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, concept to world connections.
Then, by using investigative phenomena, we encourage direct connection between the student investigation and the student’s preexisting knowledge and skills to understand the anchor context. We've had a discussion. We've encountered a complex situation – the flooding – so what do we do now? Well, we get into that investigative phenomena. The learning environment has to create an opportunity to develop and use elements of that story to actually investigate them. That's what it means to investigate, to develop and use the elements already extant in the situation. Those elements are coming from the anchor phenomenon, which is why the investigative phenomena will always be an offshoot of some aspect of the anchor phenomena.
For example, native clay materials have porosity characteristics similar to concrete when faced with large volumes of water. What might that mean for a city when it starts raining heavily, and how can we model this in the classroom to come to meaningful conclusions and create meaningful connections?
Soil permeability is only one aspect of the movement of matter between different environmental components, but it is an important one.
Here we are giving students the freedom to investigate things like soil permeability, to approach examining it in their own way, a student-centered way. We never tell students what to do or use an “I do, we do” model, which immediately loses their engagement and reverts to that traditional model.
Instead, a student-centered investigation is really about giving students the freedom or the liberty 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. That's an element of freedom.
That's something that a lot of educators, unfortunately, don't give students, mainly because they don't offer a full release of responsibility. Classrooms like these have not yet put a framework in place for science or for engineering so that students can apply their science and engineering practices to logically pursue a question or a problem towards an evidence-based solution or answer. The students really aren't equipped for that, so teachers react by pulling that control back into their own sort of self and reverting to a traditional model of instruction.
We have a better chance of avoiding this if we keep that next generation model of science instruction in mind. To support inquiry-based student investigations, in which students have access to a real-world anchor phenomena and can investigate it with investigative phenomena that they imbue with their own meaning, the teacher must act as the coach. This means taking on various roles as the situation demands, leading Socratic discussions to help students engage with content and ask meaningful questions, acting as a thought partner to steer thinking in the right direction, and providing the accountability students need to stay on task and keep moving in the right direction.
Once we are able to use phenomena to guide the flow of the lesson, it becomes time to turn our attention to embedding phenomena naturally within the flow of lessons and units.