Phenomenon-Based Learning Pedagogy

What is PBL?

Using PBL with the Gizmos and Gadgets Books

Learning Goals and Assessment

Authors' Use of Gizmos and Gadgets


What is PBL?

With Phenomenon-Based Learning (PBL), students will build understanding from observations of real-world phenomena, in this case, some fun gizmos or gadgets (also known as science toys). PBL also uses peer instruction, which research has shown to result in more learning than traditional lectures. In the PBL approach, students explore in groups. Exercises are done in groups, and students’ conclusions are also drawn in groups. The teacher guides and encourages the groups and, at the end, verifies the conclusions. With the PBL strategy, the concepts and the phenomena are approached from various angles, each adding a piece to the puzzle with the goal of developing a mental picture that, as closely as possible, portrays the real situation.

PBL is not so much a teaching method as it is a route to grasping the big picture. It contains some elements that you may have seen in inquiry-based, problem-based, or project-based learning, combined with hands-on activities and responsive teaching. In traditional science teaching, it’s common to divide phenomena into small, separate parts and discuss them as though there is no connection among them. In our PBL approach, we don't artificially create boundaries within phenomena. Rather, we try to look at scientific phenomena very broadly.

PBL is different from project-based or problem-based learning. In project-based learning, the student is given a project, which provides the context for learning. The problem with this is that the student is not necessarily working on the project out of curiosity, but simply because it is a task to accomplish. To avoid students viewing the activity as a chore, or just as a problem that they have to solve, we employ phenomenon-based learning, where the student's own curiosity becomes the driver for learning. The student explores, not from the point of view of trudging through a problem, but as a result of seeing some interesting phenomenon and wanting to understand what's going on. This works because interest and enthusiasm do not result from the content alone; they come from the students themselves as they discover more about the phenomenon. Personal experience with a phenomenon is always more interesting and memorable than a simple recitation of facts.

Project-based learning has, as the goal, for the students to produce a product, presentation, or performance. PBL does not have that requirement; students simply enjoy exploring and discovering. This is the essence of science, and it is consistent with the philosophy of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Rather than simply memorizing facts that will soon be forgotten, students are doing real science. Students are engaged in collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Students obtain a deeper understanding of scientific knowledge and see a real-world application of that knowledge -- exactly what was envisioned with NGSS. This is why, at the end of each chapter, we provide a list of relevant standards from NGSS, further emphasizing our focus on the core ideas and practices of science, not just the facts of science.

With PBL, the idea is to get the students’ brains working with some phenomenon and have them discuss it in groups. As students discuss the functions of a toy, teachers can often become aware of common misconceptions that the students may harbor. It is important to enable students to confront their misconceptions, as they can be very persistent. Often the only way to remove misconceptions is to have students work with the materials, experiment, think, and discuss, so that they can eventually experience for themselves that their preconception is not consistent with what they observe in the real world.

We must also keep in mind that students can't build up all the scientific laws and concepts from scratch by themselves. Students will definitely need some support and instruction. When doing experiments and learning from them, there must be some qualitative discussions (to build concepts) and some quantitative work (to learn the measuring process and make useful calculations). Experience with combining the two reveals the nature of science.

PBL encourages students to not just think about what they have learned, but also to reflect on how they acquired that knowledge. What mental processes did they go through while exploring some phenomenon and figuring out what is occurring? PBL very much lends itself to a K-W-L approach (what we Know ’ what we Want to know ’ what we have Learned), and this can be enhanced by making it K-W-L-H, where the H stands for ’How we learned it’, because once we understand that, we can then apply those same learning techniques to other situations.

When you first look at this book, it might seem like there is not very much textual material. That was intentional. The idea is to have more thinking by the students and less lecturing by the teacher. It is also important to note that the process of thinking and learning is not a race. To learn and really get the idea, students need to take some time to thinka?|and then think some more. So be sure to allow sufficient time for the cognitive processes to occur. For example, in the very first experiment (measuring the speed of a toy car) we don’t immediately tell them how to do it. They work like scientists, discussing with one another what they will need to measure the speed and how they will do it. This involves a lot of thinking, and it takes time. But then after they’ve taken the time to think about the phenomenon and discuss it, they really get the idea. And then they’ve had practice using the ’language of science’ with others and end up internalizing what they’ve been discussing. During this time, the students may also think of real-life situations where the phenomenon plays a significant role, and these can be brought up later during discussions with the entire class.

