Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science curriculum - children studying science

Why Use NGSS Phenomena-Based Learning to Teach Science?

Aug 21, 2023 • Studies Weekly

Science education has always played a vital role in elementary education. Traditionally, science teaching has relied heavily on textbooks and lectures, in an attempt to teach abstract concepts and ideas. However, many classrooms have adopted phenomena-based learning as an emerging approach to teaching science. 

According to a September 2016 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) report, Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Lessons and Units, “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. For example, instead of simply learning about the topics of photosynthesis and mitosis, students are engaged in building evidence-based explanatory ideas that help them figure out how a tree grows.” 

Phenomena don’t have to be flashy. They are simply observable events or processes that spark curiosity, captivate learners, and serve as a gateway to scientific inquiry.

“[O]rganizing instruction around phenomena is a key feature of many reforms aimed at meeting the Next Generation Science Standards, an ambitious set of standards adopted or adapted by 44 states in 2013,” William R. Penuel said in a May 2021 EdWeek article. Penuel cites an August 2015  Journal of Research in Science Teaching study indicating that “students exposed to the phenomenon-based curriculum learned more based on a test aligned with the Next Generation standards than did students using the textbook.”

Let’s talk about 5 reasons why educators should embrace the use of phenomena to teach science.

1. Makes Science Engaging and Relevant

Phenomena have the power to captivate students’ attention and spark their natural curiosity, and instantly engage them in the learning process. 

“Anchoring learning in explaining phenomena supports student agency for wanting to build science and engineering knowledge. Students are able to identify an answer to ‘why do I need to learn this?’ before they even know what the ‘this’ is,” the 2016 NGSS report explained.  

Phenomena are tangible and relatable, allowing students to connect scientific concepts with their everyday lives. This relevancy creates a meaningful learning experience, fosters a genuine interest in science, and encourages students to ask questions and seek explanations. 

Next Generation Science Standards

2. Encourages Inquiry-Based Learning

Science is fundamentally about inquiry and investigation. Phenomena-based teaching provides an excellent opportunity for students to actively participate in the process of scientific inquiry. When presented with a fascinating phenomenon, students naturally begin to question and seek explanations. 

“[T]he process begins by trying to make sense of a phenomenon, or answer a question about why something behaves in a certain way or takes the form it does. Initial exploration reveals features that recall previous ideas leading to possible explanations.” Wynne Harlen explained in a 2013 research article, “Inquiry-based Learning in Science and Mathematics.” Students become curious investigators – observing, predicting, experimenting, and analyzing data to uncover the underlying scientific principles. This inquiry-based approach cultivates critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and a deeper understanding of scientific concepts.

3. Connects Concepts and Disciplines

Science is a multidisciplinary field, where concepts from various disciplines intertwine to form a comprehensive understanding of the natural world. Phenomena-based teaching allows educators to bridge the gaps between different scientific disciplines and connect concepts together. By exploring a specific phenomenon, students explore concepts from biology, chemistry, physics, math, social studies, and other related fields simultaneously. 

“When students explore phenomena, they are required to identify and investigate problems or areas of interest that may arise. The aim is for students and teachers to collaborate in creating investigations that are achievable and relevant to areas of the phenomenon that spark the students’ interests,” said Chris Dew in a March 2020 Teacher Magazine article

This approach not only enhances students’ holistic understanding of science but also promotes interdisciplinary thinking, which is essential for addressing real-world challenges.

phenomena-based learning

4. Fosters Collaboration and Communication

In almost every career, even ones not related to science, collaboration and effective communication are essential skills. Phenomena-based teaching offers opportunities for students to work collaboratively in groups, share their observations, discuss hypotheses, and analyze data together. By engaging in scientific discourse, students learn to express their ideas, listen to others, and build upon collective knowledge.

One May 2022 study conducted at Boise State University found that students who received phenomena-based instruction “participated with others during science instruction by asking double the amount of questions, asking more in-depth clarifying questions, and using 28% more scientific vocabulary in their discussions compared to the control group students.”

The author of the study, Chris Taylor, concluded that this type of instruction moves students beyond passive learning, and empowers them to discover the knowledge and skills they need to solve problems. All of which will help them be successful in any future career. 

5. Fosters Collaboration and Communication

Because science is not just a collection of facts, but is a dynamic process of exploration, discovery, and revision phenomena-based teaching allows students to experience a scientific journey,  rather than memorization of a fixed set of information. 

In an April 2021 Turkish study from the Ministry of Education and Department of Educational Resources, researchers stated that “the phenomenon-based learning approach facilitates learning and the learned information is more permanent.” Even better,  “students stated that they behave like real scientists, improve their scientific literacy, obtain the necessary data, analyze and evaluate them.”

By engaging with phenomena, students learn that science involves asking questions, formulating hypotheses, testing ideas, analyzing data, and revising explanations based on new evidence. This process-oriented approach instills a growth mindset, resilience, and adaptability – essential for scientific literacy and lifelong learning.

Using phenomena to teach science has immense potential to transform the way students learn and perceive the world around them. As we strive to prepare the next generation of scientifically literate individuals, embracing phenomena-based teaching can pave the way for a more engaging, meaningful, and effective science education.


Studies Weekly Science is NGSS-aligned and built for phenomena-based learning. The student-driven inquiry embedded in the curriculum helps each student not just learn the facts, but internalize the concepts that help explain the world around us.

Learn more about the Studies Weekly Science curriculum today.