How realistic should phenomena and problems be?

The whole idea of this blog was inspired by questions we get from the field. One question we’ve been hearing a lot lately is “do phenomena have to be real?”

The importance of phenomena and problems is their role in engaging students and driving instruction, helping to create coherent learning experiences and build student agency. So in practical terms, “good” phenomena and problems are ones that help lead to all of these things (together with supportive design of instruction, since phenomena and problems alone won’t do all these things). 

The goal is genuine student engagement.   

girl looking through fishbowlThe technical definition of a phenomenon is an observable event. *(For fun nighttime reading, compare phenomena to noumena.) This doesn’t have to mean directly observable with our five senses; some phenomena (e.g., shadows) can be easily observed first hand while others take place over scales that are not always observable directly, like two tectonic plates (or atoms) moving toward one another. Younger kids tend to be more engaged through direct, concrete observation, whereas older students also need opportunities to be engaged by data that were compiled from natural events. 

Overall, we’re preparing students to be able to figure out the world around them. It’s a world we observe either directly through our senses (both first hand or through media) or indirectly through data, so it makes sense that we prepare students to do both once they’ve developed enough abstract thinking to recognize patterns in data as phenomena or problems.

What about ‘fictional phenomena or problems’ (e.g., presenting a real-world phenomenon embedded in a fictional scenario)?

It’s possible that some realistic but fictional scenarios could be very motivating and meaningful to students. With fictional scenarios, students aren’t able to make direct observations, but they may be able to observe indirectly (e.g., through data). However, if they’re not supported to observe phenomena either directly or indirectly (e.g., the teacher tells the students about the scenario and what someone else observed), students are less likely to be engaged by the phenomena.

Making sure that fictional scenarios are meaningful to students also requires that students see the relevance for their lives or the people or issues they care about. For example, students might not be particularly motivated by an initial anchor phenomenon of longitudinal data on drought prevalence, but they might relate to a specific story of people who have a harder time finding water each year and who have observed the land and plants around their house changing over time. If there isn’t a true story with real pictures, video, or data to share (which would be ideal), it might work to tell students something like “many people in the area have been seeing changes in plant life over time, but because it’s hard to understand the effects over a large scale, we’re going to zoom in and see what it might be like for one family.” By being clear about the nature of the story, we don’t misrepresent the fictional scenario as something real, but still help students understand that all the data from the story are representative of what happens to real people.

From the Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Lessons and Units paper: 

The most powerful phenomena from an educational perspective are culturally or personally relevant or consequential to students. Such phenomena highlight how science ideas help us explain aspects of real-world contexts or design solutions to science-related problems that matter to students, their communities, and society.

The gold standard question to ask ourselves is: what does this phenomenon mean to these students? Would students care about their learning if they’re focused on figuring out this phenomenon, working within the confines of a fictional scenario?

And how do we know a phenomenon or problem will be meaningful to students?

There are several different ways. One great way is to ensure that students’ families and communities are involved in planning conversations; they can help point to problems and phenomena that are relevant to the community. For established materials, we can also look at field test data of classrooms using the phenomenon to see if teachers reported that students were engaged. We can also just ask students themselves about potential phenomena, although not all genuinely meaningful and engaging phenomena might sound exciting to students right away. Teachers might need to facilitate student thinking to help them realize that something really IS interesting and relevant to them or that they don’t actually already understand it like they think they do.

What do you think? Have you seen students become genuinely engaged in learning using phenomena or problems from a fictional scenario?

*Fun fact: some philosophers think that phenomena require both the event and the observer, so I like to read this as more support for the central role of students in the classroom. It’s not just the event they observe that’s important – it’s also how they interpret the event and ask questions about it to drive learning.

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