Using PBL with the Gizmos and Gadgets Books

The PBL book can be used in many ways. It can be used as a teacher’s guide or as material for the students. In the hands of the teacher, the introductions and the questions can be used as the basis for discussions with the groups before they use the gadgets, i.e., as a motivational tool. The teacher can ask where we see or observe the phenomenon in everyday life, what the students know about the matter prior to conducting the activities, and so on. The explorations can also be used to spark curiosity about a particular area of science and to encourage students to explore and learn.

Exactly how you present the material depends a lot on your students. Here’s one approach: Have students work in groups. Studies have shown this to be a good way for them to learn. Have them discuss with each other — and write down in their notebooks — what they already know about the gadget and about the phenomenon that it demonstrates. Maybe they don’t yet know what phenomenon the gadget uses, in which case you can just have them carry out the steps provided for exploring that gadget. As they carry out those steps, they should write in their notebooks questions they think of about the gadget or about the science involved. If they’re having trouble with this, you can get more specific and ask them, for instance, what they would need to know in order to understand what’s going on. Or ask where else they have seen something like this. Having students formulate questions themselves is part of the PBL approach and also part of an inquiry approach. Asking questions is also how scientists start out an investigation. Be sure to give the groups plenty of time to attempt to answer their questions themselves.

It’s great to let the students pursue questions that they raise and to encourage investigations into areas that they find interesting. This is part of “responsive teaching,” and also part of PBL. If, after a good amount of time, the students are unable to come up with their own questions, you can start to present the questions in the book. Resist the temptation to only have students go down the list of questions. That would be more structure than we’d want to have in view of our goal of presenting learning as exploration and inquiry. A good use of the questions would be to help guide your interaction with the groups as they explore the phenomenon.

Students can then work in groups to answer the questions, doing more experimentation as needed. The important point is that they won’t learn much by simply being told an answer. Much more learning takes place if they can, through experimentation and reasoning, come up with some ideas themselves. Perhaps they will come up with an idea that is incorrect. Rather than immediately correcting them, you can guide them to an experiment or line of reasoning that reveals an inconsistency. They will learn more that way. Also, it is not a bad thing if their first thought is incorrect. The main idea is for them to recognize that, through the process of science, it is possible to correct mistakes and come away with a better understanding.

While the groups are investigating, you, the teacher, should be moving among the groups, monitoring conversations to determine if they are proceeding scientifically, e.g., asking questions, discussing ways to answer the questions — perhaps using the gadget, through discussions, or even by doing Web searches. This monitoring is part of the assessment process as explained further in the next section.

After students have made a discovery or figured out something new, it’s good to have them reflect on the mental process they went through to achieve that discovery or understanding. This reflection — sometimes referred to as metacognition — helps students to recognize strategies that will be helpful for other challenges in the future. The combination of guidance and metacognition is consistent with a modern learning cycle leading to continuous increases in students’ content knowledge and process skills.

Learning Goals and Assessment

An important learning goal is for students to learn to think about problems and try a variety of approaches to solve them. These days most students just wait for the teacher to state the answer. The aim here is for students to enjoy figuring out what’s going on and be creative and innovative. Combining this with other objectives, a list of learning goals might look something like this:

By the end of these lessons, students will:

  • Think about problems from various angles and try different strategies.
  • Demonstrate process skills, working logically and consistently.
  • Collaborate with others to solve problems.
  • Use the language of science.
  • Reflect on the thinking processes that helped them to acquire new knowledge and skills in science.
  • View science as interesting and fun.

You will notice that there are no formal quizzes or rubrics included. There are other ways to evaluate students during activities such as these. First note that the emphasis is not on “getting the right answer.” The teacher should not simply provide the answer or an easy way out; that would not allow students to learn how science really works. Allow plenty of “think time” after asking a question. Things to consider are: Are students basing their conclusions on evidence? Even if a student has the wrong idea, if (s)he has evidential reasons for that idea, then that student has the right approach. Are students sharing their ideas with others in their group? After all members of a group are in agreement and tell the teacher what they think is happening, the teacher can express doubt or question their explanation, making them describe their evidence and perhaps discuss it further among themselves. Participation as scientific investigators and the ability to give reasons for their explanations will be the key indicators that students understand the process of science.

