Using Phenomena to Drive 3-Dimensional Learning

June 13, 2018 2 Comments

Now that this school year is done, many teachers are starting to look ahead to the next school year.  Some are looking at improving their instructional practices while others are looking to implement the Next Generation Science Standards for the first time.  My personal goal is to focus on using phenomena to drive 3-dimensional learning in my classroom in 2018-2019.

If you aren’t quite sure what 3-dimensional learning is, take a look at this blog post.

Why are phenomena so important?

Phenomena is at the heart of the scientific process.  A phenomenon is an observed situation whose cause or explanation is in question.

A carefully chosen phenomenon will trigger student curiosity and generate questions.  It will help students make connections between what you are doing in the classroom and the world around them.

Many teachers use phenomena to get students engaged, and that is an excellent reason to use phenomena.  However, that should not be the only reason that phenomena are used in your classroom.

The strategic and regular use of phenomena can shift your classroom from a teacher-driven environment to one that is student-led.  In the ideal NGSS, classroom your job will be to facilitate rather than teach. Student experiences drive understanding.

How do phenomena drive learning (and also your unit planning!)?

One of the best analogies that I have heard is that phenomena should be dropped like breadcrumbs throughout your unit to lead your students in the right direction.  I picture something a little different.  Do you remember the beginning of the movie E.T.? Elliot is drops Reese’s Pieces to lead the creature lurking in the forest back to his house.  Remember?  No… just me?  I guess I am old.

You should start your unit with a piece of anchoring phenomenon to generate student questions.  They will then start to answer those questions through investigations using the Science and Engineering Practices.  This will a lead them to an understanding of a piece of the Disciplinary Core Ideas or Crosscutting Concepts by meeting one or more of your objectives.

After that, you should drop another Reese’s piece (or breadcrumb) to generate more student questions and lead them to the next investigation.  They will continue to add more pieces to the puzzle until they have a clear understanding of what is being taught.


Outlining a Unit Plan

Step 1: Chunk your performance expectations to create tentative units.

The NGSS framework has some suggestions for placing your performance into groups, but the reality is that there is no set rule one how you group your performance expectations to create units.  If you have a tentative storyline in place when you are building your unit, that is very helpful.

Step 2: Write out your unit objectives and list vocabulary using the evidence statements for each performance expectation. 

If you aren’t sure how to use evidence statement to write objectives, check out this blog post that I wrote to guide you through that process.  It includes a 7 minute video with step-by-step instructions.

Step 3: Start gathering phenomena and planning investigations.

There are two types of phenomena that I use in my classroom.  The first is anchoring phenomena.  Anchoring phenomenon is generally a single phenomenon that provides the general theme for the unit.  I was going to spend more time explaining this, but Nicole over at iExplore Science did a fantastic job.  Her blog post on Finding Anchors is here.  Read that post and more… she really knows her stuff.  Anyway, your anchoring phenomenon is your first Reese/breadcrumb.

Investigative phenomena are all of the other Reese’s/breadcrumbs to lead the students to their final destination… full understanding of the Disciplinary Core Idea and a stronger understanding of the Crosscutting Concepts.  I often use pictures and videos.

Add investigations so that students can gain a deeper understanding of the content.  These investigations can be any number of things.  Lately, I have been a lot using PhET simulations for this purpose but try not to overdo it.  You can get more info about how I used them in the classroom in this post.

Some people start with anchoring phenomena, while others find it easier to gather investigative phenomena and then find a common theme.  Some people start with some investigations that they already have.  I have a tendency to go back and forth.  When I have an idea, I plug it into this little table in my NGSS Unit Planning Organizer and add and edit when I have more ideas.  Sometimes that means that I need to abandon a piece of my storyline to get better flow, and that can be frustrating but necessary.

Phenomena Unit Planning Table
One piece of my NGSS Unit Planning Organizer


Step 4: Determine how you will assess students.

This should include both formative and summative assessments.  I use the performance expectations to help me write assessments.  That will be a post for another day.  I’m sure your brain is already hurting because of the information I have given you so far.


This is a process.  Your units aren’t going to be perfect the first time out and that’s okay.  Ideally, your students would learn everything that you need them to learn through their own investigations and research.  But, it is unlikely that you will be able to do that your first time out.  (This is why I included that bottom section called other resources and activities in the Unit Planner).  In my research, I found an overwhelming number of educators who said that they built their storylines over the course of several years.

I also found that they relied heavily on a team of educators to help them with this process. It helps to collaborate with a team to build these units and bounce ideas off of each other.  If you don’t have a team, consider popping over to one of my Facebook groups.  They are growing everyday and they each have a wonderful group of people willing to help you.

What questions do you have about this process?  Comment below and let me know how I can help!









Erin Sadler

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  • Nicole VanTassel June 14, 2018 at 3:15 am

    Love all of your posts! Question – I use the term unit kind of funny, because I may call a 12 week theme-chunk (like ecology/ecosystems) a UNIT, but within that UNIT, I really have several smaller units (sub-units?) that focus on 1-2 standards. (I really need to start calling my 12-week chunk a “learning sequence” but no one knows what that is… hahaha).

    How many standards do you typically incorporate into your units, and about how long does a unit last for you?

  • d8jdi June 14, 2018 at 5:10 am

    I would say that it depends on your storyline. If you focus on making a coherent story, your unit length could vary quite a bit.

    This week, we are working in grade level teams to do unit planning and develop a common assessment. In the same grade level, one unit consisted of 3 performance expectations while another covered 5 or 6. One grade level opted to create a unit with one performance expectation because they wanted to spend more time with the foundational pieces in the first unit.

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