Using Anchoring Phenomena

Using anchoring phenomena in your middle school science classroom is fundamental to implementing NGSS-aligned, student-driven learning units. Anchoring phenomena spark the questions your students will investigate and tie entire science units together. However, when diving into using anchoring phenomena, it may seem confusing, or you may have some misconceptions (trust me, I had them all!).

To take away some of the confusion, I’ve explored some of the biggest questions you may have about anchoring phenomena, including what they are, how to use them, and examples of what they look like in the classroom.

Using anchoring phenomena pin showing middle school science classroom

What exactly is anchoring phenomena? (and what it is NOT)

When I first started using anchors, I used them more as a “hook” to my unit, rather than referring back to them throughout the unit. This took away the relevancy for my students, because I wasn’t taking the time to put our lessons back in a real-world context. I also initially thought of anchoring phenomena as a question for students to answer. However, anchoring phenomena is not a hook, or a question to be answered. Instead, it is a real-world, relevant experience that drives questioning by students throughout a science unit.

You can really look at it as the glue that holds your lesson together. It gives you a basis to build your lesson around, and it gives you an experience to refer back to as lessons progress. It can also be thought of as a spark that ignites curiosity in students and engages them in the lessons that are going to follow.

Why should I use anchoring phenomena?

Aside from making science lessons relevant for students, there are many reasons to use anchors in your science classroom. One reason is that it makes units feel more cohesive to students. Oftentimes, we as teachers already know and can see the connection between all the different material we plan to cover within a unit. Students don’t always see it that way. Instead, students can feel like we are jumping from one topic to the next, without making the connections between the topics. Because lessons help explain the phenomena that students observed, they often help students see how lessons are related to other lessons.

How do I use anchoring phenomena? 

In order to use anchoring phenomena, you first provide students with a phenomena experience. This causes students to wonder about what they just observed in a way that makes it easy for them to formulate questions. Then, as the unit progresses, we as teachers can refer back to the questions students had and let them know which specific questions we are addressing with specific lessons. Overall, it just brings a relevance to the learning experience for students, because it turns everything that you are teaching into a response to the students’ curiosity.

How can I create experiences for my students to engage with anchoring phenomena? 

You may be thinking, “Using anchoring phenomena sounds great, but how do you create these experiences? How do I build curiosity in my students?”

I would say first to think about your grade level and your students interests. Sometimes simple things that we look at as adults and don’t have questions about can make our younger students very curious. In fact, for elementary students, we absolutely want to focus on their personal experiences and their everyday lives. These young learners are excited by what they can personally connect with and relate to — the everyday.

For older students, at the middle and high school level, we want to focus on the world beyond the classroom in addition to their personal lives. Bringing in a social aspect is often helpful. These students are at an age where they are trying to find their place in the world, so they love making connections between a witnessed phenomena and those beyond the classroom. For example, you may look at a phenomenon like evaporating water. This could naturally lead to discussions about how gaining access to water is difficult for some people and questions about how that problem can be solved. Evaporating water isn’t in and of itself exciting, but by instead presenting this idea (evaporation) through the lens of a social issue like access to water or water shortages — it’s now meaningful, relevant, important.

After finding a “phenomenon idea” that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards I’m targeting, I need to narrow my idea to a “moment in time.” I often start by looking for new, relevant information about the phenomenon on science news websites. You can also find relevant phenomena by focusing on local occurrences. Erin from Sadler Science suggested a great approach —  looking at local Facebook groups and seeing what people are already talking about. Erosion at a nearby river or an observable increasing animal population are two examples of local issues that can connect your students with your content.


What does using anchoring phenomena in the classroom look like?

Using anchoring phenomena should create an experience for your students. It isn’t a one-and-done 5 minute “engagement prompt.” It’s the basis of their learning. However, being an experience doesn’t have to mean going outside and observing something first-hand (although that’s awesome, too!). We know that isn’t always possible, and good thing, it is not always necessary.

What you can always do is bring in real world data, videos, and images. For example, if I wanted my students to learn about tornados, I could find a specific tornado occurrence. Then, I could show students real images of the damage that was caused by the tornado, any data that was collected from that tornado, or even a storm chasing video of the tornado. To add that emotional connection, I may want to bring in personal stories, historical narratives, or even fictional accounts — anything that our students can identify and feel for.

It’s important to note that your anchor experience doesn’t have to be a one-time observation. If I was sharing multiple sources of data with students, it is easy to make anchoring phenomena a continued experience with continued questioning as they gain new pieces of information. (In fact, your students should be generating new questions to investigate throughout your unit!)

I know using phenomenon-focused instruction can be difficult at first, but it is fundamental to providing a real, relevant student-driven experience. Using phenomena facilitates student questioning, keeps science units rooted in the real-world, and engages students intrinsically throughout the learning process.

Learn More:

You can find more information by listening to the full podcast episode below, where I discuss anchoring phenomena with Erin Sadler from Sadler Science.

Or click here to listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts.

Additionally, check out the following blog posts to start bringing a phenomena focus to your classroom. Then, grab the Quick Start Phenomena Guide to access Why This?: Creating Anchored Science Experiences. In this workshop and guide, you can learn to create truly rooted science experiences with real-world phenomena. Your students won’t be asking, “Why are we learning this!?” because everything about your unit will answer that question. Phenomena is your first step toward real, relevant science teaching and your student-driven classroom. 

What Every Lesson MUST Start With And Why

Building Student-Driven Science Storylines From Phenomena

4 Ways To Engage Students With Phenomena During Distance Learning