Of course, phenomena plays out a little differently depending on the age group, so let’s take a moment to explore what it looks like in early elementary, elementary and middle school. At an early elementary level, the complexity and the modality are muted and simplified, respectively. At an early elementary level, the teacher would most likely read aloud instead of giving students individual reading material because, obviously, most kindergartners can't read yet. As they plan investigations, they may do so in a more visual and verbal than what a 4th grader would be doing in a blank composition notebook.
Students carrying out investigations they’ve planned themselves in notebooks, acting independently with the teacher acting as guide.
By 4th and 5th grade, however, students are capable of interacting with an anchor phenomenon, pulling out investigative phenomena and planning their own investigations. You may say, "Oh my goodness, our fourth or fifth graders don't do this." Well, ours do, and yours can too. Of course, that’s a function of expectations, which are key to having an anchor phenomena drive teaching and learning in the classroom. With the right expectations in place, however, we can continually challenge students in a way that exceeds their skill set over time. We can bring their standards together in real-life nuanced ways and integrate and achieve the goals of the evidence statements. We can get students to a point where they have developed these habits and can produce evidence of learning in a novel context.
Next generation inquiry isn’t about fancy equipment, but rather about using the phenomena available in the real world. That way, any context can become a scientific or engineering context. These refugee students in Northern Iraq are no less successful as scientists and engineers than American counterparts in fully outfitted classrooms.
An anchor phenomenon is no more and no less than a novel context. It’s important to keep in mind that in a next generation environment it’s “you do, we think,” not “I do, you do.” That model is common in other subjects, especially ELA, where the model is “I do, we do, you do.”
It doesn't work that way in science and engineering. It doesn't work that way with the new standards because students can be developing and using their knowledge and discovering why things are important even before, in a sense, they realize something is important. They've already encountered it. They see it. They start to build that framework. They link it to a context, an observation and then later on it becomes more and more valuable as they try to use what they've observed in investigation to explain their ideas, their approach and how it relates to the larger context.
That’s the crucial point, though: much of the knowledge they will need, and even the contexts, they have already encountered in previous lessons, units and years. That is why you we cannot have just units and lessons that are widely applicable to different grades: 3rd, 5th, 8th, whatever. Instead, we need to put very thoughtful progressions in place and scaffold carefully to make the most out of student time-on-learning and to be able to intentionally nurture skills and knowledge.
These scaffolded summaries of units and lessons by grade level are very intentional, carefully structured to build on what has come before.
The Next Generation Science Standards call for specific performance expectations by grade level. They are not willy-nilly, and therefore the curricula you adopt can’t be either. Instead, it has to be carefully laid out to reflect the expectations and to build on what has come before.
If you take a look at 2nd grade in the images above, you can see that the year begins with learning about Earth’s surface. It progresses to talking about the living Earth, which is again in contrast to other planets in the system, then expands on that by looking at different aspects of life, such as plants, animal relationships and life cycles. From there, students move on to learning about actions and reactions and how energy transfers not only through living organisms and food chains and food webs but also through inanimate objects and physical systems that can be put to use. By the end of the year, students are working on building circuits, balancing boats, engineering homes. They have progressed from gaining scientific knowledge and answering questions about observable phenomena to actually solving problems as engineers.
It’s easy to see how if we mess with this order, we lose those carefully crafted connections. Our goal is to intentionally develop content and skills at every point, giving students the opportunity to use the science and engineering practices, to develop and use content and to encounter phenomenon that connects from one unit to the next all year long. And not just one unit to the next, either; Unit 1 still has relevance to Units 6 and 7. Each connects to the ones before in ways large and small.
It’s also important to avoid systemic gaps in curriculum. If you are working with a true next generation model of science inquiry, you need to work with standards from that year specifically, but also standards from the year before and the year after. That year’s standards are there to ensure mastery; by the end of the year, students should be able to perform those expectations. However, that doesn’t mean they’re one and done. They need to be introduced earlier and reinforced later, so that every standard is flowing through the years.
Why? Because students come and go. Equity and access are incredibly important here for students, and if you don’t have standards weaving through multiple years, then students who come in one year and learn material that depends on knowledge of previous standards will be left out in the cold. They have no way of learning that prior material. Plus, students develop at different rates and different times, so students don't always get something the first time. They don't always make all the connections at once. That’s why, from one grade level to the next and from September to June, we’ve built in an intentional nurturing process.
You can also see that within a single year we're teaching across all the strands and you can see things like energy and matter scaffolding upward, developing and using what students know as we go within the year and from one year to the next.
Again, we must remember that the three dimensions of each performance expectation are not taught in isolation. You don’t simply “cover” the standard and check those boxes off.
