2020, el 44% de los estudiantes de todo el mundo estaban fuera de las aulas de forma parcial o permanente, y a mediados de abril este número había aumentado al 84,5%, con casi 1.500 millones de estudiantes en 165 países afectados por el cierre de escuelas. (1) Para continuar la enseñanza durante este tiempo, los profesores tuvieron que cambiar completamente la forma en que enseñaban. Se adaptaron los recursos didácticos, se actualizaron los planes de lecciones y se introdujeron plataformas de enseñanza electrónicas, todo con el objetivo de garantizar que los alumnos no vieran afectado su aprendizaje. La enseñanza asincrónica, en la que los estudiantes asimilan el contenido de forma independiente e informan al profesor, tuvo bastante popularidad, junto con la enseñanza sincrónica, en la que el profesor imparte lecciones en línea a través de software como Zoom o Google Classroom.

Los gobiernos de todo el mundo respondieron ofreciendo guías de orientación y formación, al tiempo que proporcionaron recursos educativos gratuitos a través de la televisión, la radio e Internet. El Distrito Escolar Unificado de Los Ángeles en los EUA se asoció con la red de televisión PBS para ofrecer transmisiones educativas locales, (2) mientras que la televisión nacional del Reino Unido, la BBC, lanzó una serie de enseñanza virtual llamada Bitesize Daily. (3) Mientras tanto, las plataformas de enseñanza en línea y las empresas de conferencias en línea también ofrecieron su apoyo. Por ejemplo, BYJU, con sede en Bangalore, ofreció clases gratuitas en vivo, y Lark, con sede en Singapur, ofreció a los profesores y alumnos tiempo ilimitado de videoconferencias, edición de proyectos en tiempo real y más. (4) La UNESCO trabajó con muchos países para minimizar la interrupción del aprendizaje causada por la pandemia, apoyando la implementación de programas de educación a distancia y recomendó el uso de aplicaciones educativas abiertas. (5)

Para nosotros en Twig, no hay nada más importante que apoyar a los profesores y los alumnos, por lo que hemos ofrecido contenido STEM de nuestros productos de forma gratuita, así como acceso a paquetes de educación a distancia especialmente diseñados para la enseñanza a distancia. En México, Twig Education trabajó junto con la Secretaría de Educación Pública para brindar a los estudiantes y maestros acceso gratuito a contenido STEM como: videos de ciencia, materiales educativos, planes de clase, paquetes de estudio independientes y libros de lectura en línea en español. Más de 11.000 usuarios accedieron a las plataformas Twig, Tigtag y Tigtag Junior durante el 2020 mediante la estrategia Aprende en Casa, y a partir de 2021 a través del sitio Nueva Escuela Mexicana. Además, se transmitieron 100 videos de Twig en televisión nacional como parte de la globalmente reconocida iniciativa Televisión Educativa.

Twig también ha colaborado con Ministerios de Educación en Colombia, Uruguay, Perú, Guatemala y España, ofreciendo acceso gratuito a recursos STEM para profesores y estudiantes, contribuyendo a mejorar el conocimiento científico a nivel mundial. En Colombia, apoyamos el programa ‘Jornada Única’ del Ministerio de Educación, un proyecto que tiene como objetivo reducir la brecha en la calidad de la educación entre la educación pública y la privada, mediante la extensión del horario escolar en las escuelas públicas. Los recursos de Tigtag y Tigtag Junior se han incluido en un ‘Kit de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación’, con distribución en 457 escuelas en áreas rurales.

Más recientemente, nuestros 29 libros de lectura en español fueron seleccionados por el Ministerio de Educación de Chile para ser incluidos en su Comunidad Lectora Digital, un sitio que tiene como objetivo aumentar la alfabetización en los estudiantes jóvenes proporcionándoles contenido de lectura atractivo.

De manera similar, nos sentimos increíblemente orgullosos de trabajar con UNICEF en The Learning Passport, una plataforma educativa digital personalizada para niños y jóvenes.

A febrero de 2021, 28 países del mundo mantienen cerradas sus escuelas a nivel nacional. La mayoría de los países del mundo han cerrado sus escuelas locales o bien han puesto en marcha un sistema de enseñanza híbrido en el que los estudiantes pasan algunos días en las escuelas y otros en casa. En todo el mundo, casi 222 millones de estudiantes se ven afectados actualmente. (6) Entonces, ¿cómo será el futuro?

Si bien algunos estudios muestran que los estudiantes retienen más material cuando aprenden en línea, (7) muchos otros estudios muestran la importancia de la enseñanza en persona. Según un estudio de la OECD, el éxito escolar se basa en relaciones cercanas con los maestros. (8) Naturalmente, el aprendizaje en línea ha dificultado que los maestros ayuden a quienes tienen dificultades de aprendizaje. Los estudiantes que vienen de familias desfavorecidas han sido especialmente afectados ya que no tienen un fácil acceso a dispositivos digitales, y cuyos padres no suelen poder ayudarles con los deberes. Estos estudiantes en una situación normal habrían podido utilizar el equipamiento escolar y recibir apoyo en persona de sus maestros.

