“When you say that phenomenon-based learning has to be student-centered, teachers think I can’t do anything, I just have to step back and let the students do their thing,” Elo said.
He hasn’t found that to be true.
Teachers have to make sure students know the foundational knowledge they need on a given topic to even consider developing a research question within it. They need to teach students how to craft appropriate research questions that can lead to interesting and engaging, and hopefully even original, research opportunities. And they need to pause the student-directed investigations to teach and model the skills students should be using on their own along the way.
Elo finds he constantly shifts from a more traditional direct-instruction approach to a hands-off one depending on what students need. Importantly, this back-and-forth ensures students get instruction on given skills or content right when they need to incorporate it into their projects. Before they would interview a professor via a video call, Elo would help them prepare good questions, for example, then leave them to run the interview on their own.
This system makes everything they learn more relevant to the students, a core goal of phenomenon-based learning in the first place.
“I withdraw when I see the kids don’t need me and they got it,” Elo said. There is still plenty for him to do in the classroom, however. “In my mind, I am teaching and modeling like crazy, but it’s not the content, it’s the skills.”
*Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that students in all grades complete phenomenon-based learning assignments.
This story about phenomenon based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.