What does a Phenomena-Centered Classroom and Curriculum Look Like?

There are five basic aspects of qualifying a classroom as phenomena-centered.

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There are five basic steps to qualifying a classroom as phenomena-centered, each of them related to specific actions that we as teachers and administrators can take to encourage these outcomes.

If you want to qualify a quality phenomena-centered classroom and curriculum, it first and foremost starts with asking yourself, “Are students engaged as scientists and engineers?” If the answer is no, you are already falling short of the goal. Luckily, by focusing on the next steps, you can begin to change that.

If you want to engage students as scientists and engineers, you must create a shift in each student from doing science to actually being scientists. When asked this question, a lot of classroom teachers might answer, "Well, we're doing science," and that's probably true in the strictest sense of the term. But they’re doing it by rote when in fact, students need to be engaged as scientists or as engineers. That shift can also be thought about as a shift from learning about something to actually figuring out aspects of a context – which is, let’s remember, a phenomenon. In our previous example, for instance, we are trying to figure out what happens when two objects collide, which requires actually stepping into the shoes of scientists and engineers.

Third is thinking about whether or not students are empowered to build a framework of understanding that actually is the world around them. Shaving cream clouds, Skittle pictures and cake … these are not real-world phenomena. These might seem like silly examples, but they aren’t. Just go on Pinterest and you’ll see exactly what we mean. These are add-on designed to grab student attention, but which do not give them the skills to engage in science and engineering as they need to engage in it.

Instead, we need to empower studentsto build a framework of understanding out of something that is actually happening or has actually happened. The real world is literally the world around us, the phenomena that they see and can be a part of every single day, if we give them the tools.

For instance, let’s look at Superstorm Sandy as an example. That is a real historical event, it is very complex, and it creates a rich context in which students can begin to unpack and build a framework of understanding. Using examples such as this can generate all sorts of questions that students can approach as scientists as well as abundant opportunity for them to problem-solve as engineers.

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Knowledge must always be contextualized in real-world settings. When students are simply “knowledge ready,” which means they are equipped with facts but unable to perform using them and do not possess the mastery that allows them to transfer skills to other situations, they do not and cannot effectively interact with the world as scientists and engineers. That’s where the fourth facet comes in.

Fourth is knowledge built in context, which makes the world itself an anchor to transfer and deepen understanding. What we mean by that is, if what a student learns and if what drives instruction is real-world context "phenomena," then students will be forced to analyze, evaluate and create in the context of the real world. By virtue of doing that, the real world around the student is actually the anchor for their understanding. It becomes a rich context, which students can use as a “filing system” for the skills they’ve developed, which can then be generalized and applied more broadly and in deeper context.

The fifth piece of evidence that you have a phenomena-center classroom is that students will identify STEM as an opportunity to understand and shape their world. That is a big source of empowerment, and should be a huge part of both the classroom and the curriculum. Here at KnowAtom, we strive always to make sure this is the case.

In order to have a phenomena-centered classroom and curriculum, it’s very important to take this into account in the lesson planning. Now, a common mistake educators will make is to assume that the curriculum and the inquiry environment are two different things. If you want to have this type of classroom, however, you must understand that that isn’t the case. The curriculum and lesson planning are not different from the next generation inquiry environment. One produces the other; they are inseparably linked.

If you’re not sure whether your curriculum or your environment are engaging, are phenomena-centered, then here’s a simple little exercise you can try. Just ask yourself:

Is that a class I would like to be sitting in on every day as a student? Is this real-world relevant? If the answer to either is no, and you would prefer a different sort of experience, chances are good your students feel the same way and you are failing to engage them as scientists and engineers.

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”