Aunque es probable que las escuelas vuelvan a abrir en cuanto sea posible, la enseñanza híbrida se ha vuelto cada vez más popular y es probable que se mantenga durante bastante tiempo, si no durante los años venideros. En el futuro, los maestros tendrán que seguir desarrollando y adaptando sus métodos de enseñanza, y las empresas educativas tendrán que ofrecer soluciones creativas para asegurarse de que todos los niños reciban apoyo.

En Twig Education, continuaremos respondiendo a las necesidades de los estudiantes y educadores de todo el mundo. En los EUA, hemos lanzado Twig Distance Learning, un programa flexible de aprendizaje a distancia que admite la educación sincrónica y asincrónica, con un menú a la carta de nuestros experimentados instructores de Twig. Además, seguimos apoyando a los profesores y estudiantes de todo el mundo, mediante la mejora de nuestros recursos de aprendizaje y ofreciendo orientación sobre cómo pueden adaptarse a la educación a distancia



What impact has the pandemic had on education?

For students and teachers around the world, the last year has been a roller coaster. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, countries around the world imposed school closures, with the view of “going back to normal” as soon as possible. However, many students and teachers are still doing distance learning full time, while others are adapting to a hybrid of in-school and at-home learning. 

At the middle of March 2020, 44% of learners worldwide were out of class some or all of the time, and by mid-April this number had risen to 84.5%, with almost 1.5 billion students in 165 countries affected by school closures. (1) To keep learning going during this time, teachers had to completely change the way they taught. Teaching resources were adapted, lesson plans updated, and e-learning platforms introduced, all with the goal of making sure students didn’t miss out on their education. Asynchronous learning—where students take in content independently and report back to the teacher—became popular, paired with synchronous learning, with the teacher conducting online lessons through software such as Zoom or Google Classroom.

Governments around the world responded by offering guidance documents and training, while also providing free education resources via TV, radio, and the internet. LA Unified School District in the US partnered with the TV network PBS to offer local educational broadcasts, (2) while the UK’s national TV network BBC launched a virtual learning series called Bitesize Daily. (3) Meanwhile, online learning platforms and online conferencing companies also offered their support. For example, Bangalore-based BYJU offered free live classes, and Singapore-based Lark offered teachers and students unlimited video-conferencing time, real-time project editing, and more. (4) Other organisations also offered their support. UNESCO worked with many countries to minimize the learning disruption caused by the pandemic, supporting the implementation of distance learning programmes and recommended the use of open educational applications. (5)

For us at Twig, supporting teachers and students is the most important thing we do, and to help out we have offered free trials to our supplemental products, as well as access to specially made independent learning packs. We also worked directly with governments around the world—collaborating with Ministries of Education in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, and more to offer free STEM content to students and teachers, as part of our mission to improve science literacy globally. In Iraq, for example, Twig videos are published on the Ministry of Education’s online platform Newton. In Mexico, Twig content was published on the government’s new distance learning site, and Twig films were broadcast on national television as part of the globally recognized initiative Televisión Educativa. Similarly, we have been incredibly proud to work with UNICEF on the Learning Passport, a digital personalized learning platform for children and young people.

As of February 2021, 28 countries in the world have nationwide school closures implemented. The majority of the world’s countries either have local school closures or are doing a hybrid approach where students spend some days in schools and some at home. Worldwide, almost 222 million learners are currently affected. (6) So what will the future look like?

While some studies show that students retain more material when learning online, (7) many studies also show the importance of in-person learning. According to a study by the OECD, success in school performance relies on close relationships with teachers. (8) Naturally, online learning has made it difficult for teachers to help those who are struggling. Especially affected are students from disadvantaged families who may not have easy access to digital devices, or whose parents are not able to help them with homework. These students would normally have been able to use school equipment and receive in-person support from their teachers.

So while schools are likely to reopen as much as possible, the hybrid approach has become increasingly popular and is likely to stick around for quite a while, if not for years to come. Moving forward, teachers will have to keep developing and adapting their teaching methods—and educational companies will have to offer creative solutions to make sure that all children are supported. 

At Twig Education, we will continue to respond to the needs of learners and educators around the world. In the US, we’ve launched Twig Distance Learning, a flexible distance learning program that supports both synchronous and asynchronous learning, with on-demand instruction from our experienced Twig Coaches. Around the world, we are continuing to support teachers and students through improving our learning resources and offering guidance on how they can be adapted for distance learning



5 Cool Science Activities to Keep Kids Learning During the Holidays

In the past, summer learning was sometimes treated as an optional, not-so-important part of education. After all, summer was all about taking a break from school. Not this year! With the COVID-19 outbreak, parents have been getting involved in home schooling this summer whether they like it or not, and we know that sometimes it can be hard to continually come up with new educational activities! 

