How To Bring Wonder Back Into Science Education: Teaching From Phenomena

How to Bring Wonder Back into Science Education: Teaching from PhenomenaDid you know I started my teaching career in Social Studies? I actually hold a Bachelor of Arts in History, in addition to my other degrees and certifications. Personally, history has always been a passion – I just loved learning about our past, about the people who came before, about their stories. This passion made the thought of teaching history really fun for me, but honestly, it also made it really hard to answer that big important student question: Why do we have to learn this?!

For me, the answer would have been… why not!? Because it’s interesting!

Unfortunately, that doesn’t really suffice for our students.

(And while there are so many reasons Social Studies is such an important part of our education!! — I’ll admit, I struggled with that question through my first teaching practicum… because no one had ever really taken the time to help me understand the value or relevance during my own K-12 experience.)


Why do we have to learn this? 

It’s an important question. It’s also a question our educational system has not been designed to answer.

Since we’re talking about history anyway, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane?


How We Lost The Wonder Of Learning: The Systematization Of Modern Education

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the education system in the United States shifted toward a systematization of curriculum, standards, and instruction. This shift was driven in large part by the emphasis on efficiency that was happening in the American economy through the changes of the Industrial Revolution. In our education system, efficiency and standardization meant that curriculum and textbooks were developed to emphasize a specific body of facts and information — easy to quantify and organize, a checklist of “things to learn.”

If you look at the vast majority of textbooks, information is still presented this way. A body of facts and ideas are typically presented in a general, essentially context-free format.  We see textbooks organized into chapters and topics — general and detailed “things to know” and “stuff to get through.” While examples are often thrown in to illustrate the facts, it’s a facts-first approach — and learning is a “product” to consume and “get done”. 

And because this is how our textbooks have been organized, this is – in turn – how we have taught our students. Checklists of facts, ideas, and vocabulary. “Things to get through” and “information to cover”. 

And anyone who has ever taught anything in a K-12 system knows… gosh, there’s a LOT to “cover.” 

  • Memorize all the organelles and their functions. 
  • Name all the planets in their order from the Sun. 
  • Explain Newton’s Third Law of Motion. 

While sure, there’s value in this knowledge — here’s the problem: we can Google all of those things.  In the time it takes me to type the question, Google has answered it. (They even have a feature now that gives me additional questions on the topic!) 

That leads to the question, what’s the point in memorizing all of this?

Why should I learn this?

And as educators responsible for the education of the students in our care, here’s an even bigger problem: Being able to do those things – memorize, name, and even “spit back” explanations – doesn’t mean I actually understand them

I can spit back the organelles, but do I really understand how they are working together? Or what might happen if one is damaged? Or how a “glitch” in the function of one can explain a real world issue, like how a virus takes over a body?

I can name all the planets — but do I have any understanding of their size? Their distance? How the solar system formed? How its order and alignment explains the change of the seasons or the moon phases or the phenomenon of an eclipse? Do I truly have any understanding of space? (Or am I going to be like this politician arguing climate change is the result of the Earth moving closer to the Sun each year?)

The reality is, focusing our teaching on facts (beyond being just boring) isn’t necessarily developing understanding. And it certainly isn’t fostering critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, or communication — or even an understanding of science as a dynamic process with a changing and growing body of knowledge!


Rethinking Teaching, Learning, And The Standards

The Framework For K-12 Science Education, and the Next Generation Science Standards that were developed from it, called for a new vision of science education.  It called for us to move away from this fact-based approach to teaching science toward a phenomenon-based approach that better represents what science is all about.

(And this approach can be used with any standards (or even NO standards!). Because come on – do you think scientists are basing their investigations off of some state standards? Doubt it.)

We need to let go of the idea of standards as a checklist of topics to run through — “stuff to cover.” And we need to embrace a mindset that views the standards as guides — guides with the goal of providing our students with a foundational understanding of science as a discipline (with its ever-changing and growing body of knowledge, its dynamic and creative process, and its way of thinking and understanding the world).

Standards give us the goal post, they provide structure, they have their place.

But “covering the standards” doesn’t mean your students have learned.

And “being taught the standards” doesn’t mean you’re automatically educated.

Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” — John Holt

We’ve confused “checking it off the list” with educating our students. We’ve assumed “being told stuff” is the same as “preparing adolescents for adulthood.” The reality is, learning is something our students have to do…

…and if they’re going to join in, they’re going to need a compelling reason.


