Using Phenomena to Teach the NGSS

If you are a science teacher using the Next Generation Science Standards in your classroom, it is critical that you are incorporating phenomena into your curriculum.  Learn more in this blogpost about what a phenomenon is, why they are important, and how to use them in your middle school and high school science classes.

One of the key components of implementing Next Generation Science Standards* in your classroom is the incorporation of phenomena into your teaching methods.  So what does this even mean for you and I?  How do we begin approaching a shift in our instructional strategies and curriculum to better utilize phenomena in alignment with NGSS?  I think it starts with knowing what they are, why they are helpful for our students, and then tackling how we can best use them in our instruction.

What are phenomena?

According to www.nextgenscience.org phenomena are defined as "observable events that occur in the universe that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict." Phenomena are NOT explanations of scientific information or the appropriate terminology behind what is happening, but instead are what can be experienced or documented by our students in order for them to have context and meaning in what they are learning.

Why use phenomena?

NGSS shift the focus from simply what students should know to what they can do and how they think.  This makes it important to shift our instruction from students learning ABOUT something to actually figuring out how and why something happens.  This is where phenomena come into play.  The goal is to use phenomena and the questions that students generate from a phenomenon to guide their learning and our teaching.  The best phenomena have relevancy to the students, connecting the content knowledge to real world scenarios that students can then explain and explore.  Phenomena should promote students thinking in a critical way about problems in society - both on a micro level in their own communities and a macro level in the entire world - and designing solutions to those problems.  This is the essence of critical thinking and phenomena are a tool we can use to promote this depth of thinking in our students.  

How should we use phenomena in our instruction?

I think a common misconception is that phenomena = massive inquiry-based research projects and labs to introduce and guide every unit.  We all know that time constraints would not make this a possibility.  How you use phenomena and with what length of time you incorporate them will vary topic by topic.  I may not have as much phenomena use in my naming unit for my physical science class as I will for my energy unit in that same class, and that is okay.  The Next Gen. website describes three types of phenomena that are effective for using in the classroom: 

  • Investigative phenomena are used along the way to focus an instructional sequence or lesson. 
    • Ex. Prior to teaching on energy conversions and conservation in my Energy unit, my physical science students conduct a lab activity called "Exploring the Motion of a Pendulum" where they investigate how the Viking ship rides at carnivals actually work, from an energy perspective.  They simulate the Viking ship by constructing their own simple pendulum with string and washers to investigate how the energy is changing, and we refer back to this lab activity often as we walk through the instructional sequence of this unit topic.
  • Everyday phenomena relate investigative or anchoring phenomena to personally-experienced situations.
    • Ex. By 2030, worldwide cases of cancer are expected to increase by 50%.  I have my biology students share and discuss personal experiences with cancer and what they believe they already know about it to expose misconceptions, prior to teaching students on cancer at the end of my Cells unit.  Students complete investigative lab stations where they learn more about cancer and common misconceptions, prior to us lecturing through the content in class. 

When I outline a unit of instruction I have an essential question, list of standards covered, and a list of hands-on activities and labs the students will do and the cross-cutting concepts and science and engineering practices that they align with in the NGSS.  I also have a list of possible phenomena I can use in the unit.  I by no means use all of the ones on my list (and it can change year after year depending on what my students are interested in) but this outline gives me something to reference and work off of year after year.  You can download an example of my NGSS alignment document for a physical science unit here, and one for a biology unit here.  I have one of these for each unit in my biology and physical science full year curricula.

NGSS is about more than incorporating phenomena into instruction.  If you are new to using the NGSS, make sure to check out my guidelines on effectively transitioning to NGSS as well as mastering an understanding of the standards.  If you are looking for full curriculum written for NGSS, you can currently find it for biology and physical science in my TpT store.


*Note: NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this blogpost, and do not endorse it.



If you are a science teacher using the Next Generation Science Standards in your classroom, it is critical that you are incorporating phenomena into your curriculum.  Learn more in this blogpost about what a phenomenon is, why they are important, and how to use them in your middle school and high school science classes.

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