Focusing Student Questions With Your Anchor Phenomenon Routine

The anchor phenomenon routine plays an important role in science classes as students develop their abilities to figure out the questions they need to answer to meet their learning goals.

From Anchor Phenomenon To Anchor Phenomenon Routine

Last week, I shared how I had crafted an anchor experience to supplement my “canned” curriculum and better engage my students in our storyline. [Read that here!] But after students have generated questions, what comes next? 

In a perfect world, students work through an anchor experience, ask exactly the right questions, and all together identify and decide the most important question to investigate first. 

Or even better, they all choose different-but-absolutely-relevant-and-important questions to investigate and have the skills, know-how, intrinsic motivation, and instructor support to guide individualized investigations.

[If this is what you’re thinking: 🤣🤣🤣… I hear you.]

We know these things don’t always (ever?) happen.

So how do we get our students to where they need to be?

The Importance Of The Anchor Phenomenon

First and foremost – before we can go any further – your anchor experience has got to be on point. The phenomenon your students are presented with, engage with, experience, or investigate >> whatever phrasing you want to use >> has got to target the content ideas you want your students to learn!

A video of a macrophage eating a bacterium?

So cool!!!

But is it going to spark questions about cell organelles — which you have determined is the actual target of your storyline right now? 

Probably not.

Our anchor must align with and spark questions about our content goals. 

If you’re ready to finally understand how to launch your student-driven storylines from a phenomenon, grab a seat in The SOS System: Foundations Formula on-demand professional development program! You can purchase the course individually or access it through a membership with Spark Science!

Why Do We Need An Anchor Phenomenon Routine?

While your anchor phenomenon in any given unit is going to change — and even how students experience it may (and should) get a regular refresh and mix-up — your fundamental anchor phenomenon routine is not. 

While we all enjoy novelty, most people thrive under a sense of regularity and routine. We come to know what is expected of us and what we can expect from others. This is why procedures and consistency are so important to classroom management and our classroom cultures! Beyond encouraging positive behaviors though, this type of regularity — in the form of our anchor phenomenon routine — can deepen student learning in our science classes by 

  • creating a safe space to learn new skills (like asking questions)
  • providing practice for skills students are working on mastering (like asking questions and navigating student-driven storylines)
  • and opening opportunities to dig deeper into content as students master the skills (because once you know how to ask great questions, you can really dig into the content!)

So what does that mean for our classrooms?

It means we need to establish our anchor phenomenon routine to build our students’ questioning skills. It also means we need to expect to scaffold this process early on — our first student-driven storylines may not be fully student-driven. Our students may not be ready for that. That said, we can use the same process — but with a bit more guidance — to build student competency until they are ready to ask the questions that they need to answer in order to accomplish their goals (ex/ to explain the anchor phenomenon).

What Does My Routine Look Like?

First and foremost, I want you to know — it doesn’t have to look any-which-way. You can tailor your anchor phenomenon routine to meet the needs of your students, your classroom, and your curriculum. And there are so many iterations of this concept out there right now — you should find what works best for you and your students. 

That said, in this post I’ll be sharing with you what I typically do to launch a unit.

My first step is to recognize – and perhaps remind myself – of the goals for this activity.

  • I want my students to learn how to ask questions that get them closer to their goals. (And in this case, their goals are the science content and skills mastery defined by the anchor experience.)
  • I want my students to actually ask the questions that get them closer to their goals.
  • I want my students to feel a sense of ownership in the direction of our learning and the course of our curriculum.

For me, that’s the core of the task. And with that in mind, I try to keep it simple yet engaging and collaborative, open-ended but with clear boundaries, and in the end, targeted toward our defined “end goals.”

In its most simple format, my anchor phenomenon routine looks like:

  • interacting with or experiencing the phenomenon (via the anchor experience)
  • making observations
  • asking questions
  • sorting and evaluating our questions
  • navigating our path forward

The Anchor Phenomenon Routine: Let’s dig in!

Experiencing The Anchor Phenomenon

I have several blog posts on this topic, so I’ll link those below. But essentially, it’s important that students aren’t just being “presented with” the phenomenon but also have a chance to interact with it in a way that engages them — drawing them into stories (fictional and/or real), experiencing it personally in the classroom or sharing their own personal experiences outside the classroom, connecting with the issue on a personal or emotional level.

These are just a few ideas. There are many ways to engage students with our phenomenon — to allow them to dig in and have some sort of experience with it — and you can mix-up this experience to maintain a sense of novelty at the beginning of each unit storyline.

Making Observations

No matter how your students initially engage with the anchor phenomenon, they should spend some time recording their observations and/or their thoughts and ideas.

[Listen to this Teaching Science In 3D Podcast episode on developing our students’ observation skills!]

If students are watching a video, they can record what they see and hear. They can pause at certain moments to make closer observations. They can also record their thoughts — connections that come to mind, hypotheses and explanations that may be brewing. I love to hear students’ ideas at this point, because it’s a great formative assessment moment. 

