Finding Great Anchoring Phenomena For NGSS Units

Learn how to make science instruction more engaging by using great anchoring phenomena. Discover what makes a “good” anchor and see examples of how to use them.

Building Units Around Anchoring Phenomena

One of the big shifts with the Next Generation Science Standards is that you are no longer teaching content for content’s sake. Science instruction is no longer based around a list of facts. 

Instead, the focus is on the broader concepts that connect those facts together. It’s also about the skill development necessary to investigate and understand those concepts. 

One way of focusing students on the “big picture” in a unit is to present anchoring phenomena that students work toward understanding and explaining.

When I first learned about anchors, I will be honest – I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. I mean, I understood that doing a demo in a physical science classroom could be an anchor that students could explore throughout the unit. But what about my life science class? What about my earth science class?

Since then, I have spent some time learning about anchoring phenomena, and I really feel my students benefited from what I was able to implement. Whenever we started a unit, students: 

  • were immediately engaged in the content,
  • began to reveal prior knowledge and experiences,
  • were able to personally connect with what we were learning about,

And over time, students were able to see how one concept connected to the next in our storylines as we discussed our learnings through the lens of our anchoring phenomena and related each understanding back to understanding and explaining them.

In terms of planning, I actually always identify the anchoring phenomena before I develop any activities in my units. I want to be sure that my activities are tied into the anchor and providing the information they need to solve that problem or answer that question. The anchors literally hold the content together.

Obviously, choosing a good anchor is important!

Algae blooms can be a great phenomenon for life and/or earth science storylines. [Credit: Imagery of the Western Lake Erie harmful algal bloom from September 26, 2017. The scum shown here near downtown Toledo stretched all the way to Lake Ontario. This photo is from Landsat-8 (a NASA/USGS satellite).]

So What Is An Anchoring Phenomenon?

An anchoring phenomenon (or “anchor”) is either a fascinating natural phenomenon or a meaningful design problem that students must engage in science and engineering practices to investigate. In terms of phenomena, they are the “things” — events or processes — that happen under specific circumstances that students are working to explain. It’s important to note that anchors aren’t the QUESTIONS. They generate the questions.

Anchors can keep instructional sequences coherent and on target, allowing a storyline to develop that helps students understand the concepts they are learning and how they are all interconnected.

Baking cookies is another great anchoring phenomenon! I use this phenomenon in my Chemical Kitchen storyline, which you can find on TeachersPayTeachers or inside Spark Science.

What Makes A Good Anchor?

Choosing an anchor is an important step when you are designing your units and instructional sequences. Not every natural phenomenon makes a good anchor. So what makes a good anchor?

An anchor builds upon student experiences.

Ideally, students should have some prior knowledge of or experience with the material. This does not mean they must fully understand it or be able to explain it — in fact, that wouldn’t be a good anchor at all! — but they should be able to connect with it in some way. 

For example, all students have probably watched rainwater run down the road, carrying dirt and debris with it. An anchor for a watershed unit could simply be that very description (or an image or video of the same!), designed to generate the question: Where does all the water go?

An anchor connects multiple NGSS performance expectations. 

When you lay out your units, you should be developing a storyline that takes you from one performance expectation to another. The anchor phenomenon should be able to flow through each of those PEs. 

For our watershed example above, your instructional sequence may move from the properties of water and their effects on Earth’s surfaces (HS-ESS2-5) to how changes in Earth’s surfaces affect water resources (HS-ESS2-2) to reducing the impact of human activity on watersheds (HS-ESS3-4).

An anchor is too complex to explain or solve after just one lesson. 

Students aren’t able to figure out an answer without instruction, and an online search can’t provide a quick answer that students could copy.

An anchor is observable.

Whether it is through a demo, a video presentation, through the use of a scientific procedure or technological tool (telescope, microscope, computer to see patterns, etc.), an anchor must be able to be observed by students.

Anchoring phenomena should have resources available that students can explore for themselves.

This includes data, images, and texts that can provide students with what they need to know to explain the phenomenon or solve the problem. Students should be able to learn about the anchoring phenomenon and related concepts through first-hand or second-hand investigations. (First hand investigations: students conduct the investigation and collect the data. Second-hand investigations: students utilize others’ data to draw their own conclusions or examine others’ conclusions to evaluate their reasoning.

anchoring phenomena idea - data maps of average temperature and precipitation
Graphics, maps, and data tables can all work as phenomena, too! I use temperature patterns as an investigative level phenomenon in my climate-focused storyline. This phenomenon ties together a part of my larger storyline, Solar Energy In The Desert.

My husband can attest to this – I am an examples person. I really need examples to understand what someone means. So what are some types of anchoring phenomena that I use in my lessons? Here are some additional examples. (Quick Reminder: the phenomenon isn’t the question but it sparks the question!)

  • case studies (pine beetle infestation, cane toad invasive species, algal blooms in the Great Lakes, water shortages in California),
  • a problem and a challenge (how to eradicate an invasive species? how to provide clean water after a natural disaster?)
  • something puzzling (the search for a habitable planet, which might lead to questions like: is there life on other planets? or why is Earth the only planet with life?; a map of earthquakes to get to: why aren’t earthquakes common here?; a graph of snowfall, leading to: why do we get so much snow?),
  • or something students may be curious about (a description of Earth in the past and a challenge: how do we know what Earth was like millions of years ago?; a discussion of “digging to China” to lead to: how do we know what’s inside of Earth?; surveys: why do I have blue eyes but my parents don’t?; or images: why does a giraffe have a long neck?)
  • social and environmental justice issues (impacts of climate change on different socioeconomic communities? the battle for bottled water?)

Where can you learn more about anchoring phenomena?

You can learn more about what makes a good anchor, choosing your anchor, and using your anchor at these blog posts.

Anchoring Phenomena Resources

If you’re ready to use anchor phenomena in your classroom but need a resource to get you started, consider one of these awesome packets created just for you!