Skip to main content

start with phenomena

Layers of Phenomena

Facilitating three-dimensional experiences for fourth-grade students

Young learners are able to intuit the predator/prey relationship, but it is critical that teachers consider students’ emotional well-being while exploring these ideas. Students should be prepped before being exposed to footage or other types of media that cover sensitive topics and should be closely guarded from the more explicit details.


Students edged forward in their seats as the Canadian lynx slinked toward the snowshoe hare. Hushed gasps escaped as the hare dashed away from the stalking predator. The video clip lasted less than a minute, but the students were hooked—immediately invested in the fates of both animals and already deeply engaged in the learning that would take place over the next several days. This video footage of a Canadian lynx hunting a snowshoe hare served as an anchor phenomenon for students’ research projects investigating the structural and behavioral adaptations of local wildlife. We would refer to this phenomenon regularly, and it would color the lens through which students would come to more fully understand, explain, and communicate other investigative phenomena in the next few days. This unit is aligned to NGSS 4-LS1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes.

Unpacking the Anchor Phenomenon

After stopping the video (see Online Resources) with the hare mid-dash as the lynx gained on it, I asked an open-ended question of my students: “What did you observe in the video?” I wanted students to articulate what they had noticed without leading their answers or pointing out specific details for them. We had spent a good deal of time throughout the semester building a common understanding around what it means to make objective scientific observations. This was a chance for me to take a formative assessment of students’ ability to demonstrate those new skills. Of course, students were very eager to share what they had just witnessed in the video!

  • “I saw the lynx walking slowly toward the hare before running when it got closer.”
  • “I noticed that the lynx made a circle around the edge of the field before coming up behind the hare.”
  • “It was hard to see the hare because it was sitting really still in the snow.”
  • “The hare didn’t run in a straight line, and it ran into the trees.”

As student observations homed in on more specific details of the scenario, the natural tendency was for students to begin inferring meaning from their observations. However, our shared understanding of objective observations required us to differentiate between an observation (what we can prove with witnessed evidence) and an inference (a conclusion we draw based on likely outcomes of witnessed events). Moreover, we had decided collectively throughout the semester to frame our inferences as “I think” or “I wonder” statements so as to take ownership of our conclusions as opposed to presenting them as facts.

  • “I think the lynx moved slow and low to the ground so the hare couldn’t see it or hear it.”
  • “I wonder if the hare was trying to blend in with the snow—because it had white fur—or if it couldn’t hear the lynx coming.”

As students shared their observations and inferences, I added each in turn to the Observation and Inference t-chart we had created to record, analyze, and interpret our evidence and understandings. Additionally, we recorded predictions based on our observed evidence and inferred conclusions as to what exactly was happening in the scenario. Interestingly, the room was split almost evenly. Half of the students were adamant the lynx would definitely catch the hare, and the others were convinced that the hare would be able to escape and hide.

Much to the students’ dismay, we would not find out how the animals’ story would end—not during that lesson, at least! There were other phenomena the students needed to experience before they could fully appreciate the context of the anchor phenomenon and the specific ways in which both animals were using their unique adaptations to survive. Luckily, suspense is an excellent motivation for further engagement. Students’ eagerness to engage in lessons with the next few phenomena would be critical to help them develop understandings of the disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts we would be focusing on throughout our animal adaptation unit.

Layering Investigative Phenomena

Prior to showing students the clip of the Canadian lynx and snowshoe hare, the students had chosen an individual animal native to our state’s ecosystems about which they would conduct their wildlife research projects. The day after I presented the anchor phenomenon to students, I passed out photos of their individual research animals in their native habitats and presented students with the day’s learning target: “I can identify specific adaptations my animal possesses to help it survive.” Earlier lessons had focused on building students’ background knowledge of animals’ adaptations. Students knew, for instance, that animals evolve over time to better adapt to their environments so that the species can continue to survive. This prior knowledge would serve as the foundation on which subsequent lessons would help students build a framework of understanding around the phenomena being investigated. The phenomena detailed in these lessons aimed to help students understand that there are very specific patterns of structure and function that dictate how adaptations develop in and serve a specific animal. The investigations of these phenomena were also critical in helping students build the skills to articulate their nuanced understanding of these adaptations and their causes and effects. This phenomena investigation was designed to add layers of complexity to students’ prior knowledge and help them build content-specific vocabulary. As opposed to an event, like the lynx hunting the hare, the animals themselves were the phenomena, and the day’s learning objective was to facilitate deeper understanding of their structural adaptations—the body parts animals need to survive.

