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Essential Learning Events (Elementary)

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The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) ask students to think and behave like scientists and engineers. When students understand how scientists and engineers do their work, and have opportunities to explore, investigate, and explain phenomena, they become more engaged in learning and increase their comprehension. The experiences students have in the science classroom are directly impacted by the instruction provided by the teacher as well as the culture and environment built by both teachers and students.

The purpose of this tool is to share a framework that articulates high quality learning experiences which support student learning in the science classroom. The resources presented provide descriptions of student actions which help them move toward independent, self-directed use of the dimensions of NGSS. Additionally, it provides specific strategies teachers can use in planning, instruction, and assessment for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  

The NGSS were developed with three dimensions in mind, whereby students use Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), and Disciplinary Core ideas (DCIs) to explain how and why phenomena occur. The Crosscutting Concepts can be thought of as habits of thinking used by scientists. The Science and Engineering Practices are ways students work to make sense of natural and human-made phenomena. It is important for teachers to recognize that “students cannot fully understand scientific and engineering ideas without engaging in the practices of inquiry and the discourses by which such ideas are developed and refined. At the same time, they cannot learn or show competence in practices except in the context of specific content.”

The Significance of Phenomena Driven Instruction

Phenomenon-driven instruction is a significant innovation of the NGSS. This idea is foundational to the resources provided in this document. "By centering science education on phenomena that students are motivated to explain, the focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens." Achieve goes on to explain that "Despite their centrality in science and engineering, phenomena have traditionally been a missing piece in science education, which too often has focused on teaching general knowledge that students can have difficulty applying to real world contexts.”

The California Science Framework highlights that a “fundamental principle in the CA NGSS is that students must use the three dimensions to understand specific phenomena, and that phenomena drive science learning.” Northwestern Professor Brian Reiser, a contributing author to the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education, shares in an NGSS/Achieve video Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Instruction, that “one of the biggest shifts in NGSS is really using phenomena in a different way.” Reiser further explains this shift in the use of phenomena in science classrooms by suggesting that “...rather than teaching the idea first and then giving the phenomena as an exemplar, we often start with the phenomena because that is the thing that we need to explain, that is the thing that motivates the knowledge that we need to figure out….maybe continuing to return to the phenomena as we make more and more progress and build more sophisticated versions of that understanding. So they’re not something we bring in after the fact.  They’re something that we thread through and become the context in which we are applying the science knowledge as we’re building it.”

This emphasis on phenomena-driven instruction requires a significant shift in how science teachers approach planning, teaching, and assessment. The Essential Learning Events described in this document and the supporting resources provided for each event attempt to provide teachers with the necessary background and strategies to meaningfully engage students in the exploration and explanation of phenomena through quality learning experiences.

Quality Learning Experiences through Essential Learning Events

Quality learning experiences in science happen as teachers plan activities and tasks that require a high cognitive demand from students with deeper thinking from students. Such learning experiences should identify and build upon prior experiences students have as well as surface misconceptions they might have. These activities and tasks are organized into three-dimensional lessons or learning sequences, often happening over the course of several days or weeks. The Science and Engineering Practices of NGSS support teacher planning and student learning through the consideration of student actions that demand student discourse, are intellectually challenging, and promote collaboration among peers. In Five Practices for Orchestrating Productive Talk-Based Discussions in Science, Cartier, Smith, Stein, and Ross provide examples of high cognitive demand tasks related to investigation and experimentation that ask students to “make decisions about what data to collect and how to collect it”. They contrast this with low cognitive demand tasks that ask students to “follow a highly specified procedure” where they “do not make choices about what data to collect or how to collect it.”

High quality learning experiences are organized into four events that this document will refer to as Essential Learning Events (ELEs) in Science. The Essential Learning Events in Science are displayed in the figure below, along with their foregrounded SEPs. Although they generally happen sequentially, it is common for a learning sequence to move back and forth between these four events as ideas are built, data is collected, evidence is considered, and models and explanations are refined and revised. On any given day in an NGSS classroom, students should be engaged in one or more Essential Learning Event(s). Ideally, students would have the opportunity to experience all four ELEs within a learning sequence as they seek to explain how or why phenomena or aspect(s) of a phenomena occur.


Essential Learning Events in Science

Learning Event 1 Learning Event 2 Learning Event 3 Learning Event 4
Students explore phenomena or design problems, make observations, and collect data through investigations. Students make sense of patterns and relationships in observations and data through representation, analysis, and interpretation. Students construct models and causal explanations of phenomenon or design solutions to problems using evidence and reasoning. Students revise ideas, models, explanations, and design solutions through critique and argumentation.

Foregrounded SEPs

SEP1: Asking questions and defining problems

SEP3: Planning and carrying out investigations

Foregrounded SEPs

SEP4: Analyzing and interpreting data

SEP5: Using mathematics and computational thinking

Foregrounded SEPs

SEP2: Developing and using models

SEP6: Constructing explanations and designing solutions

SEP8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Foregrounded SEPs

SEP2: Developing and using models

SEP6: Constructing explanations and designing solutions

SEP7: Engaging in argument from evidence

How to Use This Resource

Each Essential Learning Event is designed to assist educators as they plan for student learning with the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) in mind. Several of the SEPs are foregrounded in each of the four Essential Learning Events in Science. The resources provided in this document include:

  • A description of the Essential Learning Events
  • A Student Use Continuum which can be used to assess a whole class’s ability to engage in the foregrounded SEPs
  • Sample Student Actions which describe specific actions of students using a particular SEP
  • A Teacher Use Continuum that helps teachers identify actions and strategies to support student use of SEPs
  • Sample Teacher Actions and Instructional Strategies which a teacher can used to help students move toward greater proficiency in the use of an SEP
  • Questions to Promote the Use of the SEPs and CCCs are sample prompts a teacher may ask to guide and assess student learning and understanding
  • Assessment Task Formats are sample assessment frames which can be designed into a lesson or developed as a summative assessment at the end of a learning sequence

By no means should educators feel obligated to “check all of the boxes” and use every student action or teaching strategy provided. The Essential Learning Events resources presented here could be used in conjunction with day-to-day planning, as a teacher action research cycle, when backwards designing a unit, or in adapting a lesson. Several approaches an individual teacher or planning team could use include:

  • Choose a single Essential Learning Event and use the related continuum, sample student actions, teacher actions, and strategies to plan several lessons or learning sequences in a unit of study.
  • Select one SEP from a single Essential Learning Event which becomes the focus for a teacher action research cycle over a period of time where they seek to build student proficiency and use of a SEP, including collection of student evidence.
  • As part of a backwards design approach to planning instruction, identify a prompt from the Identify a Assessment Task Formats to develop a summative assessment for a learning sequence, and then identify necessary student actions which will be needed to demonstrate use of the three dimensions in the assessment.
  • Select questions to promote student use of a Science and Engineering Practice and/or Crosscutting Concept to enhance a lesson currently being planned. 
  • Utilize the student actions associated with each Essential Learning Event when planning instruction with the 5E Model of Instruction (the student does column).