Instead, students must encounter opportunities to perform in each dimension over time. You develop that performance expectation. You use it over and over again. Content becomes more nuanced and more connected by teaching performance expectations in combination with other performance expectations. You may already know this, of course, but some people can be very literal, which is why we are very overt in our belief that performance expectations should be used again and again. Otherwise we as educators are liable to fall into a trap that standards can be “covered,” then moved past, which leaves districts in a real bind, because students coming in and out are not prepared to encounter and master material.
One of our Grade 5 lessons, outlining broad unit goals and a brief breakdown of the unit progression.
From a teacher's perspective, it's also very important to understand the progression of lessons. The above image comes from the front page of one of our Grade 5 lessons, where we outline broad unit goals and give a brief rundown of how those grade-specific standards are unpacked and connected within different lessons of the unit as well as by dimension. While you can’t see them in the image above, we also take the time to outline how supporting standards from prior grade levels play into the content, and how these standards will come to matter in the next grade level and the next grade level. Again, we're avoiding systemic gaps that leave students who have not yet mastered certain concepts out in the cold.
Lastly, teaching inquiry-based science at the kindergarten through 8th grade level does bring with it some very specific challenges. Using anchor and investigative phenomena as the mode of instruction effectively at these different developmental levels requires that you modify your approach somewhat to address these various challenges.
At early elementary grade level, from kindergarten to 2nd grade, one of the key challenges is having strategies to overcome reading, or the lack thereof. Most early elementary educators are used to circle readalouds, so that’s a good way to compensate for this in the earlier grades. Also it’s important to shrink time appropriately. At these ages, you simply can’t get the kind of attention to and engagement with the phenomena that you can expect by 4th grade, 6th grade or 8th grade. It’s simply not going to happen, so you need to shorten up the time you spend on introducing phenomena, discussing them, planning investigations and more.
Another of the challenges in the early years has to do with fine motor issues. Students at this level are still developing their fine motor skills, so the prototyping and experimentation that students can do from a materials perspective is much more limited. Again, the value for student learning is engaging in higher order thinking and developing and using a context, not in cutting little boxes and drawing little circles and things like that. A lot of care and thought needs to be given to that, so that despite student limitations you are still creating a rich science and engineering environment.
At the elementary level, from Grades 3 through 5, we've overcome a lot of these challenges. Here it’s necessary to push students to become even more independent actors in the classroom, to make sure that they’re fully engaging. We must also always be pushing them to be divergent thinkers.
That requires several actions. It means increasing the expectations that you have for precise language. The word “stuff,” for instance, is not enough. “Five” is not enough. A teacher in this model might answer: “Five what? What kind of stuff? I think I know what you mean but I'm not sure because you haven't told me. Let's think through this together. Tell me what you mean. You need to go back and explain that. You need to go back and tell me that.” Those are elements that we're overcoming at that 3rd to 5th grade level, the student tendency to be imprecise or unclear.
Another piece is making sure you’re offering full release of responsibility within 10 weeks of the school year. This is very important, because you don't put that in place and ensure full release of responsibility, students do not get independent practice of the skills and they don't get opportunities to make mistakes. That's key. If a student can't make a mistake, then they don't have an opportunity to learn. Remember that learning in this context – in an inquiry environment, informed by real-world phenomena and bordered by next generation performance expectations – means investigating things that we don't already know.
Of course, as adults we know these things, but students don't know. Students need to travel down a path and discover mistakes, discover assumptions that are not correct and then react to them. If you don't release full responsibility within 10 weeks, you don't get a 10-week refinement period and a 10-week super refinement period where you're really able to push the students' level of understanding and competence even high. This challenge tends to be on the teachers’ side, believe it or not, rather than the students’. Students tend to be all in, while adults tend to be ease in, and these two approaches are at odds with each other. The danger of “easing in” is that teachers can get stuck in a traditional model, so it’s very important to be aware of this and take that all-in approach.
At a middle school level, and truthfully even at an upper elementary level, it becomes very important to separate the person from the idea. Students need to understand that somebody's idea may be true or false, may be supported or not supported, but that is separate and not reflective of the individual, who they are, what they are and their value. The idea does not define the person.
Being honest with ourselves becomes a big issue. Both of these things are tied to that social/emotional risk-taking that students often avoid. Again, to have that authentic environment driven by a broad anchor phenomenon at first and then a more specific student-centered investigation, these are challenges we must overcome.
But here at KnowAtom, we believe that with the right attitude, the right model of science instruction, the right materials and the willingness to help students interact with the world that really exists around them, we as educators can absolutely deliver a rich science and engineering environment that prepares students for success in later life.