What is the 5E Instructional Model?

Student using the 5E model for learning.

The widely established 5E teaching sequence – which includes the progressive stages Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate – is helpful for informing the design of science programs, units, and lessons.

As helpful as it can be, the 5E instructional model is now more than 60 years old. What’s more, recent advances in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have raised concerns over the model’s linear theory of learning.

This invites the question: Does the traditional 5E learning model support the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)? Or does the 5E model need adaptation to align with NGSS best practices?

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the 5E learning model, including:

  • The 5E Model: What It Is and How It Works
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of 5E Lesson Plans
  • The 5E Model and Next Generation Science Standards

The 5E Model: What It Is and How It Works

The 5E model is an instructional model in which students learn in five phases: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. The model encourages learning in a linear fashion, with students moving from one phase to the next.

This approach is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a constructivist learning cycle. Constructivism says that learners need to build knowledge through direct experience, instead of passively receiving knowledge.

Below, we’ll examine each phase of the 5E model of teaching and how the approach works.

1. Engage Phase

First, instructors open a lesson with an activity or question meant to engage students, snag their interest, and offer the opportunity for them to share what they already know on the subject. This phase might include helping students make connections between their preexisting knowledge base and the new ideas that will come down the pipeline in the lesson or unit. 

Many educators use traditional KWL charts, in which students list what they already know and what they want to learn during this step. At the end of the lesson, students go back to this chart to list what they learned.

2. Explore Phase

After engage comes explore, in which students carry out hands-on activities. Through their experiments or other interactions with the material, they deepen their understanding of the content. The explore phase is often interpreted by educators as brainstorming, think-pair-share, a teacher demonstration, or procedural tasks that students follow and repeat for themselves. This interpretation of explore often attempts to build on the excitement of the engage phase to get students to complete a task or hands-on activity on their own.

To complete the explore phase or a task doesn’t mean that students learn. Research over the last 50 years has shown that intellectual challenge and the process of unsticking oneself to be the cause of learning. If the task of the explore phase is not authentically challenging students’ thinking, causing them to get stuck in their own assumptions, reasoning, and beliefs with an opportunity to unstick themselves, then the task is not a particularly valuable learning experience. 

3. Explain Phase

Once they’ve explored, students attempt to explain what they have learned and experienced with help from the teacher. Once the students have explained the concepts in their own words, the teacher may clarify or add detail to the explanation. 

The original linear concept of a 5E instructional model places the explain phase after the explore phase in a traditional show and tell model. First a student sees, then a teacher tells the content of what they have seen. It is important to recognize that people authentically explain things for reasons other than being asked by someone who is less informed. In a traditional instructional model, the recipient of knowledge is the student who explains what they have seen as a way of verifying that knowledge has been transferred to them by the teacher. The key question to ask in the explain phase is why are students explaining anything? Who is the one that explains, provides clarity, and detail? If it is the teacher, then it is the teacher who is learning or demonstrating their understanding. Authentic explanation requires a learner to engage in their own process of reasoning with evidence and extending reasoning to connect concepts, experience, content, and skills across disciplines. 

4. Elaborate Phase

From there, students elaborate on their understanding, applying what they’ve learned to new situations to deepen their skills. In a traditional 5E model students are expected to develop a deeper understanding by entering a phase called elaborate. However, it’s hard to imagine a quality explanation that does not involve elaboration. A well-reasoned explanation involves elaboration because it is an attempt to make sense of something by fully engaging and explaining it. In an intellectually rigorous environment, explanations are challenged in a much shorter learning cycle. Authentic instructional models show that elaboration is the result of challenge; however, in the traditional 5E model, the elaborate phase is about giving more explanation and application, not a process of reconsidering, explaining, or defending the explanation from a peer’s challenge.

5. Evaluate Phase

In the final phase, students evaluate, reflecting on and providing evidence of their new understanding of the material. The evaluate phase should require students to reflect and incorporate their current understanding into a decision making process as part of developing and testing understanding. Students should evaluate throughout the learning cycle, any task or learning process, yet the 5E model is commonly implemented with the evaluate phase as the final phase in a linear learning model.

This approach to reflection implies that students do not significantly evaluate their engage phase, explore phase, explain phase, or elaborate phase until the learning cycle is in its final phase and unable to be modified or further developed. This represents a summative approach that could otherwise be a very formative and constructive student-centered process if better integrated across learning experiences. When left to the final phase, students lack the opportunity to learn in the moment and incorporate their learnings to improve their performance in a more dynamic and evolving process of understanding.

At first glance, this seems like a good model for hands-on, student-centered instructional learning. However, this model misfires in one critical sense: it is used as a linear progression. Engagement comes first, exploring, explaining, and elaborating follow, and then evaluating wraps up the process.

Advantages and Disadvantages of 5E Lesson Plans

At first glance, the 5Es might seem like a good model for hands-on, student-centered lesson plans. However, the 5E learning model has a critical disadvantage: it relies on segmented cognitive processes in a linear progression. Engagement comes first, exploring, explaining, and elaborating follow, and then evaluating wraps up that progression.

