In order to implement phenomena into the flow of lessons and units, we must first take a next generation inquiry approach to what lessons and units even are, and then adjust them to fit different grade levels. When integrated naturally into the cadence of lessons and units, phenomena become very powerful real-world contexts against which students can hone their science and engineering skills, really cement understanding of the disciplinary core ideas and start to see true crosscutting concepts functioning within greater systems.
Redefining Lessons and Units
Before we begin talking about how to use phenomena in lessons and units, we believe it’s important to take the time to redefine what lessons and units actually comprise. The old three-unit-a-year model needs to disappear, if it hasn't already disappeared from your class. The idea that classrooms can spend months with some kind of anchor – say, whales – is boring and ineffective. Plus, it encourages scope creep. When stuck with a single anchor for months, many classrooms get off track and end up engaging in “science” that is not relevant to the standards.
We address this by scaffolding lessons and units that span from September through June and year to year. Having units that are month-long units is much more interesting, and provides a shifting context in which students can really hone their skills as well as make a broader variety of connections. We propose nine units in a year (unless it's kindergarten, which is a little different). So we always have an overarching focus to the unit, but it is the anchor phenomenon that really give focus to each lesson.
That's how lessons scaffold with each unit, because you can bring different anchor phenomenon to light. It’s important to understand that there are gray areas here, because a unit itself has a large context. Then its lesson has a smaller context and each investigation has a context that's unique to the student team. These concepts can admittedly be a bit dizzying at first, but if you take a look at resources KnowAtom has developed, which use all of this and have built this out entirely, you can see how it works a lot more clearly.
Let’s use the idea of soil permeability as an example of how a single investigation can play out in a larger context. The unit might be Water on Earth, while the lesson is soil permeability, the anchor context is flooding in New York City and the investigative phenomena is how permeable the city is to water. Now a question we might use to inform the investigative phenomena might be, as posited above, “Do native clay materials have porosity characteristics similar to concrete when faced with large volumes of water?”
Why would that be important to reflecting on the larger context? Well, one of the potential solutions may be to remove things, like concrete, to expose the natural materials that are there. The natural materials are clay, then that may not be the solution.
From a scientific standpoint, somebody may have the hypothesis that either the clay or the concrete are causing the flooding, are preventing the water entering New York City from being able to percolate through the ground and dissipate. This knowledge, that the native clay materials have porosity similar to concrete when faced with large volumes of water, actually develop and use that context and help us get closer to understanding or solving the problem.
That’s just one example of a lesson. In order to be effective teachers, we must use phenomena to drive teaching and learning, as the fabric of the lesson not a "hook" or fun hands-on reward.