Building Student-Driven Science Storylines From Phenomena

When I started down the journey toward student-driven science storylines, phenomena wasn’t actually on my radar. I just didn’t “get it.” My content didn’t seem to lend well to the “flash bang” demonstrations I saw again and again when the word “phenomena” was mentioned. I thought it wasn’t for me.

I was so mistaken!

Building Student-Driven Storylines From PhenomenaWhile the “flash bang” hooks still aren’t my cup of tea, phenomena are fundamental to real, relevant science — and your student-owned science classroom. They are the base from which you build your student-driven science storylines. 

You can’t have authentic student-driven, three dimensional science storylines without them!

Rethink How You Design Your Instruction

If you looked at my planning process just a few years ago, I used to

1) bundle my standards,

2) then choose my phenomena, and then

3) map out my whole unit.

I knew exactly where I was going and how I was going to get there. I knew the questions I wanted my students to ask, and I planned to use those questions to make it feel student-driven. But at its core, I was still running the show. 

And phenomena was an after-the-fact consideration.

Today, I look back at those efforts and think, close but not quite.

As educators, we walk a fine line between meeting the demands from the system (the standards, the assessments, the admin) and engaging our learners in genuine student-driven inquiry. It’s not an easy path to follow, and I know I personally feel a tug in both directions all the time. I’m constantly redirecting, rerouting, trying to find the sweet spot right in the middle.

It does exist — I want you to know that.

But it’s a tricky navigation and there’s always tugs to one end or the other.

Get used to it, my friend.

That said, let’s dive into how we can walk that tightrope and build our student-driven storylines from phenomena while still meeting our standards.

Reviewing The Basics

New to integrating phenomena into your science storylines? Check out the following blog posts, first!

Science Phenomena For Your NGSS Storylines

Anchoring Phenomena: Three Common Mistakes 

Sparking Student Learning From Phenomena

While in an ideal learning world our students could simply notice something that happens and launch an investigation into it, most educators are working from standards and course outlines. While this might seem to pose a challenge to student-driven learning, fear not! (Hah.) You can still build your storylines from phenomena!


Step One: Choose a focus standard (or two).

I choose one or two standards that connect together to be the core of my unit. I use those two standards to help me select my anchor phenomenon. 

Step Two: Get to know your standard(s).

I dive into the Evidence Statements and the Disciplinary Core Ideas. I jot down vocabulary that might be relevant, other science ideas at work, and whatever else comes to mind. 

Step Three: Create your core questions.

We often talk about Disciplinary Core Ideas, but really, when it comes to the phenomenon, we want to be thinking about the questions. What questions do the focus Performance Expectations and Disciplinary Core Ideas answer

These are what you are going to find most useful in choosing your anchor and preparing for a truly responsive student-driven storyline!

Step Four: Find Your “Moment In Time”

As I look at the questions I’ve crafted, I ask myself: what’s happening out there right now that ties to these ideas? That would spark these questions?

I may first identify a general topic – tornadoes or bee population decline – but ultimately, I narrow down those general ideas to find something specific. My moment in time.

Step Five: Bring It Full Circle

Lastly, the reality is we have to come back to the standards. We have to consider how the phenomenon can help us achieve the learning objectives for the unit. We have to consider where additional standards and content ideas can be brought in to deepen and expand the learning, while simultaneously enriching our students understanding of the phenomenon itself.

This process isn’t easy, but you can do it

That said, if you need a little extra help (or just want to save yourself some time!), be sure to check out the Spark Subscription launching in August 2021.

Engaging Students With Your Anchor

Oftentimes, we present our anchor phenomena from the perspective of, “Hey, you, are you listening? Ok, this is why you should learn this!” We want to catch our students’ attention and prove to them that our content is important. We’re giving them a rationale, and we do that by explaining its importance through a real-world example. 

(Yah, I was so guilty of this!)

The problem here is… while it might show the concept at work beyond our classroom walls, it does not spark learning for students. That kind of anchor – that example – couldn’t actually be used to drive instruction. That would require questions…

… and those had already been answered (by me).

Study after study shows us that we humans are intrigued but what we don’t know. Curiosity is the itch we have to scratch. Once we have the answers – once we know how something works, once we’ve figured out the puzzle or the game, it’s just not as fun anymore. We lose interest, and we move on.

Think of a magic trick — is it as cool once you know how it works? Not so much. But it’s pretty intriguing until you figure out the puzzle!

When we present our phenomena to students by providing all the answers, telling the whole story, we’re taking the “itch” out of our students’ curiosity. We’re taking the fun out of discovery. 

We’re squashing our students’ spark for learning — not kindling it.

“Why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what’s on the other side?” — George R. R. Martin

So our goal in building instruction from a phenomenon is to literally build instruction on it. We want to use our phenomenon to spark the questions that our students will answer over the course of the unit. We want to present the phenomenon without the answers, without the explanations, without the content. We want to present it as it is — something that happened — and support our students in developing the questions that will help explain it.

Where can you learn more about using phenomena?

Dive Into Phenomena With iExploreScience

Beyond Choosing An Anchor: USING An Anchor 

Best Sites For NGSS Phenomena

All About Anchors (Teaching Science In 3D Podcast)