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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.

Low Section Of Man Standing By Dinosaur Footprint On Rock

Why should kids study dinosaurs?

The word paleontology might not always inspire a lot of general interest, and yet we’d be hard pressed to find a kid who doesn’t love dinosaurs. The giant reptiles that roamed the Earth millions of years ago continue to captivate the interest of young and old alike. But what makes these extinct beasts so popular? The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould attributed the popularity of dinosaurs to three main qualities: they were big; they were fierce; most importantly, they are extinct – and there’s merit to this theory.


Many of the well-known dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Brachiosaurus, or the Triceratops were all massive animals. But there are also other, considerably smaller dinosaurs that defy this theory – look at the Compsognathus, the Hadrocodium and the Microraptor. No matter their size, dinosaurs manage to capture interests.


Ferocity also has a major part to play in terms of popularity. Humans love the thrill of danger – we go bungee jumping, ride rollercoasters and watch horror films. Dinosaurs are as fierce as they come, but of course, they can’t hurt anyone – they’re extinct. They provide the ultimate leap of the imagination.


Finally, possibly the biggest contributing factor to dinosaurs’ popularity is the mystery around the their disappearance. After millions of years successfully roaming the Earth, their sudden mass extinction continues to haunt the human imagination: What killed the dinosaurs?


So, is it worth studying a group of animals that has been extinct for 65 million years? We certainly think so. Here are four reasons why:


1.The study of fossils – yes, including those of dinosaurs – are invaluable to scientists trying to understand climate change. A recent scientific expedition saw a team of scientists drilling into the crater long believed to have been caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The extensive process, documented by the BBC, helped scientists understand what happened the day the collision happened. Scientists theorise that the asteroid was travelling at 64,000 km/h when it smashed into the Earth – so hard, and with so much energy, that it vapourised the ocean and completely obliterated the asteroid. The surrounding sea floor was forced outwards and upwards to extraordinary heights before collapsing in on itself, forming a ring 141 km in diameter. Earth’s climate was changed drastically: the Sun’s light and heat was blocked out by the ash cloud that rose as a result of the impact. Fossil evidence has helped scientists to understand all this, and more.


2. The study of dinosaurs is crucial to understanding to the mechanics of evolution. More than 700 species of dinosaurs have been found and identified so far, but there are hundreds more unknown. There is a huge amount of variation within the species we know: the Triceratops has the largest skull ever recorded, and the hadrosaur continually replaced its teeth as they wore out. What’s more, there are even creatures living today –like birds, turtles and crocodiles – that share evolutionary lineage with dinosaurs.


3. Scientists around the world today are undertaking extensive research on extinction, using dinosaur fossils to understand the biodiversity of the Earth millions of years ago. Human activity has severely altered Earth’s biodiversity, and succeeded in entirely wiping out hundreds of species. By studying extinction and the subsequent effect it has on food chains and Earth’s ecosystems, scientists can begin to understand the complex relationships between species and their surroundings.


4. Despite the popularity of dinosaurs, the general public knows very little about fossils and their distant origins. Some people believe that dinosaurs can be resurrected through the extraction of DNA found in fossils – although yes, that was mainly the fault of the film Jurassic Park. But on a different level, people simply don’t know how to uncover and excavate fossils properly. Precious samples are being discovered by people all over the world, but a lack of proper education on how to dig up and handle fossils means that many specimens end up getting damaged, sometimes irreplaceably so.


As our world changes, scientists continue to research dinosaurs, and for good reason. Whether it’s to gain an in-depth understanding of the animals in the hope of finally, unequivocally figuring out the actual cause of the mass extinction, or to gain a better understanding of the Earth’s ecology – there’s no denying the importance of studying dinosaurs!

Helen Quinn talks to Twig about NGSS

As many of you will know, America is about to undergo a sea change in science education and Helen is firmly at the heart of that transformation. She chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that created the Framework for K-12 Science Education – the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS program is a new way of teaching and learning science where students are supported to think like scientists and ‘figure things out’ rather than memorize key facts.


As you can imagine, our conversation with Helen dived straight into the Next Generation Science Standards; specifically, why she thinks the introduction of these new standards is needed so urgently, and her vision for what she hopes they will achieve.


“[Science] gives us the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in a different way, and I want every citizen to have that knowledge and be able to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive.”


So if you’re looking for some inspiration or just a reminder of why you work in education for a living, just click the link and watch the interview with Helen. We hope you’ll leave with a sense of reinforced purpose. We know we did.


View a clip from the interview here:

How can schools and governments improve teacher retention and recruitment?

Teachers are the backbone of any society. As educators, teachers have a far-reaching and lasting effect on their students. A recent survey suggests that teachers can influence their students’ choices of college majors and careers. On a more urgent note, good teachers can raise the quality of education, which directly translates improvement in PISA scores and assessment results. Long term, an improvement in education directly correlates to employability and progress. It’s no wonder then that many high-performing nations have strict selection processes for recruiting new teachers. Singapore, for example, recruits only the top graduates, and even then only one in eight is actually selected.


