The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the importance of using phenomena to drive teaching and learning.
When thinking about phenomena, it’s important to understand the difference between the two kinds articulated by the National Research Council and NGSS: anchor and investigative phenomena.
Anchor phenomena are those observable, real-life contexts that form the basis of a question or a problem to be solved. They are very complex. They represent questions we can’t answer in a single experiment or problems we can’t solve in one round of prototyping. This context gives the lesson its overarching focus, but is nevertheless too broad to define a single lesson.
An example of that might be flooding in New York City. There are many reasons that New York City could experience flooding, so the topic isn’t something that can be “solved” or “answered” in a single session. Rather, it provides a frame for the lesson.
When it comes to anchor phenomena, student questions and connections drive the teaching and learning. If students are really given the opportunity to, they will come up with plenty of testable questions and solvable problems, which become the investigative phenomena that narrow the scope.
Investigative phenomena are what students observe as a result of testing answers to questions about the anchor phenomena, or what is observed as a result of prototyping solutions to the problem identified in that anchor phenomena. In other words, the investigative phenomenon is an offshoot of the anchor phenomenon.
An example: if we once again use as anchor phenomena the flooding in New York City, then the investigative phenomena related to that might be how soil and ground cover affect water seepage because that is an element that affects flooding. It may be a part of answering the question of why flooding is occurring or solving the problem of alleviating the flooding.
When choosing phenomena, think about the anchor phenomenon first because it will give the lesson that overarching focus. Then hone in on the investigative phenomena that will form the true meat of each lesson.
One of the key points about investigative phenomena is that students must be able to observe them as a result of their investigation. And in order to observe something in their investigations, they need to be able to investigate; they need to be given an opportunity to run with their own idea and apply the science and engineering practices in a logical framework.
In other words, it’s important to give students the freedom to investigate their own ideas. A student-centered investigation is really about giving students the freedom to have their own ideas and create their own connections to themselves, other concepts and the world around them, within some boundaries. The result is variation between one student's approach and ideas and thinking and another's, or one team's and another’s.
It's not about a single linear path; in fact, it's much more the channel in a harbor. The boats have to stay between specified structures, but there's a lot of breadth in terms of where they can be.
Concept to Concept, Concept to Self and Concept to World Connections
In doing so, students will create a wide variety of connections that help them understand the anchor context in multiple dimensions, and eventually meet those performance expectations in all three dimensions.
This is because the use of investigative phenomena encourages direct connection between the student investigation and the student’s preexisting knowledge and skills to understand the anchor context.
When student questions and connections drive teaching and learning, you immediately have a much richer context in which students can learn. When they observe real-world anchor phenomena and are then given the opportunity to explore them through more individualized investigative phenomena, you have dramatically increased the chances that they will forge those valuable concept-to-concept, concept-to-self, and concept-to-world connections.
*This blog post was updated on Jan. 12, 2018.