Phenomena: What Every Lesson MUST Start With And Why

Engage with Phenomena

Phenomena Should Have Been Where I Started

One of the last things I really “got the hang of” when it came to designing NGSS-aligned science curriculum was the use of phenomenon.  The problem with this statement is that phenomena should have been where I started. When it comes to 3D learning, science isn’t about learning facts and figures for their own sake.

Science is literally about understanding and explaining things that happen in the natural world — phenomena.

Face palm. I missed the point there.


Learn From My Mistakes

I spent years developing lessons around topics and ideas. That’s how I was taught to teach.

  1. Identify your topic.
  2. Craft your objectives.
  3. Give all the info.

But that is not how we learn

See the problem there?

We truly learn when something catches our attention, sparks our curiosity, and makes us wonder. This process is what makes the topic or idea actually relevant — and relevancy is vital to both engagement and retention. If we want it to “stick,” we need our learners to care.

Phenomena — those things that happen in the real world — do that.

Investigating a phenomenon gives context to a concept or idea — it makes it interesting, real-world, authentic. It makes it matter.

It must be the starting point for our lessons.

(If you’re tracking so far, but you aren’t sure what phenomena are — check out this post.)


Getting Started

Phenomena play many roles in your learning sequence — from launching a new science concept to providing a way to assess for understanding.


At The Beginning Of An Instructional Sequence

Use phenomena – a real world happening – to launch a new learning sequence. After learners have the opportunity to observe the phenomenon, discuss their observations — and ask them to use those observations to craft questions they can investigate. By starting your instructional unit with their questions, you’re setting them up to be active learners who are taking ownership of their education. They crafted the questions — they are inherently invested in finding out the answers (and learning the science content you’re aiming for!)


As An Investigation Tool

Students asked questions… now what? Well, traditionally what follows is a series of texts, videos, and lectures. BORING! Instead, students can discover the answers to their questions — the science content! — themselves by actively investigating phenomena.  This may be a “lower level” phenomenon, something you can bring into your classroom in some way, shape or form. Maybe it’s developing a model to figure out how something works, maybe it’s analyzing data to look for patterns,  maybe it’s carrying out an investigation to identify a relationship. Phenomena at this level allow students to start finding the answers to their questions.


To Evaluate Understanding

What do we do when we want to determine what our learners actually learned!? Traditionally, we tested them. We asked them to regurgitate what we had told them – ideas, definitions, pictures, things they were expected to memorize and spit back. The problem with this? For one, it definitely provides an advantage to students who are simply good at memorizing, whether they understand what they are “spitting back” or not. (This is especially a challenge for English Language Learners who are expected to memorize a bunch of words in a different language.) It also makes it really easy to “cheat” – especially in today’s digital world where every answer is literally at our students’ fingertips.  Either way, it doesn’t show you what students truly understand. If they are able to apply it? To transfer it? To understand how this concept applies to the real world? To understand how to use this idea? Crafting assessments from phenomena solves that problem.  Instead of the normal list of questions and answers, matches and multiple choice, educators can simply provide students with a new phenomenon — maybe it’s a new data set, a new picture or video, or simply a description of an investigation or event. Students can use what they have learned to explain what is happening — in writing, in discussion, in pictures and captions, whatever works for you.  Students truly have to understand to apply and transfer. Emphasis is placed not on memorizing the right words but simply having the right ideas. And if you’ve chosen a phenomenon carefully, it makes it a bit more difficult to simply Google the right answer (and certainly more obvious if they decide to do so!).


Next Steps

When we put phenomena first, our students are more engaged, driven, and simply better learners. Science becomes what it’s really about at its core — an investigation of the natural world.

If you are ready to begin putting together instructional sequences built on phenomena, you can find additional resources on my YouTube Channel.

If you are currently teaching in a virtual environment and are wondering how to incorporate phenomena into your digital classroom, check out the video below!