If students are reading a text (an article, a children’s book, a fiction novel, etc.), they are doing the same things — recording what they notice in the text, identifying key quotes or moments in the story, making connections and recording ideas. 

If students are experiencing the phenomenon personally (ex/ comparing macroinvertebrates from two different streams), they can use all of their senses (excepting taste 😂 ) to record their observations. They can compare and contrast. They can organize their thoughts about what they are seeing and hearing, and they can make connections to previous experiences or learning.

I typically provide my students with a graphic organizer customized to the anchor experience — that guides them through this observation process and gives them tools to dig further. For a text, it may be an organizer that also includes an “annotation key” to support active reading. For a video or photo, it may be a simple “Notice & Wonder” chart. For an investigation (like the macroinvertebrate study above), I may provide some data tables, question prompts, and organizers like a Venn Diagram. 

Making observations can be hard. It’s a process that can be so open-ended that it’s actually challenging and overwhelming. While I want my students to feel they have the space to record their own ideas and observations, I also want to support them through the process by providing structure and guidance. Graphic organizers are great ways to leave ample amounts of freedom but also provide some boundaries that can keep students moving forward.

Asking Questions

While asking questions comes naturally to young learners, middle school students (and up) tend to really struggle with questioning. There are a few ways you can support this process. Check out these resources:

Sorting And Evaluating Questions

If you have tried giving your students the opportunity to generate questions in your student-driven storyline, you probably have run into your fair share of totally nonsense questions as well as totally irrelevant but interesting questions nonetheless. So what do you do with those?

First, it’s important to accept and validate all questions. Even if they aren’t relevant to your unit, they still represent your students’ curiosities and thinking — and that’s wonderful! That said, just because a student asked a question does not mean it’s up to you (or the class) to answer it. You may want to incorporate some of the questions into independent learning tasks and challenges — choose a question from the board and see what you can find out yourself! Other questions may be left entirely unanswered (unless students’ are particularly motivated on their own). That’s ok! It’s rarely a bad sign to have more questions than you can answer.

That said, your students do need to sort through the questions and evaluate which ones are relevant to students’ learning in the classroom.  I like to first ask my students to simply group and categorize the questions. If there are obvious overlaps, we may combine questions and/or remove repeats from the board.

Then, we discuss which questions will help us reach our end goals. Which relate to explaining our phenomenon or accomplishing the posed task? When we are crafting our anchor experience, we are actually giving our students boundaries in which to work. This is the moment they begin to identify those boundaries and determine what information will move them forward. (This is a vital skill they will need to develop in the long run as well! Our students need to know how to ask questions but also what questions to ask!)

an example of a student question board as students work through our anchor phenomenon routine

Questions that fall beyond the scope of our phenomenon are placed to the side — they can be returned to if there is time or if students’ are particularly curious, but we aren’t going to be actively working toward answering those (at least, not yet).

Navigating Our Path Forward

We focus our attention on the remaining questions, and through discussion (and at the beginning, often a lot of teacher guidance), we identify our first best step. Sometimes, this first-best-step is tied to what students are most curious about. 

  • For example, it doesn’t matter to me which water quality factor we dig into first! 
  • Likewise, the order in which we explore the impact of mountains and bodies of water on climate doesn’t make much of a difference to me). 

Other times, our first-best-step relates to some kind of prior knowledge we have identified (together!) that we need to clarify. Maybe we feel we need to understand what organisms live within the Mojave Desert before we can begin to understand why or how those populations are changing. (That said, maybe other classes don’t feel that need. Our “first best step” does not need to be the same as everyone else’s.)

And sometimes the first-best-step is tied directly to a part of the task posed in our anchor experience. [Like the grant-writing prompt in Endangered Genomes: Koalas At Risk!] Maybe it’s less about what we wonder at that moment and more about knocking out a part of the ultimate end-product. (Every anchor experience is different, after all.)

Either way, we use the boundaries we established in the anchor experience to evaluate our questions and figure out where to start.

And from there we are rolling. 

Building Student Competence With The Anchor Phenomenon Routine

Working through your anchor phenomenon routine is a challenging ask for students, and they will struggle through the process the first time (and maybe even first few times). You may see behavior issues arise (I have!) as students “mess around” to avoid confusion and struggle. Your first anchor phenomenon routine will probably be a struggle, to be honest.

But it’s important we keep trying.

If you have to pivot, if you have to end the activity early, if you have to eliminate parts — it’s ok. Just as we expect our students to fail in their learning sometimes, we ourselves are going to fail in our lessons. It’s not always going to go as planned. But if we keep coming back to it (improving and perfecting our scaffolds, explanations, and procedures), eventually our students will build the skills and competencies to accomplish this task.

And it’s a task worth accomplishing. It’s a skill our students will need outside our science classes — the ability to define a goal and figure out the steps they need to take (the questions they need to answer) in order to get there
The anchor phenomenon routine absolutely plays an important part in our science classes, but it’s also just an important competency that will serve our students for the rest of their lives.