Phenomenon-Based Learning

 “Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”
-John Dewey, School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pg. 78 

Last month, I had the opportunity to speak at the FLIP x Education conference held annually in Kaohsiung. At the conference, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Chen [陳光鴻], who is leading the “shifting landscape of math education in Taiwan.” It is so inspiring to listen to him talk about the future of math education, and I have often described him as the Dan Meyer of Taiwan.

Early in our conversation, Mr. Chen asked me what I thought PBL stood for, which I answered as most teachers from the United States would: problem-based learning. I first learned about this progressive approach to education when I was enrolled in graduate school and one of my professors lead a memorable seminar on the debate between constructivism (proposed by education philosopher John Dewey and advanced by icons such as Piaget and Montessori), and neo-traditionalism (lead by E.D. Hirsch). Hirsch gew up during the Jim Crow era in the segregated south, where “racism was automatic and rampant.” To help fight the opportunity gap, he advocated for a traditional school model where all students learn the same “core knowledge.” Dewey advocated for a more progressive school model that favored a collaborative approach where students learn dynamically through hands-on projects and from their peers.

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This bust of John Dewey graciously welcomes all visitors to Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Although we had a great debate in my graduate school class, what does the research suggest? The long-suppressed eight-year study famously noted that students “educated in progressive schools show more leadership, think more clearly, take a keener interest in books, music, and arts, and get slighty better grades in college than those of traditional schools.” Dr. Jo Boaler has a plethora of contemporary research that suggests the power of a progressive model of education is truly limitless and could help move our entire nation forward.

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Talking with 陳光鴻 about Phenomenon Based Learning at the FLIP x Education Conference in Kaohsiung

Back in Kaohsiung, Mr. Chen challenged me, and told me that we do not need problem-based learning; rather, we need Phenomenon Based Learning. At first, I thought this might be a translation error or perhaps a cultural misunderstanding. Mr. Chen told me that we need to strive for phenomenon-based learning, which he defined as a cross-curricular problem-based learning approach that gives students democratic ownership over their learning. He excitingly proclaimed, “there should be no kings or queens teaching a classroom!” He then laid out a vision of what school could be in Taiwan. Almost a hundred of years after John Dewey visited the Republic of China, he would be proud of educators like Mr. Chen that are looking to lead an education revolution.

We continued to talk about how teachers can transform high school classrooms, and how we can let students take true ownership over their learning. Mr. Chen asked me to describe my vision of an exemplar math classroom, and I talked about my experience implementing Agile Mind – a research-based platform that, in my perspective, is the best phenomenon-based learning curriculum currently available in the United States. As an organization that is dedicated to empowering students throughout the country, I have seen first-hand the impact that a progressive instruction model has had on my classroom in Newark, NJ. This is what my classroom looked like before Agile Mind:

This was taken in the beginning of my second year of teaching. Although the classroom management is pretty tight for a second-year teacher, the entire class is completely dominated by the teacher (me). Sure, we may have sung “Happy Birthday” to build some culture in the beginning, but I completely monopolize the rest of the class. By doing so, I inadvertently rob my students of any opportunity to meaningfully engage with the lesson. This video resembles a glorified version of show-and-tell, where the magic of mathematics has been reduced to forcing students to copy down what I write on the board. Also, consider how I had extremely-low expectations of my students, as I was teaching an elementary math standard in a high school algebra class.

During this point in my teaching career, I falsely believed that teachers were keepers of knowledge that had to exert control over their classes to ensure compliance. I was not happy with how my classes were going, and although my students generally respected me as a teacher, many still hated math class. I started attending every professional development session I could find, and I realized that something was fundamentally wrong with the way my class was structured. After reading dozens of books, attending conferences, and struggling through many internal biases, I realized that if I wanted to offer a transformational learning experience, I needed to change my teaching style and implement a progressive instruction model that would democratize the learning environment. Take a moment to consider what my classroom looked like a few years after Newark adopted Agile Mind and I implemented a more democratic classroom:

Notice who is leading the mathematics during this lesson. In this video, students are doing almost all of the heavy lifting, and my role has been reassigned from a lecturer to a facilitator of knowledge. One can gather the strong sense of community that has been developed, and it is clear that students have taken genuine ownership of their learning. The ideals of restorative practices have replaced a zero-tolerance approach to behavior management. The lesson structure of “I Do, We Do, You Do” has been replaced with “You-Do, Y’all Do, We Do.” Students believe in the core sentiments of academic youth development, and that mistakes are expected, respected, and inspected. While I am proud of the growth that I have made as an educator, I still have a lot to learn; this is one of the main reasons that I am currently in Asia researching education and pedagogy.

To be fair, it is not just the curriculum that has changed, but also the entire power structure of the classroom. Some teachers and school leaders wrongly believe that ‘power’ in schools is a fixed commodity. Rather, I vehemently believe now more than ever that empowering students and giving them ownership of their learning and academic trajectories can genuinely transform any classroom in any school throughout our country (a future post will consider specific ideas on how teachers can democratize their classrooms).

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Co-teaching Mr. Chen’s math class in Taichung

One of the struggles I have throughout Taiwan (and in the United States, to be honest) is that although some teachers are open to the idea of collaborative learning and PBL, they worry that their students will not do well on end-of-year assessments and college entrance exams. On the contrary, I honestly believe that a progressive style of learning will help achieve both ends. The proof is in the pudding: On the 2016 PARCC administration, I was so proud of my students for attaining the highest high school passing rate in the entire Newark Public Schools. In 2017, my students had a higher passing rate on the rigorous Algebra II PARCC test than the New Jersey state average. Although the 2018 results are not in yet, I am confident that my students will do equally well this year. To me, it is evidence to suggest that true phenomenon-based learning is essential if we are serious about helping students develop the intellect, character, and skills needed to solve the adaptive challenges of the 21st century.

I was also fortunate to see Mr. Chen lead a professional development session in Taichung, where he is slowly equipping an army of teachers with the mindset, skills, and rigor needed to go out and set the world on fire. Thank you, Mr. Chen, (謝謝,陳光鴻!) for your leadership, your dedication, and your awe-inspiring vision. To me, it is incredible that halfway around the world, we are working towards the same goal of transforming our schools. As I tell my fellow teachers often, keep fighting the good fight!

And thank you to all those back home in the states that have pushed me to become a better educator, including all of my incredible students over the years, Nick Romagnolo, Michael De Antonio, Jr., Honoré Hodgson, Abby Neumeyer, Michelle Lin, and Leeann Kerst. Let us continue to fail forward and resolve to work relentlessly until every child has the opportunity to attain a truly excellent education.

2 thoughts on “Phenomenon-Based Learning”

  1. Wow!!!! I love it! I’ve been exploring a similar pedagogy in the UK. , though it actually began in Australia. Negotiated learning. I’ll check out what you described. Glad you’ve made such great insights. I’m finally in full Swing with my inquiry and can’t believe my time is almost up here. Hope all is well with you.

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