I encouraged students to spend a few minutes just looking at their animal, making observations of the animal itself and then of the animal’s surroundings. After a few minutes, I distributed note-catchers to students (see Supplemental Resources), on which they would record sketches of their animal, their observations and inferences, as well as any pertinent prior knowledge that may have informed students’ new thinking about their animal (See Figure 1). This activity was designed to elicit questions in students’ minds about the structure and function of their animal’s adaptations. Asking questions would be critical not only to students’ engagement with the phenomenon but also for the development of their scientific inquiry skills while exploring the crosscutting concepts highlighted in these lessons (NRC 2012). Eliciting student-generated questions through the note catcher’s prompts was an important learner-centered step in developing students’ ability to recognize patterns in nature with regard to the structure and function of animal adaptations. The students were immediately engrossed in their task and only paused their efforts when it came time to pair-share their findings and notes with their elbow partners.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Student animal research “note catchers.”

Student animal research “note catchers.”

After sharing, students joined me at the rug to answer a question: “Did you and your elbow partner find similar things?” At first, the answer was no, of course.

“My partner and I had different animals—so they had different adaptations.”

A few guiding questions were necessary, then, to get students to think of similarities not as identical or even similar body parts—e.g., “Both animals have a tail”—but as patterns of structure and function (i.e., “My animal builds a nest with its beak, but my partner’s animal digs a burrow with its claws.”). Once all students were aboard this train of logic, I presented the video of the lynx and snowshoe hare for the second time, much to their audible delight!

At the risk of mutiny, I stopped the video short of its finale again, but students were so eager to add to our t-chart that they barely noticed. The day’s phenomena—the photos of their animals in their habitats—and the discussions surrounding structural adaptations—new vocabulary—had primed the pump for revisiting the anchor phenomenon. Students watched it for the second time with a more nuanced perspective. They began to notice the long legs and thick fur coat of the lynx—the stark white coat of the hare accented with black at the tips of the ears and in spots on the body. They wondered about the size of the feet of both animals. “I bet that’s how they don’t sink in the snow!” Patterns of structure and function were emerging in students’ minds. They had begun to add to their understanding that animals possess adaptations to help them survive. Now they were able to articulate ways in which specific adaptations serve specific purposes for an animal’s survival.

The next day followed a similar sequence of learning events but with a different focus. We began the lesson by watching a short video (see Online Resources) of a toad croaking in a pond and hypothesizing about why it was doing so. Students wasted no time in homing in on the necessity of the toad’s croak. The previous day’s phenomenon had oriented students’ minds to think about the utility of animal adaptations. Presenting more obvious phenomena and layering them into a sequence of experiences allows students to draw conclusions on their own (Johnson 2017). So, this time, students didn’t get caught up by looking just at the toad’s structural adaptation—its large throat—but at what the toad was using its large throat to accomplish. We needed new vocabulary to describe what we were witnessing because structural didn’t seem to capture everything that was happening in the video.

“The toad is doing something with its big throat. It’s using it to communicate probably with other toads—which helps it survive,” one student offered.

The students grasped the concept; they just needed a little help with the exact verbiage.

“Are you saying that it’s behaving a certain way in order to survive then?” I hinted, emphasizing the word behaving. “What could we call that?”

“A behavior adaptation!”

Close enough. We dove back into the lynx/hare video with an even newer set of eyes hyper-focused on finding the smallest competitive advantage between the behavioral adaptations of the lynx and those of the snowshoe hare.

At the students’ request, we watched the lynx/hare video clip three more times—each time adding new, even more nuanced observations and inferences to our t-chart.

“The lynx is walking very slowly, really low to the ground, so the hare can’t see him!” one student offered, getting up from the rug to demonstrate the lynx’s behavior.

“And he went all the way around the open spot to come up behind the hare instead of from somewhere the hare could see him!” another student added excitedly.

“I think the hare was waiting, trying to camouflage in the snow before trying to escape in a zig-zag pattern.”

“Yeah, I think the hare has learned to run not in a straight line because it can get away from the lynx more easily. Lots of animals that get hunted do that.”