Bringing Wonder Back: Phenomenon-Based Learning With The NGSS

While past standards have focused extensively on what to teach, down to the very last detail (which has been a big part of the “cram it in” culture of modern education), the Next Generation Science Standards have taken a different approach. In fact, one of the most common complaints I hear from the teachers dipping their toes into the NGSS is some version of, “but there’s nothing there! Where’s all the content!?”

The NGSS don’t outline exactly which facts to teach or which examples to use. Instead, the NGSS outline the big science ideas, the important science skills, and the general crosscutting understandings, “scientific” ways of thinking about the world, that a scientifically literate populace should master. And by reducing the “what’s” in the curriculum (the facts and ideas, the content), they make room for the skills and ways of thinking. They allow us to truly teach three dimensionally. They make space for the exploration and discovery, the relationships and relevance, that develop our students’ critical thinking, flexibility, creativity, persistence, and problem solving skills — the stuff our students are really going to need when they leave the K-12 education system.

And we fill that space — we meet those goals — by investigating phenomena. Through investigating what’s happening in the real world (our phenomena), our students are given the opportunity to grow in their ideas, understandings, and skills. They meet the standards through authentic learning, and they get to experience the dynamic nature of science and its importance in our world.


Getting Started Teaching With Phenomena

So what are phenomena!?

Phenomena are events or processes that happen in the natural world. I know, that sounds like a pretty simple explanation… and yet, when I work with educators, there’s a real struggle to understand what phenomena you should – or could – be using (and even trickier, how to use it!)

Trust me, I’ve been there.

The key thing to remember is that the phenomena we’re talking about – when we talk about phenomenon-based science – is the stuff happening in the natural world

Things happening in the real world

They aren’t the experiences you create and contrive in your classroom. (Sure, those have a place in this new world of science instruction, absolutely, but those aren’t what you’re building your instruction around.) We want our students to investigate real world happenings.


Because that’s what turns “textbook science” into authentic, relevant, and real

It’s what transforms our classrooms from a space where we “check off standards” and “get through the content” to a place where our students are actively learning. 

Phenomena are things that students could explain as they develop their science knowledge — pulling together many content ideas (ideally, by investigating these things themselves – and we’ll get to that big shift soon!) to understand what happened in the real world. 

When science is rooted in phenomena, it is relevant, authentic, and real. Content has meaning. It has context.

This leads to better engagement and better retention. It leads to curiosity and wonder. (Win win for any educator!) When you use phenomena in your classroom (particularly when you use relevant phenomena), you don’t have to answer that big question: why are we learning this? 

It’s evident. To explain the phenomenon — a phenomenon that students are curious about, find relevant, are invested in, and want to figure out! (So they really aren’t asking that question anymore anyway!)

Phenomena is the starting point for our science units. It’s what everything is centered on and builds from. When we embrace a phenomenon-based approach to education, we’re ditching the “topic by topic checklist” and we’re replacing it with authentic studies into things that happenedPhenomena must come first.


Your Next Steps: Getting Started With Phenomena

You will have so many AHA moments as you move forward on this journey into a totally new way of teaching science – and the shift toward a phenomenon-based science pedagogy will be one of your most important discoveries in your work to truly engage the young people you work within this awesome field of science. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, breathe. This is a long journey – you don’t need to rush it. But putting aside existing beliefs about how education should be done and embracing a phenomenon-first approach to science learning is the first step toward creating a culture that cultivates curiosity and fosters wonder. By removing facts and figures (our content) from their context (as we’ve done for so long), we’ve killed curiosity, squashed relevance, and ultimately disengaged our students. But it doesn’t have to stay that way!

When we put phenomena at the center of learning – and use it to spark the questions and curiosity that are an innate part of being human – our classrooms change. Our students change. The work of learning becomes the work of students. The learners in the classroom become the leaders. We, as their guides, feel less struggle, less push, have to do less work as our students step up

Teaching doesn’t have to be so hard, but we have to do it differently

Stay tuned for our next blog post focused on moving from “Teaching as Telling” to Reaching for Student-Driven Discovery.


Want To Learn More About Phenomena?

Finding A Good Anchor Phenomenon For Your NGSS Unit

Anchoring Phenomena: Three Common Mistakes

Best Sites For NGSS Phenomena

Beyond Choosing An Anchor: USING An Anchor