Phenomena and driving questions

At the heart of an MBI unit is a phenomenon. A scientifically rich, complex phenomenon is an occurrence or event that happens/happened in the world. Phenomena are more than examples of science ideas, they anchor the entire unit of instruction.

What makes a good anchoring phenomenon?

Effective phenomena are specific real world events. They are not general (e.g., a space shuttle launch), but are specific events that happen or happened in the past (e.g., the Atlantis shuttle launch of July 8, 2011). The specific, real world context in which the occurrence or event happens is important since it provides complexity and requires students to use a combination of scientific principles (i.e., disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts) coordinated with multiple evidences to explain it. The phenomenon serves as the reason for engaging in an MBI unit and it drives student sense-making and investigations throughout the unit. Phenomena are more than just examples of the science ideas at play. Instead, they are the context within which students come to understand and use those science ideas.

It may be possible to find local phenomena that would be more engaging to students. For example, in the pine forests of Northern Arizona, we can use the increasing bark beetle infestations of our local forests to explore ideas about ecology and climate change. 

How are phenomena used in MBI units?

Complex and puzzling phenomena anchor MBI units by providing a specific context and purpose for students to engage. Further, through engaging in iterative attempts to explain phenomena across an MBI unit, students construct explanations with scientific ideas and evidences that are refined over time with science practices.  The complexity of the phenomenon is what creates the need for scientific practices and powerful explanatory ideas (i.e., disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts). In other words, the phenomenon drives the unit!

how do i find an anchoring phenomenon?

Finding the perfect anchoring phenomenon for a unit can be challenging. However, as phenomena-based instruction becomes more common in our schools, there are more great examples and resources to draw upon. You can find your phenomenon by:

As we want to engage students in using evidence to build their explanations of the phenomena, it's important that data concerning the phenomenon is readily available. For some phenomena, students may be able to collect primary data themselves. For many phenomena, however, you will need to bring in second-hand data to be analyzed. In this case, when you choose a phenomenon for your unit, be sure there is data available to integrate into the activities of the unit.

Creating a Driving Question

A driving question is like bumpers in a bowling match - it keeps the students on track. Driving questions are specific to the phenomenon, not easily answerable, prompt an explanatory answer (i.e., are often 'why' questions), and frame the entire unit for the students. We recommend introducing the driving question after introducing the phenomenon on the first day of the unit and bringing it back regularly throughout the unit. Some examples include:

Introducing the Anchoring Phenomenon and Driving Question

Introducing the anchoring phenomenon is an important part of your MBI unit. If you don't give students enough information, they will have trouble getting started. If you give them too much, they may jump ahead too quickly. Finding the "sweet spot" will take some practice. There are a number of effective ways to introduce your unit phenomenon that we've seen, but here's a basic procedure you can use to get started.