In traditional methods of science instruction, teachers and textbooks often just tell students scientific ideas and then have them consider an application of those ideas. They do not provide students with any reason to learn. For instance, when learning about gravity and other forces, a teacher could tell students about the force of gravity and the force of air resistance, and then explain to students that the reason a feather floats to the ground is that the pull of gravity on the feather is countered by the force of air resistance on the feather.

While this might at first seem like an effective approach, it has often had negative consequences, because it hands students answers before they have asked any questions. Thus, students really do not have an intrinsic reason to deeply learn scientific concepts. Instead, they frequently learn to play the “game” of school, where they figure out what to say or do to get a good grade but retain little actual knowledge. Or they just disengage altogether because they have little reason to care. Decades of evidence show this approach has not worked.

But in recent years, much more effective strategies for teaching science have been developed. The key for educators is managing the shift from having students focus on just learning science ideas to figuring out how or why phenomena happen.

Any observable event in the universe is a phenomenon. Some phenomena happen at massive scales, such as the collision of two galaxies. Others happen at microscopic scales, such as the process of photosynthesis inside a plant’s cell. Some are spectacular, such as a bolt of lightning hitting a tree while others are mundane, such as the way a ball bounces on the floor when it rolls off a table.

But regardless of how spectacular or mundane a phenomenon may seem; phenomena are central to science. In fact, at the heart of science is the quest to understand, explain, and predict phenomena. Scientists interact with phenomena all the time. They observe phenomena and ask questions about them. They carry out investigations and analyze data about phenomena. They construct explanations and models about phenomena and make predictions. Since phenomena are so central to science, they should be equally central to science education.

For example, consider a different approach to learning about gravity—one that starts with a phenomenon of the feather falling and then lets students take the lead in figuring it out. Students could be shown a feather and a steel block dropped two times in a chamber. In the first instance, there is air in the chamber and the block falls quickly while the feather slowly floats to the bottom of the chamber. However, in the second instance, the air has been pumped out of the chamber, and this time, both objects fall quickly to the bottom of the chamber. Students are asked to make observations and ask questions, just the way a scientist would. They now wonder why the feather fell so quickly in one case and not the other. Rather than the teacher just telling the students why it happened, students now need to figure it out for themselves.

Any observable event in the universe is a phenomenon. Some phenomena happen at massive scales, such as the collision of two galaxies. Others happen at microscopic scales, such as the process of photosynthesis inside a plant’s cell.

It is important to notice the role that questions play in this process. Ordinarily, we think of questions being something teachers ask students. But in the scenario described above, students are the ones producing the questions. This taps into their curiosity, which gives them a reason to develop a deep understanding of scientific ideas. If students consider the phenomenon to be relevant, the process of making sense of the phenomenon can drive student learning. In addition, asking questions about phenomena is one of the primary activities of scientists. So, when students do this, they are learning about the universe in the same way that scientists do.

Scientists also go about answering their questions in very specific ways. They plan and carry out investigations, obtain and evaluate information, analyze data, and construct explanations. These scientific practices are things that students should also be doing as part of their learning and are part of the new Texas science standards describing what students should now be able to do.

With their questions about the feather in hand, students now have a reason to plan and carry out investigations of how gravity pulls on objects and how objects move when forces are applied to them. Digital resources are a tremendous tool for these types of explorations. Of course, very few classrooms have a vacuum chamber to conduct this experiment. Fortunately, the last decade has also shown an increased use of educational technology in the classroom, from something as simple as an engaging video to elaborate interactives and other high quality digital content. Thus, students can observe a video of the feather falling. Other digital tools can allow students to conduct virtual interactive investigations where forces can be easier to visualize with vectors superimposed on diagrams.

These investigations will produce data that needs to be organized and interpreted. Students may also analyze information about force and motion. Phenomena play a key role here too, as they provide evidence that students can use to answer their questions and justify their explanations. Here too, digital tools can facilitate the process of collecting and making sense of the evidence. As students engage in various scientific practices, they will construct their own explanation for why the feather fell slowly when there was air in the chamber and quickly when there was no air. And as they construct that explanation, they will develop their own understanding of the laws of gravity and of motion. But this understanding will be much more meaningful to them because they will have worked for it.

One of the greatest experiences for a scientist or an engineer is that moment where the light bulb goes off over their heads as they figure something out. By having students engage in scientific practices such as asking questions and constructing explanations about phenomena, educators provide them the opportunity to have those “lightbulb” moments. Thus, instead of being anxious about the changes to standards in Texas, we should welcome them as having the potential to foster that sense of wonder throughout students’ entire K-12 experience.

About the author

Ted Willard is currently the Senior Subject Matter Expert in Science for Discovery Education and assisted in the development of the new Discovery Education Science Techbook for Texas.