For decades, if not centuries, education was defined by what children learn and when they learn it: the scope and sequence of a written curriculum.Until fairly recent insights into the psychology and neuroscience of young people, how they learn didn’t change much either: students copied, memorized, and sometimes analyzed the information provided by a teacher. Students were passive recipients of knowledge received from a greater authority.
Phenomenon-based learning, also known as project-based learning, problem-based learning, or PBL, emerged in the 1960s as a new approach to how students learn when professors at McMaster University Medical School in Canada became disillusioned with “a tendency to stress teaching while paying little attention to helping students learn (Schmidt 2012)”. They realized that education was focused on the wrong thing. Instead of emphasizing how and why students learn, teaching was about teachers. Project-based learning was intended to redirect that attention on students’ learning.
Though project-based learning is interdisciplinary in nature, it is often contrived and lacks true relevance and purpose because the projects are designed by teachers instead of the educational target, the students themselves. One approach that teachers have used to try to personalize learning is through so-called ‘passion projects’ such as “20% Time”or Genius Hour: dedicated portions of the academic calendar during which students investigate topics of their own choosing and share their learning with authentic audiences. Genius Hour is a well-established means of personalizing learning and making it relevant to students, but it isn’t necessarily interdisciplinary, and it frequently lacks purpose beyond, “what is interesting to this student?”.
Why students learn appears in many schools’ visions and mission statements that use words such as ‘inspire,’ ‘empower,’ ‘innovate,’ and ‘make a difference.’ But how many students experience those concepts in their day-to-day experiences at school? Young people naturally want to know, “why are we learning this?” and, “why is this relevant to my life?” The importance of personal relevance to quality in-depth learning is supported by more than a decade of research by Dr. Mizuko Ito, chair of the Connected Learning Research Network at the MacArthur Foundation. Dr. Ito has found that people learn best when they connect what they learn to their interests and the opportunities they want to pursue – the ‘why’ of learning.
Students seek purpose in their learning.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a curricular framework that combines an interdisciplinary project-based approach with the personal relevance of Genius Hour to provide that purpose to students’ learning. The SDGs support students’ application of content knowledge to address the environmental, social, and economic topics that they encounter in their community, media, and day-to-day lives.
The UN SDGs are interdisciplinary by nature – they are complex social, economic, and environmental issues that touch on many fields of knowledge and may be examined from several perspectives. Students develop competency in native and additional languages when they read, write, research, and communicate their learning about sustainable development issues. They use the arts to express their own feelings, induce feelings in an audience, and communicate learning non-linguistically. Students apply mathematics to collect data and analyze trends or patterns related to the SDG for real-world application. The human context of various sustainable development topics is examined through the lenses of ethics, history, geography, social studies, and economics. Students design, conduct, and evaluate scientific investigations into local elements of the SDG and also with regard to solutions they propose as part of the learning process. These subject skills may be scaffolded up or down as needed to meet developmentally-appropriate academic benchmarks.
The UN SDGs are likely too complex for young learners to engage with meaningfully; however, the idea of sustainability may be woven into learning experiences about rules and fairness (social sustainability), healthy habits and nutrition (personal sustainability), and the life cycle of plants (ecological sustainability). Sustainability as a phenomenon is a fundamental element of four of the five areas of learning in New Nordic School’s early years Exploration Stage based on Finnish early childhood education: My Growth and Development and Expressing Myself promote personal and social sustainability, while Me and My Community and Exploring My Environment build students’ understanding of social and environmental sustainability, respectively.
In primary education, students may investigate social, economic, or environmental phenomena from several angles that align with their personal interests, capacities, and passions. This may be as simple as learning about the origin and types of seafood sold in local markets, exploring the biological diversity of local parks and ecosystems, or studying different ways of producing electricity. These phenomena form the basis of learning Quests in New Nordic School’s primary school program, the Foundation Stage.
At the middle school and high school level, the UN SDGs provide a range of opportunities for students to practice real-world skills within the safe environment of a school setting. This is what we’ve set out to do with New Nordic School’s Formation and Direction stages for grades seven through twelve. For example, students may learn about economic inequalities both between and within countries in social studies and history lessons. In art and design classes, they may use various software to redesign their neighborhood or the school campus to promote well-being and sustainable communities. Students may evaluate and propose changes to a school’s menus, equipment, or procedures as part of scientific investigations into nutrition or energy production and consumption.
In each of these examples, all students study the same content knowledge and investigate similar phenomena, but they are personalizing their learning and making it directly relevant to their own lives through the range of topics within the unit’s sustainable development theme. This personal relevance strengthens students’ mastery of content knowledge, fosters better engagement with their own learning process, and helps them identify interests for future studies and, eventually, career choices, just as Dr. Ito’s research suggests. Based on their learning experiences, students may be inspired to take direct action to improve the world they encounter on a daily basis. In this way, New Nordic School empowers students to shape their future.
By Bradley M Kremer
Bradley M Kremer
Director of Education
New Nordic School
 Schmidt H.G. (2012) A Brief History of Problem-based Learning. In: O’Grady G., Yew E., Goh K., Schmidt H. (eds) One-Day, One-Problem. Springer, Singapore
 ”20% time” is based on a 2004 letter to potential investors from Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who wrote ‘We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.’ their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner’.
 “Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.” DML Hub, The MacArthur Foundation, 2018, dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-research-and-design.