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Phenomena and the NGSS

The Importance of Phenomena

Scientific phenomena are occurrences in the natural and human-made world that can be observed and cause one to wonder and ask questions. 

Phenomena-based instruction is a primary feature of the NGSS classroom. A three-dimensional learning approach requires students to use the Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas in concert to explore, investigate, and explain how and why phenomena occur. The complexity of a student explanation should be appropriate to the learning progression at the grade span. 

Phenomena do not have to be phenomenal. Often simple events, when looking at them through a scientific eye, can elicit curiosity and questions in students and adults. Such wonderment is the beginning of engagement in which answers to questions are sought. 

When choosing useful phenomenon for classroom use, the scale or size of phenomena is important. Determining the grain size of a phenomenon involves considering the length of instructional time required to teach it, the depth of student explanation possible, and the complexity of the phenomenon itself. In the same way a jigsaw puzzle can be broken down into individual pieces, larger phenomena can be broken down into smaller phenomena. By having students observe and explain smaller related phenomena first, they can then be challenged to explain the larger and more complicated phenomenon. 

We call the larger phenomena anchoring phenomena and the smaller phenomena investigative phenomena which are defined below.

Anchoring Phenomena

Anchoring phenomena are the focus of an instructional unit and connect student learning across multiple weeks of instruction. They often require significant or in depth understanding of several science ideas as well as multiple lines of evidence and reasoning to adequately explain. Because of their size or scale, students may only be able to explain particular aspects of an anchoring phenomena.

Investigative Phenomena

Investigative phenomena are used in instructional sequences (across several lessons) to provide students personal experience with observable events where an evidence based explanation can be constructed. They often require understanding or use of a fewer number of connected science ideas to explain. By explaining investigative phenomena, students begin to explain aspects of an anchoring phenomena.


Criteria for Selecting Useful Phenomena

Use the following guiding questions and criteria to help determine if a phenomenon under consideration is useful or not:

  • Can students observe and/or investigate the phenomenon either through firsthand experiences (e.g., directly in a classroom, lab, or outdoor environment) or through someone else’s experiences (e.g., through video presentations, demonstrations, or analyzing patterns in data)? 
  • Do students have to understand and use Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts to explain how and why the phenomenon occurs?
  • By making sense of the phenomenon, are students building understanding toward grade-level performance expectations?
  • Would student explanations of the phenomenon be grade-level appropriate?
  • Is the phenomenon relevant to real-world issues or the student’s local environment?
  • Will students find making sense of the phenomenon interesting and important? 
  • Does the potential student learning related to the phenomenon justify the financial costs and classroom time that will be used?

This tool is an adaptation of the following resources:

Kirk Brown, Teryl Burditt, Karen Cerwin, Jim Clark, Chelsea Cochrane, Kathy DiRanna, Nikki DiRanna, Michael Goodbody, Jill Grace, Wendy Hagan, Crystal Howe, Jennifer McCluan, Dawn O’Connor, Cheryl Peach, Christie Pearce, Maria C. Simani, John Spiegel, Jo Topps