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The power of phenomenon based learning

By Peggy Ashbrook

Posted on 2018-06-18

Guest blogger Anne Lowry teaches preschool in Reno, Nevada. She has been teaching for over twenty years, drawing on her undergraduate background in archeology and geology, and her masters in early childhood education, to create a classroom full of inquiry.

Welcome Anne!

This past school year has been an amazing example of the power of phenomenon based learning.  My preK class became interested in light due to learning about and observing the 2017 Solar Eclipse, and continued with light throughout the rest of the school year.  Their curiosity about light spread to other classes—light was chosen as the theme for our “summer camp”. 

But why has the phenomenon of light been so powerful?  I looked at this question from three different angles.  First, I looked at the writings on phenomenon based learning.  Second, I observed and documented my students’ work. Third, I talked with my students about their thinking.

Children painting with different colors to reflect changes in sunlight over time, backgrounds for a 3-D art project.

Painting backgrounds to show the passage of time (changes in light) for a 3-D art project.

To better understand this story, let me take you on a brief journey through this past school year.  After viewing the 2017 Solar Eclipse, the students  asked lots of questions about light.  They invited several people, including a research physicist and an eye doctor to visit and discuss their questions.  The discussions with these experts led to more questions and new investigations, where the students looked at the relationships between light and energy. They looked at light as a way of measuring time, focusing mostly on sunlight shadows and the shades of blue in the sky, and explored how artists use light to give time clues.

Two children using a "light tube" to “see” light  when a hand is inserted in the opening.

Using a light tube to look for the light, seeing it when an object is inserted in the opening.

The students were interested in how light moved. They remembered exploring sounds using an oscilloscope which had reminded two children of waves at the beach. Another classmate was not originally convinced of the wave analogy, so they dropped pebbles in water at the water table to see the waves. Using these experiences as analogies they decided that light moves in waves which led to questions about wind and electricity, which then led to exploring plumbing and construction.  They were particularly interested in the visibility of light.  They spent considerable time using a “light tube” made of a dark non-reflective material while shining a flashlight down inside it.  Looking into the tube through a hole in the side, there didn’t seem to be any light.  But if an object such as a child’s hand interfered with the light, the object became visible.  This led to lots of questions about light we can and can’t see. As my school is in the high desert, the many of the students were already aware of ultraviolet light, primarily from the standpoint of why sunblock and sunglasses were important. 

Children using a UV flashlight to spot plastic prey in the water table.

Using a UV flashlight to spot plastic prey in the water table.

They drew upon their experiences with sunglasses making objects more visible and remembered what the visiting eye doctor had said about sunglasses blocking ultra violet (UV) light.  They compared sunglasses and colored filters with both LED and UV flashlights. (Do not let children shine lights directly into their eyes.) They became fascinated by the different wavelengths of light as they explored how UV and fluorescence are used to capture attention. They noticed which colors and color combinations they could see better from a distance.  They commented that several color combinations seem to blend together while others “hurt my eyes!”.   This developed into an ongoing discussion about visual literacy and meanings. This was a great example of the teacher co-learning with the students.  We all brought in different materials such as clothing, packaging material, advertising material, logos, old license plates, and similar items. The students tested these with both LED and UV flashlights, taking notes, and drawing conclusions. One of the most discussed was that their favorite restaurants all had red in the logos, which they could see from far away.  The students were surprised by how bright purple and white became, and concluded that those signs would be very visible at night or on stormy days.

Towards the end of the year the students were expanding investigation of light into explorations of plants and animals.  They created their own UV flowers for bees to find, and researched how animals use the UV range of vision to find prey and avoid dangers.  During the different investigations the students used a variety of resources:  personal observation, library books, family interviews, and the internet.  The last was also used for lessons of source reliability.  Some of the class favorites include:

Arizona State University: Ask a biologist. The Visible and Non-visible Light Spectrum

 NOVA Next, article about how animals perceive power lines

Arizona State University: Ask a biologist. How Do You Know If an Animal Can See Color?

Students working on one color test using a UV flashlight and a series of papers of different colors.

Students working on one color test using a UV flashlight.

This led to an action campaign on behalf of eagles, who can be damaged by both wind turbines and power lines as they fly.  One of the students remembered that by putting a purple filter in front of an LED flashlight, clothing color changed.  After reminding other classmates of this, especially how purple tennis shoes turned pink, the  students created color tests using construction paper, paints, and a UV flashlight.  

Once they had determined that purple showed the least change to their eyes, they composed and edited a letter which was sent to various local, state, and national organizations asking them to paint wind turbines purple, which would be visible but not distracting to an eagle.  These letters were sent, and the class received serious replies.

It was an amazing year.  But why?  This was a good group of average students at a supportive school. Why had this specific class kept the focus on light?

Was this due to starting with a phenomenon?  Everything in my notes came back to that:  beginning the year with the eclipse. I reviewed what I knew of phenomenon and phenomenon based learning, and found the NGSS brief on phenomena described my class’ experiences exactly.  My students had taken an observable event, extended the event, and spent the rest of the year figuring out the properties of light.

The description in the brief also matched what I had observed and documented throughout the year. To be sure, I reviewed discussions I had had with the students throughout the year, and then held several “year in review” reflections with my students.  

But there were additional factors in why the phenomena of the eclipse was so powerful:

The eclipse phenomena was theirs.  They had experienced it in person.  They thought as scientists do as they came with up with their own questions, made models, tested ideas and communicated the results.

The power of the phenomena went even further.  The students realized they could do research.  They had talked to “real scientists” and had their questions answered through in class visits Not only could they do research, but they could use their research to solve a problem they saw.  They had taken part in group scientific writing, and translated that into letters suggesting a specific course of action based on their research and had received serious responses.  

The investigations of phenomenon were powerful for my students because they allowed them to emulate scientists and take charge of their own scientific journey.  And that is the reason why one of this years’ students can’t wait to go to high school so, “I can do science there every day in a big lab!” and why the majority of my class now want to be scientists when they grow up.


Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Lessons and Units

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