That’s Phenomenal! Helping Students to Make Sense of the World

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Millions of people stood with heads held high one early afternoon this past August.  A phenomenal experience that created amateur astronomers out of average citizens and left many in awe of the wonders of this universe.  For those in the path of totality, a perfect alignment of celestial bodies created an experience that was completely out of the realm of the expected.  Daylight vanished for fleeting minutes on a schedule that was published far and wide for all to plan their opportunity for viewing.  Scientists are able to chart the course of future eclipse events with understanding of orbital patterns.  While giving those of us who missed totality an opportunity to plan for future observations.

Not all phenomena are so phenomenal.  As a matter of fact very few are. At its basic level, a phenomena is an occurrence, fact, or situation observed by our senses. The movement of the Earth, sun and moon are observed by all of us daily.  These mundane experiences are often overlooked, but represent a path of discovery navigated by our ancestors.  We come to understand the rules by which the universe operates by experiencing them, questioning them, and testing them.  We call it science.  The advances of humanity have been built upon the acceptance of a process of making sense of our world and acting on it.  While scientific endeavors continually stretch our understanding to unimaginable depths, children naive to the ways of the world begin the journey every day.  The lack of understanding is replaced as experiences provide evidence for sense making.  Learning for individuals follows a parallel path with societal learning.  The same tools and strategies used for making scientific discoveries can be employed purposefully for conceptual development in children.

The use of phenomena in science education is certainly nothing new for some.  For years we have been using discrepant events or puzzling demonstrations to grab students’ attention and get them interested in learning.  While the use of phenomena is not explicitly a component of any one dimension of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), it is a strategy that is being explored and employed across the country.  When students attempt to explain phenomena they often encounter the limits of their own understanding.  Students can use the practices and crosscutting concepts to build the evidence necessary to explain why real-world experiences occur.  This strategy allows teachers to transition from being the purveyor of knowledge to the cultivator of understanding.  Students must grapple with ideas and go through the process of figuring something out to truly understand it.

The use of phenomena in science education should drive instruction.  When those phenomena are culturally and personally relevant to students it makes the learning experience more meaningful and allows them to take ownership.  Structuring lessons to incorporate making sense of phenomena can be relatively simple.  You do not need to completely restructure your curriculum to accomplish it.  However, you must intentionally build opportunities through your delivery of science instruction that pushes students to make sense of scientific ideas on their own.  When students begin to recognize what they do not understand they will naturally raise questions and suggest investigations.  Being comfortable and flexible enough to allow it will be challenging.  Yet, the dividends of student engagement and excitement for learning science will well worth it!

Resources for using phenomena is science instruction:

Up next in the 5 Innovations of NGSS blog series: Adherence to Coherence!