7- How to Build Better Science Lessons with Phenomena

April 6, 2022

In episode 2, we discussed how the NGSS has changed so many aspects of science education. In this episode, we named phenomena as one of the major shifts that have come with the NGSS. And, the use of science phenomena in the lessons isn’t unique to the NGSS. However, it’s become more popular with the introduction of these standards.

In this episode, we cover all of your basic questions about phenomena. But, don’t worry. This isn’t our only episode on the topic. You will see several links to posts throughout this recap so that you can get the answers to all of your questions. And, we have even added answers to some new questions that have come up since this episode originally aired.

If you need help figuring out how to make these shifts in our own classroom, consider signing up for Nicole’s Bringing Wonder Back Workshop. This is a FREE workshop designed to help teachers like you get started! Click here to register.

What are science phenomena? (1:22)

Phenomena are the natural occurrences that spark curiosity. Also, phenomena can be problems or events. And, they connect the content that you are teaching in your classroom to the real world.

It’s important to note that phenomena don’t have to be phenomenal. Many teachers think that the phenomena that they choose need to be some epic scenario. Sometimes, phenomena are too complex and are too difficult for students to understand. Really, it is more important that they connect closely with the content and cultivate curiosity.

Picture of tress along the river with  a turquoise box and white text that reads "phenomena don't have to be phenomenal".
It isn’t important that phenomena are phenomenal. It’s more important that they are relevant to students’ lives AND spark curiosity.

Therefore, everyday occurrences can make excellent phenomena. These occurrences are easier to connect to things that students have observed or experienced themselves. Or, these events and observations may be related to their community.

Why are phenomena important?

There are several reasons that phenomena are important. To begin, phenomena give students something to figure out. The NGSS suggests using a discovery-based approach to teaching science content. Phenomena provide context for your lesson’s sequence and something to be curious about.

Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that the rigor in an NGSS classroom is much higher than in a traditional classroom. Before, students participated passively in the classroom. Now, students take an active role in the classroom. And, this shift isn’t always easy for students. The increased rigor overwhelms disengaged students.

Finally, presenting students with phenomena alleviates the problem of students not knowing why they are learning something. Instead, students are presented with a real-world application at the start of an instructional sequence or unit.

Turquoise background with white text that says "When you use relevant phenomena, students aren't asking why they have to learn something." - Erin Sadler - Teaching Science in 3d Podcast
Using science phenomena in the classroom links the content to students’ lives.

Aren’t phenomena the same as a “hook”?

Not exactly. Previously, we used anticipatory sets, or hooks, at the start of our lessons to get students interested in the content. While that aspect is similar, that’s where the commonalities end.

Phenomena are more complex and we don’t just use them at the start of a lesson. Anchoring phenomena, as described below, appear throughout a unit of study. Also, students take a much more active role in figuring out why a phenomenon occurs. This is unlike hooks because the teacher is generally responsible for providing students with content information after introducing the hook.

If you would like to learn more about these differences, check out this episode.

What types of science phenomena are there?

There are three different types of phenomena that we’ll discuss in this post. These are anchoring, investigative, and assessment level phenomena.

Anchoring Phenomena

Anchoring phenomena appear at the beginning of your instructional sequence. And, they appear again and again throughout the lesson sequence. This phenomenon sparks curiosity and generates questions that students answer throughout the unit.

Anchoring phenomena are generally quite complex. This is because they must be broad enough to relate to several scientific concepts. And, they must hold student interest throughout the unit.

Anchoring phenomena are often hard for teachers to understand and figure out. Check out this episode, and this one to learn more about anchoring phenomena and how it is used in a storyline.

Infographic: Investigative phenomena vs anchoring phenomena:
Investigative Phenomena
-Use throughout the unit
-Connects pieces of content together 
-Generates questions that spark curiosity
-Complex enough to relate to several pieces of science content
Investigative phenomena
- Use for a single lesson
- connects to a lesson objectives
-helps students answer questions about the anchoring phenomenon 
-simple and relates to few pieces of science content.
Different types of phenomena are used for different purposes.

Investigative Phenomena

Investigative level phenomena are used for a shorter period of time. Also, it should help students to make sense of a component of the anchor. Investigative phenomena are more specific and relate directly to the content being covered in a single lesson. Often, they connect to a single objective.

Sometimes, we consider demos investigative phenomena. However, this isn’t always the case. To learn more about science demos, click here.

Assessment Phenomena

Assessment phenomena are different phenomena than the ones used in your lesson sequence. They are only found in the assessment.

It’s important to use a new phenomenon in the assessment. New phenomena help you to better assess students’ ability to apply the understanding and skills that they’ve developed throughout a unit. When you use the same phenomena, it’s possible that students memorized what they learned. And, you don’t know how well they can apply it.

Heading Assessment phenomena. 
Its important to have students explain new phenomena on their assessments so you know if they can apply what they learned rather than seeing if they can regurgitate the information.

Where can you find good phenomena?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t simple. It’s important that phenomena be relevant to your students, their community, and the things that impact them. Therefore, there isn’t a single place to look to find it.

Erin created this post which explains the difference between good and bad phenomena. She suggests that you start by bundling your standards. Then, she recommends that you think about how each bundle relates to your students. Bundling allows you to bring in content that is less directly related by making a connection to something that is more directly related.

Nicole’s Bring Wonder Back Workshop

Since this episode aired, Nicole started focusing heavily on phenomena in her work. Since then, she developed several programs to help teachers make these shifts in their classrooms.

Click here to get access to Nicole’s FREE Bring Wonder Back workshop.

To get started, click here to get a FREE replay of her Bring Wonder Back workshop. In this workshop, you’ll learn how to create active and engaged learners AND:

  • understand why “teaching topics” is killing curiosity and what to do instead
  • redefine your role as an educator and shift the work of learning where it belongs which means less work for you
  • transform your students into scientists which means creating a generation of creative, critical thinkers.