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Phenomena Inquiries: A Powerful Shift in Science Instruction for the NGSS

Teachers often ask me “Is this phenomenon phenomenal enough for this science unit?” I then remind them that each thing we know about the physical and living world was once a fascinating phenomenon. For example, in 1665, Robert Hooke coined the term “cells” when looking at a piece of cork under his self-built compound microscope. This revelation changed what we understood about living things and is still worthy of student wonder. The question for teachers is “How can I develop units of study that put students in the role of the scientists discovering the meaning of a phenomenon?” The Next Generation Science Standards encourage teachers to promote this type of student inquiry by having them notice, wonder, and make sense of the world through phenomena. Paul Anderson describes this well in this video.

The question then becomes for a teacher, “Which phenomena are best suited for this unit of study and how many do I need to drive an inquiry?” There is really no set number but I recommend grounding a unit’s content story through one anchoring phenomenon and several supporting phenomena. For example, in an Earth’s Landforms unit, the anchoring phenomenon could be “How is it possible that marine fossils have been found on the Himalayan Mountains?” The supporting phenomena, which contribute to students’ understanding of the anchoring phenomena, could include inquiries on the formation of a local landscape, a recent earthquake and volcanic eruption, the causes of beach erosion, and the formation of the Mississippi Delta. It is also important to include both local and worldwide phenomena. We know that community relevance increases student engagement while global happenings help to show students commonalities among the world communities. This resource from the National Science Foundation describes the role of an anchoring phenomenon in more detail. You can also find many more interesting phenomena for classroom use on this webpage developed by T.J. McKenna and his collaborators.

We all know that Robert Hooke did not discover the cell in 40 minutes. The next question for teachers is “How can I develop lessons that allow students to observe, ponder about, and make sense of phenomena within the limited instructional time?” Firstly, the anchoring phenomena would not be fully addressed until the unit is complete. In our example, students would gain greater understanding of why marine fossils are found in the Himalayas after investigating each of the supporting phenomena. Secondly, students would typically spend some time in most lessons investigating the supporting phenomena through observations, wonderings, and some attempts at sense-making. In our example of the formation of the Mississippi Delta, students would build a model delta (observe), ask loads of questions about what they built (ponder about), and then try to explain what, how and why the delta formed (make sense of). After some time, the teacher would elaborate on the students’ explanations and clarify any misconceptions. The 5E Lesson Plan by Bybee & Landes, 1990 is an excellent approach to developing these types of lessons. Here are some specific 5E Resources from the NSTA.

It is easy to see why phenomena inquiries can have a powerful impact on science instruction. Remember, every phenomenon is phenomenal!!!!

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, please email us at to schedule a informational meeting.

Educationally yours,

The Team at Elevate Educators

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