All of those changes bring me to my current effort—trying to organize my units around phenomena. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of shifting to the NGSS because there are few good examples of it, and I’m not used to thinking in terms of phenomena.
I finally broke down this last unit and decided to use material developed by someone other than myself. I found a unit created by the Next Generation Storylines Project for a middle school unit on waves. This unit centered around the phenomenon of spinning a vinyl record under a sewing needle attached to a paper cone. Essentially, the students create a very simple record player that produces sound from the record. I knew this was the right phenomenon when I saw students faces light up when they heard sound from their records. They immediately began asking the question, “How does that happen?”
Following the storyline, we asked questions about the phenomenon, investigated to discover answers, and learned more and more about the production of sound. It was somewhat akin to an archaeology dig; with each new investigation, we discovered another fossilized piece of the skeleton. Just as this method of science “instruction” was different for me, it was also new to many of my students. They were more comfortable seeing the assembled skeleton in the museum than unearthing the bones and creating the skeleton themselves. In the past, these activities would have been followed up with some kind of “this is what you should have learned” discussion or review. Then, all of the students who didn’t assemble their own skeletons could see those created by other students or their teacher.
As we brought the unit to a close, I was left wondering, “How do I get all students to engage in the ‘skeleton building’ so that they are creating their own knowledge instead of relying on others to do it for them?” While I have no great answers, I feel that formative assessment is one way to support students’ development in this area. If I consistently ask students to put their thinking down on paper as we discover additional pieces of the “skeleton,” I can reinforce the idea that we are on a senses-making journey instead of just spending our time playing without thinking.