The PBL approach lends itself well to having students keep journals of their activities. Students should write about how they are conducting their experiment (which might differ from one group to another), ideas they have related to the phenomenon under investigation (including both correct and incorrect ideas), what experiments or observations showed the incorrect ideas to be wrong, answers to the questions, and what they learned as a result of the activity. The teacher can encourage students to form a mental model — perhaps expressed as a drawing — of how the phenomenon works and why. Then they can update this model in the course of their investigations. Students’ notebooks or journals will go a long way to helping the teacher see how the students’ thinking and understanding have progressed. If there is a requirement for a written assessment, the journal provides the basis for that. As a further prompt for writing or discussion, encourage students to form a “bridge to the future” by asking questions like, Where could we use this phenomena? How could this be useful? Students might also want to use a tablet or laptop to make a video of the experiment. This can be used for later reference, as well as to show family and friends. Wouldn’t it be great if we can get students talking about science outside the classroom?

Some of the questions asked of the students in this book will be difficult to answer. Here again, students get a feel for what it’s like to be a real scientist exploring uncharted territory. A student might suggest an incorrect explanation. Other students in the group might offer a correction, or if no one does, perhaps further experimentation, along with guidance from the teacher, will lead them on the right course. Like scientists, the students can do a literature search — now a Web search — to see what others know about the phenomenon. (Doing Web searches also involves learning to recognize when a site is reputable and when it is not.) Thus there are many ways for a misconception to get dispelled in a way that will result in more long-term understanding than if the students were simply told the answer. Guidance from the teacher could include providing some ideas about what to observe when doing the experiment or giving some examples from other situations where the same phenomenon takes place. Although many incorrect ideas will get resolved in group discussions, the teacher should actively monitor group discussions, ensuring that students do not get too far off track and are on their way to achieving increased understanding.

By having students explore first and get to a formal understanding later, they are working like real scientists. When scientists investigate a new phenomenon, they aren’t presented with an explanation first. They have to figure it out! And that’s what the students do here. Real scientists extensively collaborate with one another; and that’s what students do here as well, working in groups. Not all terms and concepts are completely explained; that’s not the purpose of this book. Again like real scientists, the students can look up information as needed, e.g., in a traditional science textbook. What we present here is the Phenomenon-Based Learning approach, where students explore and, through their own curiosity, are inspired to pursue creative approaches to answers — and have fun in the process!

Authors' Use of Gizmos and Gadgets

One of the authors (M.B.) has been using gizmos as the basis of teaching for many years. He also uses them for illustrative purposes in public presentations and school programs. The other two authors (M.K. and J.K.) have been using PBL — and the materials in this book — to teach in Finland. Their approach is to present scientific phenomena to students so that they can build ideas and an understanding of the topic by themselves, in small groups. Students progress from thinking to understanding to explaining. For each phenomenon there are several different viewpoints from which the student can develop a big-picture understanding as a result of step-by-step exploration. The teacher serves as a guide who leads the student in the right direction. PBL is an approach that is not only effective for learning, but is also much more fun and interesting for both the teacher and students. Enjoy!

References (See additional references on the Supporting Materials page.)

·      Bobrowsky, M., 2007, The Process of Science...and its Interaction with Non-Scientific Ideas, American Astronomical Society, Washington, D.C.

·      Champagne, A.B., Gunstone, R.F., & Klopfer, L.E. 1985, "Effecting changes in cognitive structures among physics students," in H.T. West & A. L. Pines (Eds.), Cognitive structure and conceptual change. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

·      Chi, M.T.H. & Roscoe, R.D  2002, “The Processes and Challenges of Conceptual Change,” in Reconsidering Conceptual Change: Issues in Theory and Practice, M. Limón and L. Mason, Editors. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Boston.

·      Crouch, C.H. & Mazur, E. 2001, “Peer Instruction: Ten Years of Experience and Results,Am. J. Phys., 69, 970.

·      Dale, E. 1969, “Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching,” Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

·      Donivan, M. 1993, “A dynamic duo takes on science.” Science and Children, 31(2), 29-32.

·      Enger, S.K. and Yager, R. E., 2001, Assessing Student Understanding in Science: A Standards-Based K-12 Handbook, Corwin Press, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA

·      Jacobs, H. H., Ed., 2010, Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World, ASCD, Alexandria, VA

·      Meadows, Donella H., 2008, Thinking in Systems – A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT

·      McTighe, J. and Wiggins, G., 2013, Essential Questions – Opening Doors to Student Understanding, ASCD, Alexandria, VA

·      National Research Council, 2011, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, National Academy Press, Washington, DC

·      National Research Council, 2000, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards:  A Guide for Teaching and Learning, National Academy Press, Washington, DC

·      National Research Council , 2000, How People Learn – Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy Press, Washington, DC

·      P-16 Science Education at the Akron Global Polymer Academy

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