Phenomena-Based Instruction: Inspiring Young Scientists

Phenomena in a science class are like oases in a desert: absolutely essential, beautifully vibrant, and rich with creative growth and potential, but unfortunately too uncommon, infrequent, and far apart. Real-world phenomena illustrate scientific principles with remarkable effectiveness, because they help students see why science matters and how it works. Local, relevant phenomena-based teaching engages students in the process of acting like scientists, allowing them to apply new concepts to their daily lives, while encouraging them to investigate and experiment rather than memorize facts. Educators who properly employ phenomena-based science curriculum tend to raise test scores, produce more AP students, and result in more STEM careers. A three-dimensional approach to incorporating phenomena includes a wealth of options for helping students discover and explore scientific concepts, deepen comprehension, and find new opportunities for learning.

What’s phenomena-based instruction?

If you can observe it, it’s a phenomenon. Any observable event, anywhere in the known universe, can be called a phenomenon. Used in contemporary culture, the term tends to imply outstanding qualities (like calling someone a “phenom”) or superb excellence (“a phenomenal dinner”) but phenomena can be ordinary, unremarkable events as well. For science study, the closer the phenomenon is to students’ lived experiences, the better.

Scientific phenomena are simply observable events or patterns that can be explained or tracked scientifically. (When viewed this way, almost anything can become a science lesson!) A phenomena-based approach focuses on getting students to figure things out, as opposed to receiving instruction on something or reading about a topic. When the phenomena students explore are relatable and relevant, their new knowledge can be leveraged to explain and understand the world around them, stimulating more interest in science and deeper comprehension of scientific concepts.

This multidisciplinary instructional approach might seem similar to project-based learning or problem-based learning, but phenomena-based learning specifically takes an interdisciplinary approach and addresses real-world phenomena. These intertwining elements give these lessons valuable context and meaning while immersing learners in the inquiry process. The process of investigating phenomena on their own enables students to discover scientific principles in action and practice critical thinking like scientists, engaging with their own questions, working on real problems, gathering evidence, developing strategies, and constructing solutions. The phenomenon is a tool and a teacher, serving as a catalyst for deep learning.

“Holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects.” – Finland’s Phenomenal Institute

Why should science educators utilize a phenomena-based approach?

Offering many benefits, phenomena-based instruction engages students on a profound level by placing them in the position of scientist. This role motivates students to take action, seek answers, understand concepts, and actively solve problems. While they pursue these answers through their natural curiosity, unique abilities, and irrepressible intelligence, they’re also gaining tons of transferable knowledge and meaningful experience. As a bonus, it’s fun for them, so they enjoy it, look forward to it, and even tend to retain what they’ve learned better. Phenomena can be introduced anywhere in the learning cycle, and far from being one-size-fits-all, it can be tailored to any situation or group of students. Teamwork, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and many other skills are strengthened. Phenomena-based instruction inspires students with its relevance and immediacy. They’re endowed with agency when given the role of investigators, which can also help support their self-confidence, build social-emotional skills, and even give them purpose in life.

What’s the goal of phenomena-based learning?

Preparing students for real-life problem-solving is one goal of a phenomena-based instructional approach. As students face challenges themselves and find ways to surmount them, they’re becoming better prepared for solving problems not just in academia but in their future careers, relationships, and lives. While students seek out and discover solutions, they’re not just learning about the topics under study; they’re also applying that new knowledge while building a range of related skills and making connections between a variety of concepts. Not far from the ancient Socratic method, phenomena-based learning seems an ideal fit for the 21st century, when the world needs more capable problem solvers and forward-looking creative thinkers able to see a bigger picture.

What are the main features of phenomena-based learning?

  • Anchored: Cross-disciplinary skills are built on student-centered, active learning anchored in the real world that can also be applied in the real world.
  • Authentic: Deep learning springs from authenticity. Genuine experiences enable students to gain useful knowledge in the areas under study.
  • Contextual: The context defines the relevance, value, or utility of the subject students are investigating. Their brains also tend to retain information better when the context requires them to apply what they’ve learned.
  • Topical: Cross-disciplinary topical learning connects various subjects, fields, or content areas across the study of a certain topic.
  • Thematic: Broader concepts or larger systems link concepts that seem disconnected, helping students gain insights and skills they’ll use in real life.
  • Inquiring: The learning process starts with studying the phenomenon under question. Inquiry takes students on a journey of discovery toward answers.
  • Constructivist: Students are considered active agents of learning via problem-solving. Learners often collaborate in groups, constructing knowledge together.
  • Engaging: The goal of phenomena-based learning approach is getting students engaged in science practice. The eponymous “phenomenon” is meant not only to convey a practical lesson, but also to grab their attention and get them excited about science.

What are some examples of phenomena-based learning?

Anchor phenomena should be local, relevant, observable, and complex: local to maximize access and equity; relevant to maximize learning and retention, and to align with the appropriate standard; observable by students somehow, even with a microscope or telescope; and complex enough that kids can’t figure things out too quickly and must investigate and use scientific practices to get answers to their questions. The nature of each phenomenon determines how successfully it will drive effective instruction and motivate learning.

Phenomena can include things like:

  • Observing how different plants grow different-looking seeds
  • Studying a recent scientific discovery, like the latest images from NASA’s Webb telescope
  • Noticing lightning arriving before thunder, rice on a drum, whale sounds, bird sounds, distortion, harmony, and many other fascinating phenomena related to sound
  • Asking intriguing scientific questions like why magnets attract and repel some things but not others, or why airplanes are heavy but can still fly in the air, or why mercury rises in a thermometer when the temperature is warmer, etc.

When should phenomena be introduced into an instructional unit?

Whenever the time is right! It might feel easier to hear an answer like “only halfway through the unit” or “only on the first Wednesday of the month” – but like many things in education, timing depends on the students, the subject, and countless other case-contingent factors. What’s more important than when is how: educators must be thoughtful and inclusive as they introduce phenomena. It can be simple, like noticing the changes in a potted pepper plant; it doesn’t need to be all fireworks and surprises. Effective phenomena can definitely be everyday, ordinary events that students take for granted (i.e., their mysterious sense of smell, the changing forms of water, a chick hatching from a shell, a flower transforming into fruit) because educators can then help kids see the extraordinary in the ordinary, perhaps realizing they can’t explain something they assumed they understood.

Cultivate tomorrow’s scientists with phenomena-based instruction

Implementing phenomena-based learning means teachers allow students to become leaders, investigators, engineers, experimenters, collaborators, designers, scientists. Concentrating on phenomena that are exciting or interesting to students motivates them to understand and explain the phenomenon rather than just memorize facts about it. As students begin to comprehend the ways science helps explain phenomena in the real world, their appreciation for the efficacy, value, and relevance of science grows. They start to find science interesting and to recognize scientific practice as a useful method for studying, understanding, and improving the world. That’s why this approach raises the numbers not just for test scores but also for STEM grads.

Keeping phenomena local takes pressure off educators, who can focus on finding science where they are, giving themselves permission to try different things, being patient with themselves, accessing professional learning opportunities, and learning from their own mistakes (like wanting to deliver direct instruction rather than letting students ask questions and figure out the answers for themselves). Phenomena-based learning encourages students to discover connections, unearth answers, and design solutions. Spark curiosity and inspire students to investigate and invent with phenomena-based learning, creating the scientists of the future.