NGSS Connections Phenomena and Design Problems

Phenomena and Design Problems

Key Takeaways:
  • Phenomena and design problems are central to NGSS instruction and are the context through which three-dimensional learning occurs
  • Phenomena and design problems that are at an appropriate level of challenge and are tied to students’ interest will help students engage in sense-making and problem solving and make connections with the phenomena and design problems in meaningful ways
  • Not all phenomena and design problems can initiate and sustain student engagement, but the MDPs can be used as a lens for choosing phenomena and design problems that will be motivating to students and organizing instruction around them once selected

The NGSS are composed of a set of learning goals (e.g., Performance Expectations [PEs]), of what students should know and be able to do at the end of a period of instruction. Each PE weaves together at least one element of a DCI, SEP, and CCC. Phenomena and design problems are central to NGSS instruction. Figuring out phenomena or solving design problems should engage students in three-dimensional learning that ultimately results in students being able to demonstrate proficiency in the PEs. Asking students to engage in three-dimensional thinking is made easier when it is embedded in the quest to better understand a phenomenon or design a solution to a problem. Centering instruction on figuring out phenomena or solving design problems is both more reflective of the work that real-world scientists and engineers engage in and more motivating to students.

However, not all phenomena and design problems are well suited to maintain student engagement throughout an instructional unit. The MDPs provide a lens for choosing phenomena and design problems as well as organizing instruction around them once selected. A well-chosen phenomenon or design problem also serves as a motivational support -- it can grab and hold students’ interest and drive student sense-making and problem solving (see the EQuIP Rubric1 for additional guidance on selecting NGSS-based instructional materials). Thus, there is a reciprocal relationship between the MDPs and NGSS-based instruction centered on phenomena and design problems, which we describe below. As noted elsewhere in this toolkit, all five MDPs work synergistically to support student motivation and engagement. However, for clarity, we discuss phenomena and design problems through the lens of each MDP separately.

In "traditional" science instruction, content is often presented as a disembodied set of facts that are communicated to students by the teacher and/or the textbook. This can make it hard for students to feel a sense of identification with science and as a part of a community of scientists and engineers, especially if they also identify with communities that have been disenfranchised or underrepresented in science [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. Choosing phenomena and design problems that students encounter locally, that matter to students, and/or that are important to students' communities, can help promote identification and belonging in science and engineering. To promote identification with science and engineering, it is important to be explicit with students about how their efforts to understand a phenomenon or solve a design problem that matters to them are similar to the efforts of scientists and engineers. It is also important to celebrate both individual and collective success in understanding phenomena and solving design problems. This will give students first-hand experience in which they can see that science and engineering can help them understand phenomena and solve design problems that are meaningful to them and their communities and that they can be active participants in both science and engineering. Emphasizing the collective work of the class to make sense of the phenomena or solve a design problem that is carried throughout an entire instructional unit can also help to build a sense of belonging among the students in a class as they build knowledge
To support students’ confidence for participation and learning throughout an instructional unit, it is important to select phenomena and design problems that will generate questions and design solutions that are at an appropriate level of challenge for students. An overly simplistic phenomenon or design problem, even if it is initially interesting to students, may become boring, or may not support the three-dimensional learning that leads to deeper understanding. Conversely, if a phenomenon or design problem is interesting but too challenging to students so that they do not know what questions to ask or how to answer them, they will likely experience feelings of frustration and/or they will need so much teacher support that they may lose confidence in their ability to figure things out on their own. A phenomenon or design challenge that is at an appropriate level of challenge will facilitate students generating questions that can drive self-directed sense-making or problem solving. Students do not need to be able to explain an entire phenomenon or solve a design problem all at once. Instead, tools like the Driving Question Board2,3 can be used to gather student-generated questions initially and throughout a unit. As the unit progresses, student objectives can be framed through the lens of the phenomenon or design problem and the questions students generated about them, giving students clarity about what they are expected to do and know for a particular lesson. As students learn more, they will be able to answer the questions they asked at the outset of the unit. They will also have new questions whose answers will get them closer to understanding the phenomenon or solving the design problem. When students can see this progression towards understanding a phenomenon or solving a design problem, they will gain confidence in their own ability to answer meaningful questions or solve meaningful design problems.
The Learning Orientation MDP and NGSS-based instruction have a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationship. When students have a learning orientation, they engage in tasks in order to develop deeper understanding, rather than merely to achieve a good grade or outperform peers. However, students’ ability to pursue deeper understanding can be constrained by the nature of the tasks in science class. Traditional science instruction and assessment could reinforce students’ focus on grades and performance by only asking students to learn and reproduce canonical science ideas. By contrast, centering instruction on phenomena or design problems in science class helps to communicate to students that the purpose of their work in science is to make sense of and gain a deeper understanding of the world.4 Choosing phenomena and design problems that compel students to engage in sense-making and problem solving therefore allows for more opportunities to promote a learning orientation in students, and in turn, promoting a learning orientation encourages students to engage in that phenomenon or design problem in a meaningful way. Throughout a course of instruction, teachers should revisit the questions students are trying to answer and the design problems they are trying to solve and have students reflect on whether they have reached that learning goal. If not, teachers should invite students to identify what else they need to do to figure out the answers to their questions or to design solutions to their problems.
Students are often more engaged in their academic work when they feel they are able to take an active and autonomous role in their learning. Centering instruction on phenomena and design problems can provide ample opportunities for students to exercise autonomy in their learning. Phenomena and design problems that are relevant and familiar to students and that are at an appropriate level of challenge are best suited for this because they are most likely to result in ample student-generated questions that students can answer without excessive support from their teacher. From these questions, students can exercise agency in selecting which questions to pursue in class in order to understand the phenomenon or solve the design problem. As the students select questions to answer, they can further direct their learning by determining how to go about answering that question using the three dimensions of the NGSS. Revisiting phenomena and design problems as students learn more provides multiple opportunities for all students to add questions and select new questions to answer. Tools like the Driving Question Board2,3 can help teachers organize student-generated questions about a phenomenon or design problem.
If phenomena and design problems are to drive instruction, then they must be relevant to students. This does not mean they have to be flashy and exciting. Many suitable phenomena are relatively mundane, but appeal to students' lived experiences, to their personal interests or to a particular issue of importance to them and their community. What is relevant to a group of students will vary from class to class and between individuals within the group, making it important for teachers to consider the complex identities of their specific students [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. Teachers can use strategies like those listed in the MDP Relevance: Activities section of this toolkit to learn about what might be interesting and/or important to students, which can then be used to inform the selection of phenomena and design problems that correspond to the PEs for an instructional unit. Even in the best cases, there will likely be students who are not as interested in a chosen phenomenon or design problem. For this reason, it is important to build in ample opportunities for students to make personal connections to the phenomenon or design problem (e.g., through having students experience the phenomena or design problems first-hand, generate questions that they want to answer about a phenomenon, or apply what they are learning to a personal interest). Additionally, providing supports for student autonomy throughout the process of figuring out a phenomenon or solving a design problem gives students opportunities to make decisions that reflect their interests.