Phenomena-Based Learning in The Science Classroom


The term phenomenon—defined as a naturally occurring event—is finding its way into our instructional vernacular. With the implementation of three-dimensional teaching, educators have found that using these real-world events, or phenomena, within their classrooms promotes connections between students’ prior knowledge and experiences to key science concepts. When students relate learning with a phenomenon, they shift from learning facts about a concept to developing an understanding of the how and the why behind that concept.

Why Phenomena-Based Learning?

The Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS) demand that students demonstrate more understanding about the “doing” of science rather than only the facts of science. Focusing on the “Science of doing” in curriculum better translates to real-life science and engineering practices and is meant to mirror what scientists and engineers do on a daily basis. Scientists and engineers provide solutions for everyday problems created by phenomena. Knowledge and understanding of these natural events help them develop solutions.

When students are asked to make sense of phenomena using what they learn about a new concept, it leads to deeper understanding.

Not all Phenomena are Created Equal

When implementing phenomena-based instruction, it’s important to consider the time students will spend using it to drive learning. There are three different instructional levels of phenomena:

Anchoring Phenomena

To create a real-world connection across a large learning block, teachers can use an anchoring phenomenon. Anchoring phenomena typically span the length of a unit, allowing for students to make connections between chapters of learning. For example, when beginning a unit focused on understanding chemical reactions, I would ask my students “How can we produce better foods?” I want them to relate cooking, something they likely have some sort of experience with, to chemical reactions with this anchoring phenomenon.

Investigative Phenomena

To create further focus at the traditional chapter level of learning, teachers may choose to implement an investigative phenomenon. These investigative phenomena support understanding of the anchoring phenomenon, while also standing on their own within their instructional sequence. Students will investigate several chapters to support their understanding of chemical reactions and in providing a solution to the question “How can we produce better foods?” One such chapter focuses on stoichiometry. When introducing my students to stoichiometry, my first question is this, “What can make a recipe fail?” This is our investigative phenomenon. Providing a solution to this question will help students make sense of the anchoring phenomenon, yet it also provides a real-world focus for our chapter investigation.

Everyday Phenomena

The student experience can further be personalized through the use of an everyday phenomenon. Everyday phenomena can be used to introduce a lesson and relate to the students’ own personal experiences. Short teacher demonstrations are a great way to engage students while also connecting what they already know to what they’re about to learn. For example, when introducing limiting reagents in our stoichiometry chapter, I ask students to observe a candle burning in a bell jar. What observations can they make? What’s the reason for our results? How could this relate to a “limiting” reagent? How might this relate to the failure of a recipe? These questions encourage connections between our lesson level focus and our chapter level investigative phenomenon.

“Phenomenon” is more than just a fancy new educational buzzword. Using phenomena within the classroom opens doors for our students. It not only makes learning relevant to them, but it provides an opportunity to bring their personal experiences to the table. For educators, phenomenon-based learning opens the instructional door to problem-solving, deeper understanding, and creating lifelong learners.

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Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


About the Author

Jessi Davis

Science Curriculum Specialist