Bingo! The students had recognized patterns of cause and effect now in much the same way they had recognized them in structure and function the day before. Students added a new layer of understanding here. They were beginning to recognize that animals intentionally use their adaptations in specific ways to survive. The long legs and wide paws of a lynx help it walk in snow, of course; but the lynx also uses its legs in very specific ways and very intentionally to help it survive.

Layering phenomena helps students add layers to their conceptual understandings. My students came into these lessons with the prior knowledge that animals possessed adaptations that helped them survive in their specific environment. Engaging with these phenomena allowed them to expand on that understanding. First, there are patterns in nature that dictate how animals adapt, and there are specific purposes those adaptations serve in an environment. Second, animals develop specific behaviors that allow them to gain an advantage in their environment through specific uses of those adaptations.

Expanding Mental Models and Assessing Sense-Making

Facilitating investigative phenomena that frequently refer to an anchor phenomenon helps students develop mental models that not only help them construct explanations of the provided phenomena but also expand those models to include other phenomena not covered in the unit (NRC 2012). The next step for my students was to use their skills and knowledge developed in the series of lessons described here to construct an evidence-based claim about the structural and behavioral adaptations of their individual research animal. As a summative assessment, students voted to produce an informational poster that would include scientific drawings of their animal’s structural adaptations and informational paragraphs in which students would argue from evidence that certain behaviors gave their animal a survival advantage in its environment (See Figures 2 and 3). Students would be required to use their new understandings of the ways in which patterns of structure and function and cause and effect dictate an animal’s physical adaptations and behavior to successfully communicate their new learning and their research to an audience. Student/teacher-created rubrics (see Supplemental Resources) would guide the quality of students’ scientific drawings and writing. To ensure that students would successfully connect their claims to evidence instead of making assumptions—however informed they may be—it was critical that we utilize the note catchers students had completed throughout the lessons. Using these previous formative assessments to complete their summative assessment allowed students to demonstrate three-dimensional thinking to themselves, their peers, their teacher, and, ultimately, the public (NGSS 2017). We hosted a gallery walk in which students presented their informational posters detailing their research to other classes in the school, community members, and experts in various scientific fields.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Student informational writing sample.

Student informational writing sample.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Students’ animal research posters.

Students’ animal research posters.


Layering phenomena within a larger unit scaffolds deep understanding of disciplinary core ideas (DCIs); and making explicit connections to science and engineering practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs) within those phenomena investigations allows students to become familiar with applying them regularly during scientific inquiry. Presenting more obvious phenomena first and then layering them into a sequence of experiences allows students to draw conclusions on their own and construct more sophisticated understandings of the world (Johnson 2017). After students have experienced success in identifying the causes, effects, and contextual circumstances surrounding these more obvious investigative phenomena, the teacher can reintroduce students to the anchor phenomenon with a more nuanced perspective. Additionally, the use of a well-placed, open-ended guiding question or even just a simple statement of observation by the teacher can be effective in drawing students’ attention to pertinent details or steering the inquiry in the right direction. Of course, it is always critically important to consider methods with which the teacher will meet the needs of diverse learners and those students with special needs during an in-depth investigation of phenomena such as this one. It was helpful in this case, for example, for the teacher to utilize strategic seating and inclusive questioning during whole-group discussions, strategic partnering during pair-shares, and one-on-one check-ins during independent work in order to differentiate instruction to sufficiently meet the needs of all learners. It’s also helpful to acknowledge that students will come to the phenomena with varying degrees of prior understanding (NGSS 2017).

We did finally watch the end of the video; and the students handled the hare’s fate quite well. “I guess the lynx had better adaptations this time,” said a student thoughtfully.

Supplemental Resources

Download the note catchers and rubrics at

Online Resources

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: A wild canadian lynx and a cameraman develop an amazing relationship, wild canadian year:

DesertUSA: Red-spotted toad:

Joshua Boling ( is a sixth-grade Earth and space science teacher at Evergreen Junior High in Kalispell, Montana.


Johnson, W.R. 2017. Supporting three-dimensional science learning: The role of curiosity-driven classroom discourse [Doctoral Dissertation, Michigan State University].

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2016. Using phenomena in NGSS-designed lessons and units.

NGSS. 2017. Primary evaluation of essential criteria (PEEC) for Next Generation Science Standards instructional materials design. Retrieved from

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Biology Crosscutting Concepts Disciplinary Core Ideas Phenomena Science and Engineering Practices

Asset 2