Never fear, we’ve got a few good ideas of our own—after all, Twig Science Tools is packed full of them—and we’d like to share five of our favorites. We know all about how important it is to fight the summer learning gap, but at the same time, summer is all about fun, so we’ve selected activities that kids will really enjoy. They may not even realize they’re learning science at the same time—but they will be! So whether you’re a teacher looking for inspiration for summer school, or a parent looking to keep their kids busy over summer, the following activities are a great addition to your toolbox!

1. Grow Your Own Geode

Geodes are natural rock formations that have cavities lined with crystals or other minerals. They’re typically formed in igneous rocks by cooling lava or magma—but you can encourage your children to grow their own geodes, helping them to learn how different minerals create crystals of different sizes and shapes based on saturation levels and cooling rates.

What you need:

  • Alum powder
  • Epsom salts
  • Borax
  • PVA glue
  • Empty, clean eggshell halves
  • Food coloring
  • Three cups
  • An empty egg carton

Procedure: Coat each eggshell half with glue. Sprinkle a couple of shells with Epsom salts, a couple with borax and a couple with alum powder. Let these dry overnight in the empty egg carton. In the morning, fill the three cups with boiling water and add several drops of food coloring to each. Pour alum powder into the first cup into it stops dissolving; add borax to the second cup in the same way; and saturate the third with Epsom salts. It’s essential that in all three cases the mixtures are saturated—i.e., as much as can be dissolved in the liquid is dissolved. Pour each mixture into its corresponding geode: the alum mixture should be poured into the eggshell coated with alum, the borax mixture into the shell coated with Borax, and the Epsom salts mixture into the shell coated with the Epsom salts. Leave the shells to cool. Observe them after an interval of four hours and another of 10 hours, and then look again the following morning. What happens to the geodes? Do the crystals get bigger if they are left to cool longer? Which mixture creates the most beautiful crystals? See? Fun and scientific learning rolled into one. You now also have a number of beautiful paperweights!

2. Windmill Garden Ornaments

These beauties help kids learn how to measure the velocity and direction of the wind, as well as providing you with beautiful decorations for your garden. Why could it be important to measure the wind? Well, this natural resource is a major source of energy, and countries all over the world use wind turbines or windmills to harness this energy. Pinwheels use the same principle as windmills or wind turbines, providing an excellent way to study how wind energy can be captured so that it can then be converted to electric energy.

 What you need (per windmill):

  • Square of colored paper, 8 x 8 inches (20 × 20 cm)
  • Scissors
  • Pushpin
  • Length of thin dowelling

Procedure: Fold the square of paper in half diagonally, then open out before folding diagonally again perpendicular to the first fold. Open out flat. Use the scissors to cut along the folds, stopping each cut around 3 cm from the centre. Pull down alternating corners to the centre of the square, taking care not to fold or crease them. Hold each of the corners gently in place until you’ve pulled down all of them, then secure with the pushpin. Push the pushpin into the top of the dowelling, but leave just enough space to allow the windmill to turn.

Choose a windy day to take the windmills out. Ask your child to look at the front of the pinwheel. How fast does it go? What way do they need to hold the pinwheel in order for it to spin the fastest?

3. Color Your Flowers

This is a fun little activity to get young children interested in botany by showing them how water is transported in plants.

What you need:

  • Several white flowers (chrysanthemums or carnations work best)
  • Several different colors of food colouring.
  • Lukewarm water
  • Small vases

Procedure: Begin by cutting about a quarter from the bottom of a stem of each flower, making sure to cut at an angle. Line up the vases and fill each about halfway with lukewarm water. Ask the children to pour around four or five drops of food coloring in each vase. Alternately, you could vary the amount of one color that you put in each vase: one drop of dye in the first vase, four in the second, eight in the third, and so on. Now place a single flower in each vase and leave them for a day. Over time, you’ll see the flowers take on the colour of the water. How did that happen? Which colour is the darkest and which is the lightest? Why is one flower a pink colour while the other a deep red when they all have red food colouring? You can also remove a flower to cut the stem halfway, showing your children how the inside of the stem is the same colour as the water. You can have a lot of fun with this experiment using different flowers—you could even split the bottom of the stem of a flower vertically into two and put each half in a vase with a different color!

4. Edible Stained Glass

Food science at its best! Adding food coloring to this experiment gives it that artistic touch that kids love. It does require constant adult supervision, but the results are stunning and delicious. You can find the full experiment here.