Teacher recruitment, however, is facing a huge setback at the moment. A 2016 report showed that nearly 30% of teachers were considering leaving education within 12 months. This included early-education teachers, teaching assistants and Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers. The reasons cited ranged from plummeting morale, poor work/life balance and heavy workloads to a narrow and uncreative curriculum. In 2017, another survey of more than 3000 teachers under the age of 36 suggested that more than 4 in 10 (45%) could choose to leave within five years.


How does this affect other sectors?

A crisis within teacher recruitment and retention can have a domino-like effect on a nation. To start with, a decrease in teacher retention and recruitment means that existing teachers are faced with greater workloads. It also means more secondary school teachers are forced to teach subjects they aren’t qualified to teach. For example, in STEM subjects such as physics, the proportion of those teaching without a relevant qualification rose from 21% to 28% between 2010 and 2014. This means that the future STEM workforce is being taught by overworked and exhausted teachers with no expertise in STEM.


So what can governments and schools do to overcome this crisis?

On the face of it, the solution seems straightforward. Most surveys conducted to explore this issue have teachers citing poor morale and salaries, heavy workloads, rigid curricula and poor work/life balance as the predominant reasons for wanting to quit their jobs. The Department for Education’s most recent teacher workload survey found primary school teachers with less than six years of experience were working an average of almost 19 hours per week outside school hours, with most teachers citing administrative duties adding to their workload.


Funding seems central to solving most teacher-recruitment and retention problems. Despite the UK government’s recent decision to invest £10 million into recruiting foreign teachers to help with the teacher-recruitment crisis, teacher pay rises stay capped at 1%. Poor pay, coupled with poor management and time pressures, leads to a sense of being undervalued. More and more teachers also face mental health issues for these reasons.


The first step in helping teachers is to stop blaming them. Most schools want to help their teachers but find themselves unable do so due to limited funding. Over the years, some schools have taken to applying for private funding from alumni and parents; however, most schools are forced to make do with public funding. How schools can help, however, is by better management. This extends towards the curriculum. Schools can give teachers more flexibility in preparing and delivering their lessons, as well as keeping administrative work to a minimum. This might help to reduce teacher workloads and encourage a better work-life balance. Another practice is to provide continuous professional development for teachers, keeping them updated about the latest teaching technology and techniques that might help them reduce workloads. Much has been said about technological resources for teachers. However, it’s important that schools take the time to figure out which resources might suit their budget needs. For example, a school with a modest budget might profit better through a digital teaching resource that can be accessed via a variety of devices, rather than one that requires investing in a product geared towards learning. Also, teaching resources that are adaptable to a variety of pedagogies offer more value than those that need to be constantly upgraded or expanded depending on student groups.


Governments can also support schools by implementing less stringent curricula, allowing teachers to choose the best pedagogies and techniques to teach their students. For example, Finland gives its schools a great deal of autonomy over the use of curricula and assessment, compared to other countries. Most Finnish teachers hold master’s degrees, with knowledge and experience in research and practice-based subjects. More importantly, they are given a great degree of freedom in designing and delivering lessons. They also clock the least amount of working hours in comparison to their colleagues in other countries.


If governments can’t afford pay rises, they need to compensate for this by offering reduced working hours and more freedom in delivering lessons. Experts have also suggested increasing pay rises, where possible, within poor districts that usually suffer the most in terms of funding and quality teaching.


As with most important things, there is no single or simple solution to the crisis surrounding teacher recruitment and retention. However, it is essential that steps are taken to properly address the issue, at least on a smaller scale initially, in order to preserve a valuable national workforce.

Assessments: helpful or a hindrance

Educational institutes around the world use assessment to measure student performance and learning outcomes, with international assessments such as PISA gaining increasing popularity. Much debate has taken place about the genuine value of assessment, from primary assessments to international tests like PISA. So, is testing really helpful to students? Or does it get in the way of learning? We decided to investigate.


What is assessment and why do we need it?

Often, assessment is confused with testing. Testing is just one form of assessment. Students can also be assessed by various methods such as project-based learning and phenomenon-based learning.


Assessment is an important part of education, helping policymakers and industry thought leaders determine whether curriculum goals are being met. Assessment is the baseline against which decisions about learning outcomes, educational policies, curriculum standards and, yes, even funding are made. In short, its importance hinges on the fact that it provides measurable results.


Is assessment helpful?

While assessment is invaluable to policymakers and educators, the real question stands: is it helpful to students and teachers? The answer is a resounding yes. Here’s why:

  • Assessment helps educators determine if learning goals are being met.
  • Assessment helps us understand the efficiency of the latest pedagogies and teaching methods.
  • Assessment identifies students who are struggling academically, allowing schools and educators to provide them with extra support.
  • Schools need support too. Assessment can help policymakers to identify schools that need extra funding for professional development or classroom supplies etc. For example, reports show that only 19% of low-income students met the ACT test benchmarks.
  • Assessment also helps teachers develop achievement goals when planning their lessons.


So when does assessment become a hindrance?

