I Didn’t Learn Science That Way: Phenomena in the Classroom

January 18, 2023

We’ve shared a little bit about what GLEAM™ in science looks like, including educator mindsets and classroom actions. We now want to zoom in a bit on the idea of using phenomena as a central building block for science education. Many of us didn’t learn science that way! Curious about the hows and whys of bringing phenomena to life in the classroom? Let’s take a closer look.

Textbooks and Lectures

For many of us, learning science in school meant a focus on memorizing facts. You might recall classes where the teacher was at the front of the room, delivering a lecture; it was our job as students to write down the words we heard and copy text from the board. We might have also spent time with a thick textbook open, reading and recording notes. Science homework might bring to mind poring over the textbook in order to regurgitate answers to summary questions or practicing with flashcards to ensure we had memorized vocabulary for an upcoming test. 

If these practices resonate with your own experience, you aren’t alone. In 1999, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) examined mathematics and science instruction in countries around the world, paying attention to the ways that instructors organize class time, the different activities that students engaged in, and the types of science they learned. In the United States, researchers found that students typically engaged with textbooks or workbooks about 40% of the time, with about 42% of class time being devoted to reviewing previously learned content. Homework was assigned about 52% of time, with about 17% of class time being devoted to reviewing homework each day. In terms of the science content itself, researchers found that 48% of the time, students engaged with “basic” content, focusing on “challenging” content only 17% of the time. 

Notably also, in only about 23% of instructional time were real-life issues raised, and students observed or produced phenomena only about 26% of the time. In this same study year, the US ranked 19th out of 38 countries in science education, as measured by student assessment. 

This type of science instruction was described this way in Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards from the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering

Education of the National Research Council: “Teachers provide their students with sets of science facts and with technical words to describe those facts. In the worst case, this type of science teaching assumes that education consists of filling a student’s head with vocabulary words and associations, such as mitochondria being ‘the powerhouses of the cell,’ DNA being the ‘genetic material,’ and motion producing ‘kinetic energy.’ Science classes of this type treat education as if it were preparation for a quiz show or a game of trivial pursuit.”

A Better Way: Using Phenomena

Since the TIMSS study, science education reforms have pushed us in new, more promising directions over the last two decades. In Science for All Americans from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the authors write: “Science teachers should encourage students to raise questions about the material being studied, help them learn to frame their questions clearly enough to begin to search for answers, suggest to them productive ways for finding answers, and reward those who raise and then pursue unusual but relevant questions. In the science classroom, wondering should be as highly valued as knowing.” This book and others have encouraged educators to facilitate a more active role for their young learners in science.

“In the science classroom, wondering should be as highly valued as knowing.”

Science for All Americans 
American Association for the Advancement of Science

The National Research Council’s 2012 A Framework for K-12 Science Education thus centered the idea of science and engineering practices; that students should regularly do things like ask questions (Practice 1); develop and use models (Practice 2); plan and carry out investigations (Practice 3); and construct explanations (Practice 6). In other words, for students to think and act like scientists and engineers in science class. 

Phenomena, observable events that occur in the universe and that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict, provide a natural anchor for students to question, investigate, and explain. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) point out that “Anchoring learning in explaining phenomena supports student agency for wanting to build science and engineering knowledge…By centering science education on phenomena that students are motivated to explain, the focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens.” Phenomena provide a launch point for students to engage as scientists and engineers to a design problem; they offer opportunities for students to engage in sense-making and investigating. 

But what does this look like? OpenSciEd has many examples. A lesson or unit could begin with students observing and seeking to understand: 

These examples, and many others like them, are a far cry from the textbook-based, fact-regurgitation methods that many of us grew up with and that have been pervasive in the culture of teaching in this country. Instead of rote methods and memorization, these phenomena offer ways for science educators to anchor a lesson or unit around something observable that can spawn students’ curiosity. They serve as mechanisms for students to develop questions and models, conduct investigations, and develop their own explanations. 

What’s more, using phenomena in this way aligns well to UnboundEd’s vision of GLEAM™ instruction. When students are invited to explore and explain phenomena, they are not only engaged in meaningful content, they are affirmed as learners and doers of science and engineering.These experiences lay a foundation for building positive identities for all students. Further, generating questions from observable phenomena is something that students from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds can participate in; these phenomena can also readily be tied to local issues facing the community, in ways that are meaningful for students. As described by the NGSS, providing authentic, relevant opportunities for sensemaking supports our GLEAM™ instructional practices of engaging our students through relevant connections.

Are you a science educator using phenomena to anchor your lessons or units? We would love to hear from you and the ways that this instructional practice brings GLEAM™ to life in your classroom. We invite you to share this blog. If you’re interested in learning more about UnboundEd, contact us here.

After years of work focused on mathematics and ELA, UnboundEd is excited to delve into the world of K-12 science education. This is the second blog in a series exploring science instruction–check out the first one here and stay tuned for blogs 3 and 4 coming soon.