What you will need:

  • Saucepan
  • 13/4 cups (350 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) light corn syrup
  • Pinch cream of tartar
  • 1 cup (240 ml) water
  • Food coloring (preferably in at least three different colours)
  • Cooking thermometer
  • Baking sheet or disposable baking tray
  • Nonstick cooking spray

Procedure: In the saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and cream of tartar with the water and place over a very low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is dissolved and becomes transparent. Check the temperature using the thermometer and let the mixture slowly come to the boil: for this mixture, about 300–310℉ (149–154℃). In the meantime, spray the baking tray with the nonstick cooking spray. When the sugar mixture comes to the boil, remove from the heat and pour the mixture very carefully into the baking tray, watching out for splatters. Allow the kids—still under supervision!—to sprinkle drops of food coloring over the mixture before spreading them in swirling patterns using a wooden spoon or butter knife. Leave the mixture to cool for a few hours. Once cool, remove the stunning glasslike sugar pane.

5. Grow a Plant Without a Seed

Farmers and gardeners use botanical science all the time when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. Asexual reproduction of plants is an important part of the curriculum, so why not give the kids a head start for next year while cultivating some homegrown herbs at the same time?

What you need:

  • Old jelly jars (cleaned thoroughly)
  • Shop-bought basil, mint, and coriander
  • Room-temperature water

Procedure: Select a couple of healthy stalks and trim their ends. Let the children gently remove the lower leaves, but make sure to keep the top leaves intact. Half-fill each glass jar with the room-temperature water. Place the stalks in the water so that the nodes left from where you pulled the lower leaves off are submerged, but make sure the top leaves remain above the water line. Place jars in a well-lit area (although out of direct sunlight). In two weeks’ time the stalks should sprout roots and be ready to be potted up. Ask the kids if they thought that this would be possible.


For lots more inspiring activities—plus high-quality science videos and lessons—check out Twig Science Tools

Business Vision

What is Phenomena-based Learning?

Phenomena-based learning (PhenoBL) has been in the spotlight recently. First popularized due to Finland’s decision to revolutionize their curriculum in 2016, this buzzword is back on everyone’s lips again. This time, it’s in connection to the Next Generation Science Standards. We decided to demystify exactly what phenomenon-based learning is, and why it’s becoming increasingly popular.

Finland’s Phenomenal Institute says that in phenomena-based learning and teaching, “holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects”.

In simpler words, PhenoBL is a method of understanding a phenomenon—an observable event—using various methods and perspectives, which may often overlap. PhenoBL takes a broad, multi-faceted look at events and occurrences happening in the real world, such as climate change, migration, or even the European Union. Looking at these subjects from a number of different angles helps the students to truly understand the workings of natural and societal events. We’ve created a quick shortlist of all the features of PhenoBL to give you a quick overview of what it means in terms of teaching in the classroom:

  1. Getting real: The real world is the bedrock of PhenoBL—providing a much-needed starting point that is repeated at every stage. Students and teachers choose to focus on a real-world phenomena: rain, space travel, or perhaps something problematic, like soil erosion. Students study a phenomenon that interests them, and use scientific enquiry and problem-solving skills with the aim of understanding it and demystifying it.
  2. Question and more questions: PhenoBL thrives on curiosity, and so students are encouraged to question what is around them. It’s not a revolutionary concept. Centuries ago, Socrates used a similar method of questioning to guide his students—in order to find the right answers, they had to know how to ask the right questions. PhenoBL echoes this approach, prioritizing how over why in order to inspire students to make observations.
  3. Contextualize: Phenomenon-based learning builds tangible connections between curriculum theory and the real world, but it also serves to link the various, separate subjects that students learn in schools. For example, the Egyptian pyramids display an acute knowledge of physics engineering, both of which require precise, complex calculations. Similarly, the study of fossils and sedimented craters—a perfect mix of geography and science—have helped scientists come to understand the Earth’s biodiversity millions of years ago.
  4. Change in a teacher’s role: PhenoBL recasts the teacher’s role, changing them from a provider of knowledge to a guide that helps students find knowledge on their own. This might initially be a slightly uncomfortable proposition for both teachers and students—watching students struggle prompts many teachers to want to jump in with the answer. But stick with the altered lesson structure: the aim is still to achieve learning goals.
  5. Other skills: The beauty of PhenoBL is that it also integrates the learning of important social skills, such as clear communication and the ability to function in a team. PhenoBL also encourages the use of other pedagogy models: project-based learning, integrated-learning, and inquiry-based learning, to name just a few.

So do we really need PhenoBL? Absolutely! In a world that is changing rapidly, PhenoBL lays the foundation for truly preparing the next generation to think and act like real-world scientists. PhenoBL allows students to own the learning process, transforming them from passive participants within education to active learners. What’s more, PhenoBL goes a step further in addressing the STEM crisis by combining it with the creativity of the arts, giving the next generation a rounded, holistic education.

Want to find out how PhenoBL works with our products? Contact us today.