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What is Phenomena-Based Learning And Why Should We Care?

Phenomena-based learning is one of the latest hot topics in education, specifically in science education. Our recently revised national science standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), recommend that “phenomena are an essential part of implementing the NGSS” and have information for teachers and publishers on accomplishing this goal. Curricular materials developed by publishers aligned with the NGSS center their content on phenomena-based learning.

Following NGSS

To use the NGSS, teachers need to integrate three dimensions into their lessons; disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), crosscutting concepts (CCs), and science and engineering practices (SEPs), to follow NGSS standards.

NGSS standards are not curricula, and to use them in the classroom, teachers rely on publishers to translate them into curricular materials.

New books, textbooks, and science kits developed and aligned to the NGSS focus on a phenomena-based learning approach. Research shows that Phenomena-Based Learning can enhance the Science Classroom. Students are more engaged when they have the opportunity to observe scientific phenomena, ask and answer questions about that phenomena, and explore how what they are learning applies to their everyday lives (Hoglund, 2020)

What Is Phenomena-based Learning, exactly?

The root of phenomena-based learning comes from the constructivist theories proposed by Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist who is most famously known for his theory of cognitive development. Constructivism is the theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively taking in information.

Constructivism is one branch of a set of cognitive learning styles, which are a subset of a larger array of learning theories.

Here is a great summary of 31 different learning theories in education, by Dr. Chris Drew.

Phenomena-based learning shares similarities with project-based, problem-based, and inquiry-based learning. The critical difference in these theories is that lessons must have a global context and an interdisciplinary approach for phenomena-based learning.

Phenomena-based learning and Holism

Educators like Jean Piaget believed that learning works better by looking at the whole subject rather than breaking down a topic’s components. For many years, a holistic approach to science education has been the primary educational paradigm for Finnish schools.

Why the U.S. Embraced Phenomena-Based Learning

Phenomena-based learning is the learning method Finland adopted in 2016. Because many countries see Finland as the model school system worldwide, the U.S. embraced phenomena-based learning and has made it the focus on science education standards and curricular materials.

Phenomena-based science programs have risen in popularity and dominate the science education publishing industry.

Is phenomena-based learning better than other methods for students to learn science?

As with all learning theories, phenomena-based learning has both advantages and disadvantages for science education.


  • Improved student engagement
  • Connections across different subject domains
  • Application and relevance to real-life issues
  • Development of strong communication skills as students often work in groups
  • Increased independence
  • Self-initiated learning
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving


  • Ill-defined learning goals
  • Students struggling to identify and learn discipline-specific skills
  • Lack of technical knowledge being presented or required to complete a project
  • Lack of formal structure with students having difficulty creating the correct contextual framework for a more profound understanding.

The authors of How People Learn II note that certain subjects, like science, require students to learn discipline-specific content. Learning and research studies show that phenomena-based learning alone doesn’t deepen student understanding and researchers urge caution in the classroom (Condliffe et.a. 2017).

Phenomena-based learning can enhance a student’s willingness and motivation to learn scientific subjects but is incomplete.

Without a knowledge-base of vocabulary, techniques, skills, concepts, and the corresponding framework that organizes information for rapid retrieval, we shortchange our students and leave them without proper preparation for high school and college-level courses.

Phenomena-based learning alone will not work to move students towards deep learning if students don’t also learn the academic language used within and across content areas.

To learn science vocabulary and phenomena, use our RATATAZ STEM kit to put your students in charge of their learning.

This step-by-step kit gets students asking open-ended questions that spark curiosity, involving them in hands-on investigations. This minimalist STEM kit will help them develop a fundamental understanding of how science works. Students can even create projects and experiments based on what they are learning!

Buy your first kit today!

Hoglund, Shana, “Three-Dimensional Learning and the Phenomena Based Learning Approach with a STEM Curriculum” (2020). School of Education and Leadership Student Capstone Projects. 464.

Condliffe, B., Quint, J., Visher, M.G., Bangser, M. R., Drohojowska, S. Saco, L., and Nelson, E. (2017). Project-Based Learning: A Literature Review, 1-78. New York, NY: MDRC.