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How to Use Phenomena-Based Instruction to Get Students Excited About Learning

Keeping students engaged is rarely easy, but it's become even more challenging in the wake of the pandemic. The upheaval and uncertainty disrupted students' lives in many different ways and worsened existing inequities. Since returning to the classroom, we’ve witnessed significant downstream impacts, with students across the country falling behind in math and reading and missing crucial educational milestones. 

As educators, it’s up to us to seek new ways to hook students back into the learning process and guide them along designated learning paths. We must also prepare them for the world of the future, and in science, that means instilling and supporting a natural sense of curiosity and wonder. And that’s where phenomena-based instruction can make the most meaningful impact.

Using phenomena within your lessons is an excellent way to re-engage students in learning and drum up excitement while meeting standards and helping them make sense of their world.  

Why Does Phenomena-Based Instruction Matter?

Phenomena-based learning is an educational approach introduced by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to boost student engagement in science and help students hone their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Leveraging real-world phenomena in learning helps students better understand their environment and uncover the steps necessary to solve problems and answer complex questions. 

Ultimately, the goal is to engage students as thinkers and doers of science and equip them with the scientific literacy necessary to be informed citizens regardless of the career they pursue. Because while we know not all students will enter into science, technology, engineering, and math pathways, STEM is not just for STEM practitioners. 

Having the ability to think from a scientific perspective can affect everything from the decision between recycling and throwing something away or repairing something around the house to thinking about how a specific action might affect our society on a macro level. Using culturally and personally relevant phenomena helps students prepare to identify and solve challenges that affect their communities and society as a whole.

3 Things Every Educator Should Know About Phenomena-Based Instruction

Of course, in all the discussions around the NGSS, ongoing stress over assessments, challenges with re-engaging students, and other hurdles teachers face today, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

In my experience, there are three things every teacher needs to know about phenomena-based learning to help them leverage this approach in a meaningful way and drive student success:

  1. It’s not as hard as it might sound.

    We tend to convolute things in education, making them more complex and challenging than necessary. While phenomena-based learning may sound overwhelming, it can be incredibly straightforward. There are plenty of examples of phenomena we can easily draw from day-to-day life, and simple, everyday examples are often the most impactful because they’re the most relevant to your students.

    For example, phenomena-based learning can be as simple as observing what happens when you microwave a bowl of ramen noodles or pop a bag of popcorn. Or you might ask students to record the length and direction of their shadows at different points in the day to prompt a class discussion about how light rays work or the earth's rotation on its axis.

  2. It helps create opportunities for student joy.

    Sometimes we’re so focused on what we need to get done each day that we forget the value of wonder and joy. But observing phenomena allows us to break out of our routine, experience wonder, and integrate play into learning. And by having fun, we not only make learning more enjoyable, but also make lessons more memorable.

    Research shows that dopamine plays a critical role in working memory and reinforces motivation. In other words, when learning is joyful, students are more likely to remember the content and become more excited and engaged with learning in general. 

    And remember: the phenomenon you observe doesn’t always have to be directly related to a lesson; it can also be anecdotally related.

  3. It makes content more relatable for students.

    Many science concepts are abstract, which makes them difficult for students to understand. But leveraging relatable and easily observable real-world examples makes digesting and remembering complicated ideas easier. Additionally, phenomena-based learning helps students connect the material to experiences outside the classroom, which supports deeper learning.

How to Include Phenomena-Based Instruction in Your Curriculum

As with any initiative in the classroom, leveraging phenomena-based instruction takes practice and creativity. And because every class is different, what works for some students may not resonate with others.

As you plan your lessons, consider potential real-world phenomena your students likely encounter in their everyday lives and phenomena likely to hold their attention. It’s also helpful to weave in current events. For example, for a unit on weather and climate, you might pull examples from local weather phenomena your community recently experienced, like heat waves, droughts, floods, or ice storms.

To make it easy for teachers, Propello integrates phenomena-based learning into the standards-aligned curricula — but also makes it easy to customize lessons and content based on students’ needs and experiences.

Here are two examples of phenomena-based instruction from the Propello platform:

1. In the Waves unit, students are introduced to examples of waves they’re likely to have experienced, like standing in front of a curved mirror. In the example, a girl looks into a mirror and notices her image is distorted. This relatable example sets the stage for a classroom discussion where you ask probing questions about why the reflection looks distorted. By associating information with prior experiences, we can create avenues for students to think and engage within the learning path. More importantly, students may point out other experiences that teachers can integrate into future lessons!

2. In the Matter and Energy on Earth unit, students are presented with a story about a person walking to the beach on a hot summer day. Along their journey, the person experiences different surfaces — like asphalt, concrete, wood, sand, and water — and notices that some surfaces are hot while others are relatively cool.

This experience is powerful because most people can relate to it. Even if students haven’t walked to a beach, they have likely experienced the different temperatures while walking across concrete, grass, and wood and can wonder why this occurs. An everyday experience that may have otherwise been an afterthought can become the engine behind an engaging classroom discussion.

Getting students excited and engaged in learning doesn’t have to be complicated, and implementing phenomena-based learning doesn’t have to be a burden. By pulling in relatable real-world examples regularly, you can help students learn to engage with complex science material to build deeper understanding over time.

Sign up for a free Propello account and access hundreds of ready-to-use, phenomena-based activities for your classroom today.