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Phenomena-based Science Instruction Creates Equitable Learning Environments

Jan. 26, 2021 • Studies Weekly

As a subject, Science can be one of the most equitable topics taught in the elementary classroom. Race, culture, and socio-economic status can affect how prepared a student is to gain literacy or math skills, but phenomena-based instruction that pulls directly from the observable world around students puts all students on equal footing.

“Centering science lessons on phenomena that are universal — like light — or deeply rooted in a region’s culture or location … can make science more relevant and interesting for students. But they can also have a powerful role in building equity, since all students begin with something they know,” said Catherine Gewertz in her March 2020 Edweek article, The Art of Making Science Accessible and Relevant to All Students.

Starting from something children already know makes science accessible and exciting to all students. It also helps them learn “by giving them a base to which they can ‘attach’ new knowledge,” explained Brett Moulding, one of the authors of the Next Generation Science Standards, in the same EdWeek article.

But this may be a new and different way of teaching for many current educators.

Even Peter McLaren, NGSS author and trainer, had to relearn science instruction methods. “As a science teacher, I was trained to look at topics and facts,” he said in Gewertz’s article, adding that starting with questions about natural phenomena “is a big change, and a lot of teachers are having a hard time with it.”

Still, phenomena-based science instruction helps develop the skills students need to navigate their world today.

Thus, many states are aligning their science standards to NGSS or its Framework for K-12 Science Education. This necessitates changes at both the district and school levels, and often curriculum specialists must train classroom teachers how to replace instruction and assessments to be phenomena-centered.

“Instead of questions that ask students to just explain condensation, we now have things like, ‘There’s liquid on the outside of a glass. What causes that to happen?’” Tiffany Neill, Oklahoma’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained in Gewertz’s article.

Constructing lesson plans around the 5Es improves instruction and allows student-driven learning. Students start by asking questions and then explore the answers to those questions.

“Using an explore-before-explain sequence helps teachers find a focus for curriculum planning and ensures that students engage in types of experiences advocated by the NGSS. Explore-before-explain is about using purposeful instructional sequences to develop a student’s conceptual understanding,” said Patrick Brown, executive director of STEM for the Fort Zumwalt School District, in Larry Ferlazzo’s May 2020 EdWeek article, ‘Challenges, Curiosity, Creativity, & Community’ in the Online Science Classroom.

April Mitchell and Kimberly Lott detailed a 5Es lesson plan in their 2020 NSTA article, Making It Bounce: Investigating Properties of Materials by Observing Balls. In it, they explained how starting with a simple science phenomenon — a bouncy playground ball — developed into an entire unit that included exploration, investigation, and evaluation.

Starting off, students worked together by asking questions about the phenomenon: “Why is the ball bouncy?” or “How bouncy is the ball?” and others. They then fashioned tests as a class to answer their questions. In one, they tested the bouncy balls against other balls, including a basketball, golf ball, soccer ball, tennis ball, baseball, and a ping pong ball, to find differences in bounciness.

As part of their investigation, one of the students suggested cutting all the balls in half to find out what made them all bounce the way they did. The teachers happily obliged.

To help students explain what they were observing, and to better help them make claims about the evidence, Mitchell and Lott brought in books about the materials found in the balls. This led to a further investigation specifically into the properties of rubber, which allowed students to make more detailed scientific claims about the original bouncy ball.

Throughout this week-long exercise, students recorded their questions, observations, evidence, and explanations in a notebook. Mitchell and Lott used these to evaluate students’ learning.

Additionally, throughout the experience, teachers modeled how to use crosscutting concepts to make sense of what the students were learning.

“When we model how to use and apply crosscutting concepts to make sense of phenomena, we help students become more adept at using these strategies independently and better prepare them to reason scientifically in upper grades,” Mitchell and Lott said.

Mitchell and Lott explored multiple scientific questions and phenomena with their students simply by using something the students were familiar with and without lots of fancy supplies and materials.

NGSS experts encourage teachers to follow this pattern of using observable phenomena to drive student learning, while only using supplies that are readily available to all students. This type of instruction gives teachers the ability to provide fair and equitable assignments, because students can investigate these scientific elements in the world around them, regardless of socio-economic status.