The biggest concern with assessment is the competitive pressure nations put on their schools and teachers to get better scores. When educators and nations begin to use test results as a source of competition rather than growth, they unwittingly skew the basic purpose of assessing students, which is to evaluate their progress and support them in overcoming their weaknesses.


Another trend stemming from international testing is the tendency to blame teachers for poor test outcomes. Teachers form the backbone of educational systems, often working long hours beyond their working days to help support students. The purpose of tests like PISA ought to be to ultimately support teachers and help them manage their workloads. However, parental and social expectations often lead to criticism of teaching styles or methods, casting doubt on teachers’ ability to do their jobs well. This, in turn, translates into teachers quitting their jobs and/or a drop in teacher recruitment.


Assessment can work incredibly well when it is used to evaluate learning goals and progression. It only becomes a hindrance when it is used to bring down teacher morale and put pressure on schools to compete with other others around the world.

To Do

Life of a teacher

A teacher can play many roles in their lifetime. The ancients used to rever their educators, with many historical societies sending their children off to live with teachers for years. Teachers thus played the role of parent, guide and educator, all in one. The modern student may not live with their teacher, but the modern teacher’s role isn’t vastly different to their predecessors – only the context has changed.


“If kids come to us from strong, healthy functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.” – Barbara Colorose


Much of a teacher’s job involves observing: recognising those who need a helping hand and those who need a patient ear. Colorose’s words resonate with many teachers who reach out to children with dysfunctional backgrounds. There are teachers in the world who work in war-torn countries, and those who teach in remote parts of the world where children struggle to eat. Some teachers manage classrooms bursting with boisterous children, and some spend hours and hours a week on lesson plans to stay ahead of schedule – only to have to start all over again when the format changes without notice. There are also teachers dedicated to working with children with learning difficulties. Each of them are equally important, and we’ve put together a list of 8 aspects of a teacher’s life to acknowledge their important contributions to education.


1. Parenting.

Most kids spend three-quarters of their waking hours in school with their teachers. Many teachers therefore take on several responsibilities associated with being a parent, whether it’s the simple things – such as teaching children good manners and respect – or the more complicated ones, such as looking out for their physical and mental well-being or keeping an eye out for hidden signs of distress.

Most kids spend three-quarters of their waking hours in school with their teachers. Many teachers therefore take on several responsibilities associated with being a parent, whether it’s the simple things – such as teaching children good manners and respect – or the more complicated ones, such as looking out for their physical and mental well-being or keeping an eye out for hidden signs of distress.


2. Managing patience.

Teachers tend to run a daily marathon in terms of patience. This doesn’t just apply to the students, though ‒ teachers have to deal with ever-changing state, educational and school policies; they have to cope with the possibility of sacrificing yet another weekend to lesson planning, they have to accept that there’s no space in the budget for the school trip they spent weeks planning; they have to deal with parental expectations… The list goes on.


3. Multitasking.

All teachers juggle multiple tasks every single day. Primary teachers, in particular, have to teach several subjects, which means extensive lesson planning along with huge amounts of marking and feedback. Often, this results in teachers covering subjects or areas that they have little to no experience in. Which takes us to the next point…


4. Learning on the go.

Teaching a subject requires you to learn first: no teacher is born with a knowledge bank that stretches from photosynthesis to classroom pedagogy. Researching the subjects to be taught involves a lot of study and continuing professional development (CPD) sessions.


5. Protector.

A role most people often don’t associate with teachers, and yet many teachers are natural protectors of their students: they not only take care of their students’ intellect and mental wellbeing, but also their safety. In the simplest scenarios, this involves making sure students cross the road safely on a class trip and wear appropriate safety equipment during science experiments. Unfortunately, sometimes this responsibility can stretch to safeguarding a student from school bullies or even from an abusive parent.


6. Low pay, high pressure.

Ask any teacher and you will learn that they work far more than their scheduled hours and way beyond their job descriptions – all without overtime. They bear the pressure from state policies, educational reforms, school policies, parental expectations and their own personal lives. Add this to the fact that most teaching jobs are notoriously poorly paid, and you can see that finding success as a teacher is often a labour of love and determination.


7. The power to change lives.

Katherine Johnson – the woman responsible for manually calculating the trajectory of the first spaceship launch, and many further NASA missions – was influenced by her school geometry teacher and her college professor. Both encouraged her and guided her towards success in life. Luckily, Johnson is just one example of many. Studies continue to show the profound influence teachers have on their students when it comes to choosing careers.

Katherine Johnson – the woman responsible for manually calculating the trajectory of the first spaceship launch, and many further NASA missions – was influenced by her school geometry teacher and her college professor. Both encouraged her and guided her towards success in life. Luckily, Johnson is just one example of many. Studies continue to show the profound influence teachers have on their students when it comes to choosing careers.


8. Little glory.

Let’s face it, there are no accolades to being a teacher. There are no songs sung, no trumpets blown, and the movies don’t even come close to what it’s really like to be a teacher. And yet it’s one of the most influential jobs in the world. The next time you question if it’s all worth it, though, do remember you have a whole office full of people at Twig Education who are always rooting for you!