In a linear 5E learning model, the siloing of what is naturally integrated causes a loss of authenticity and often an awkward, if not less effective, learning cycle for students. Mastery of next generation science standards comes when students engage as scientists and engineers in figuring out phenomena, especially with authentic hands-on activities. These learning experiences are most effective when teachers engage students in authentic, fluid, and student centered instructional models. This means that students need learning experiences focused on challenging their personal thinking, not the production of a predefined work product to arrive at someone else’s thinking.

Scientists use the engage phase, explore phase, explain phase, and elaborate phase in different combinations and simultaneously integrate them because the true nature of science and engineering practices (identifying relationships between crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas) is a process of discovery that can’t be pushed to a specific phase.

The traditional 5E model tells us students should move from one phase to the next in a linear fashion.
The issue with this approach is that the 5Es are not actually a linear progression. Engaging is not separate from exploring. Exploring is not necessarily separate from explaining. Part of exploring requires elaborating. All of these elements require evaluating.

Each step informs the others, even when they are more than once removed. To think of these phases in a linear sense, or to structure a lesson plan in this way, does not set students up to become scientists and engineers in the way required by the Next Generation Science Standards.

That doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. The 5Es are still an incredibly useful tool in teaching and learning.

The 5E Model and NGSS

If it is to be of use with the Next Generation Science Standards, the 5E instructional model must move from a traditional model of instruction to a next generation model of instruction. Specifically, common pedagogical models need to shift for each of the Es:

  • Engage” transitions from “I tell them or show them” to helping students reflect on what they already know and ask questions about what they don’t yet understand, which propels them toward an initial feeling of opportunity to wonder and seek answers to their own questions..

  • Explore” moves away from thoughts such as “I give them,” “I demonstrate,” or “They look at a model” toward students themselves unpacking big ideas surrounding the problem, developing a model, and gathering data.

  • Explain” no longer means turning and talking with quick share outs, having a carousel discussion, or asking questions like “What did” and “What was.” Now, it means playing basketball with big ideas, digging deeply into where the question has been answered or the problem solved, and using evidence to support claims.

  • "Elaborate" is less about reading, watching or introducing new ideas, and more about forging the incredibly valuable concept-to-self, concept-to-concept and concept-to-world connections that help tie anchor and investigative phenomena  together.

  • Evaluate” cannot simply mean summative assessments like vocabulary assessments or graded journals anymore; now it means reflecting critically on the investigative process, student hypothesis, and the anchor phenomena.

A table showing how the traditional 5E model moves from an ‘I do’ approach to a ‘you do’ approach with Next Generation Science Standards.

That's why we really see these Next Generation Science Standards as going beyond linear, two-dimensional models. This approach is not enough anymore; it is the formation of skills, and the ability to develop and use content, that is so vital to the classroom experience today.

The KnowAtom 5E Model Lesson Plan

KnowAtom takes a new approach to 5E lesson planning. It integrates the phases of 5E into authentic learning experiences designed to encourage student thinking, as well as their choices and understanding, in student led hands-on activities and learning experiences. In this way, we challenge students to apply their habits as tools for figuring out the world around them. The goal of every KnowAtom lesson is to put students at the center of their own deeper learning experience. What do we mean by deeper learning? Students regularly operate at the intersection of mastery, creativity, and identity as a scientist and engineer.

Below, we’ll walk you through the five steps in this lesson plan. In each step, we’ll show how you can use the 5Es for phenomena-based science lessons and support the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) framework.

1. Nonfiction Reading

  • Students engage with complex real-world anchor phenomena.

  • Students explain different connections within the phenomena to connect personal funds of knowledge and demonstrate their conceptual understanding.

  • Students learn agency and hot to tap into their own funds of knowledge with thinking routines.

2. Socratic Dialogue

  • Students engage in critical and reflective group dialogue by making concept-to-concept, concept-to-self, and concept-to-world connections
  • Students explain how elements of anchor phenomena may be explored and perhaps explained scientifically.

  • Teachers coach students to elaborate on their ideas to make additional connections.

  • Students evaluate their ideas and the ideas of others with factual evidence as they move toward deeper understanding in the dialogue.

  • Students prepare to explore ideas they identify as important, weak or lacking evidence.

3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

  • Students engage with investigative phenomena that provide real-world contexts for what they will investigate, presenting a question to answer or a problem to solve.

  • Students explore the investigative phenomena, working independently in teams.

  • Students explain how they will investigate the phenomena and the kinds of data they will collect.

4. Sharing Conclusion

  • Students use the results from their investigation, experiment, or engineering lab to explain the investigative phenomena scientifically by forming a conclusion, complete with a claim reasoned with evidence gathered during their investigation (both in writing and verbally).

5. Debriefing and Transition

  • Students elaborate on their conclusion, making connections back to the anchor phenomena and the big-picture questions the investigation addressed.

  • Teachers evaluate student understanding, assessing for misconceptions before moving onto the next lesson.

KnowAtom Lesson Flowchart with the 5e Model

 This post was updated on Sept. 19, 2023.

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