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Teach with Phenomena and Leverage Student Engagement

How to Deploy Phenomena-Based Learning to Boost Student Engagement

Children are naturally curious about the world around them and often eager to understand why things happen the way they do. Any science teacher who has fielded questions about why the sky is blue, the tide rises, or snow melts can attest that students want to learn about the natural world. Stoking this inquisitiveness can increase engagement and lead to better mastery of materials.

Harnessing students’ innate thirst for knowledge is one of the best ways for educators to drive improved outcomes, but for schools that still rely on traditional, lecture-based teaching models, this can be hard to accomplish. And that’s why the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) emphasizes phenomena-based learning.

Here’s what phenomena-based learning means, why it’s beneficial, and how you can use this method to keep students more engaged when learning science.

What is Phenomena-Based Learning?

Phenomena-based learning is a teaching approach that uses observable events to help learners understand complex ideas, find answers to challenging questions, and develop solutions to multi-faceted problems.

This method was introduced as part of the NGSS focus on using engineering to solve problems and discovering how to apply scientific thinking in real-world contexts. Like many NGSS practices, phenomena-based learning aims to help students develop essential problem-solving skills they can use for the rest of their lives.

By using holistic, real-world phenomena to illustrate ideas and encouraging students to explore and investigate topics (rather than passively take in information), educators help students connect more deeply with the subject matter. Instead of simply learning facts, phenomena-based learning helps students unearth the “why” and “how” behind a given concept.

For example, instead of lecturing students on photosynthesis, you might start a lesson by asking how a tree grows. Then, you might engage students in various differentiated instruction activities to help them explore the idea, form their own theories, and gather evidence.

Phenomena-based learning often requires students to practice skills they’ve developed in other subjects, which supports better knowledge transfer. For example, they might apply math, computational thinking, and reading comprehension as part of the process, leading to a more enriching educational experience.   

5 Benefits of Phenomena-Based Learning

There are several benefits to leveraging phenomena-based learning in the classroom. Here are five of the most meaningful advantages:

      1. It encourages student engagement

By challenging students to take a more active role in the learning process, phenomena-based learning deepens their connection to the concepts. And when teachers select phenomena that students find interesting or have already experienced and formed questions about, it generates interest and excitement. It allows them to better understand something they have witnessed in everyday life. Like, for example, why frost builds up on classroom windows during the winter or why water droplets form on a cold can of soda on a hot day.

      2. It helps students learn to apply science concepts

Using phenomena as a vector for learning helps contextualize knowledge and turn it into something relevant and applicable in real-life, both inside and outside the classroom. According to NGSS, “anchoring the development of general science ideas in investigations of phenomena helps students build more usable and generative knowledge.” Over time, students will be able to use scientific thinking to solve problems in school and at home, which helps them appreciate the relevance of science ideas.

      3. It fosters communication skills

In phenomena-based learning, learners often work in groups to make observations, discuss their ideas, and draw conclusions. This helps students learn to solve problems in a community environment — which more closely mimics how they’ll likely approach problems in real life. It also allows them to practice forming, sharing, and debating opinions in a respectful, productive manner.

     4. It increases student independence

Unlike traditional, passive learning methods where teachers dictate knowledge to students, phenomena-based learning requires learners to actively participate in the lesson. Rather than memorizing facts, they learn through actively solving a problem. This empowers students to take responsibility for their learning and become more self-sufficient. It also helps them think more independently because they’re discovering answers for themselves rather than taking information at face value.

      5. It supports retention

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Computer and Education Research found that when educators use a phenomena-based learning approach, learned information is more permanent. This is likely because phenomena-based learning supports many different types of learners, and students engage directly with the concepts and gain relevant experience applying their learnings.

How to Implement this Learning Style in Your Classroom

Using phenomena in your instruction is a powerful way to help students connect with material and ideas. It helps them learn which questions to ask to identify problems and what steps to take to solve them.

When you deploy phenomena-based learning, keep in mind there are three different levels of phenomena:

      1. Anchoring

Phenomena that can span a lesson or entire unit and help students make connections between chapters. For example, when you begin a unit on animal lifecycles, you might play a video clip of young animals and adult animals and ask students to explain how young and adult animals are different or how they grow.

      2. Investigative

A phenomenon that supports understanding of an anchoring phenomenon but also stands on its own. Using the animal lifecycles example, your investigative phenomena might be asking about insects’ stages of development or how insects' lifecycles differ from mammals’ growth.

      3. Everyday

Phenomena relevant to students’ personal experiences that help them connect the lesson to their own lives and things they’ve witnessed on a day-to-day basis. For example, you might ask students to share stories about their pets or their relatives’ pets growing and changing over time.

Employing all three levels helps learners deepen their understanding of science ideas, build knowledge over time, and relate to subjects on a personal basis. Each layer inspires students to think about the topic from a different perspective.

Of course, incorporating phenomena can be overwhelming — especially for busy educators who already have a lot on their plates. How can you find time to develop lesson plans that are not only engaging and filled with relevant and relatable phenomena but also designed for NGSS and state standards?

To help, Propello offers a middle school science learning resources crafted by experts with decades of classroom experience. Our high-quality content is culturally relevant, standards-aligned, and allows for differentiated instruction to support all learners. It’s also equitable, accessible, and adaptable to your school's unique needs. 

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