The Centrality of Phenomena

The quest for relevance and equity in science education

Those of us who work in science education and outreach, including the staff at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, do so out of a sense of hope and belief our efforts make a difference in the lives of learners of all ages. At times that hope takes a hit when we hear about the wide range of discredited ideas and misconceptions people hold.

With the amount of evidence available, one would think the contentions the moon landings are a hoax, the earth is flat, that a dark planet is set to collide with the earth, or a periodic alignment of planets is somehow rare and a portent of doom, would have disappeared for good. Over the past year or so, all of these have reappeared in a variety of news media, raising fears amongst those who are uncertain of who to trust, and consternation from educators and scientists who thought the last time they debunked these ideas was indeed, the last time.

Much discussion has taken place about how to address ideas and misconceptions such as these, some of it in past posts of this blog. Experts and commentators acknowledge it is a difficult thing to change someone’s core beliefs, and the presentation of facts and evidence may only serve to further entrench the belief. It seems as though some sort of transformative experience is required for those who have held their ideas for a long period of time. For younger learners, ensuring they have access to an education which promotes collecting and reasoning about evidence, and the communication of evidence-based explanations of natural phenomena may serve to create a culture where ideas at odds with the evidence fail to find fertile minds in which to grow.

The current transformation of science education places an emphasis on learner investigations of compelling natural phenomena, rather than the traditional curriculum of teaching a series of topics. The establishment of an anchoring phenomenon leading to a driving question that guides a series of student investigations where they incrementally build an evidence-based model for the phenomenon in some ways is a more accurate portrayal of how science works, rather than the traditional sequence of the “scientific method.”

So, why the focus on phenomena rather than a set of core topics? In short, because it helps make science education more relevant and equitable for students. For most of human history, people have attempted to explain the natural phenomena they found themselves immersed in. It was relevant to them to discover something about the nature of shadows, and how different materials affected a beam of light. It was relevant to utilize the patterns they observed in the day and night skies to navigate, or to know when they should plant crops, or hunt, or get ready for a time when resources were scarce. For many people in our modern society, these past explorations and explanations are irrelevant, and perhaps even contrary to what they believe. The suggestion is if they can make a personal observation to share with everyone else it is more valid than those made in the past as a scientific explanation of the universe was under development. In other words, it is their personal experience of a particular phenomenon that is paramount and trustworthy.

“The most powerful phenomena from an educational perspective are culturally or personally relevant or consequential to students.” and “A good phenomenon builds on everyday or family experiences: who students are, what they do, where they come from.” ( Students are more apt to engage productively with, and incorporate a scientific explanation for a phenomenon when they feel a sense of connection. A further implication for the centrality of phenomena in science instruction is it makes the science more accessible to learners, and more equitable, supporting the engagement of all.

Creating science educational experiences for young learners centered on phenomena may provide the means for ending the recurring cycle of false ideas and misconceptions. When confronted with eternal recurrence, Zarathustra reacted with nausea. As science educators, we would like nothing more than to not cover old ground time and again.

A version of this post first appeared as the Education Matters column in the Winter 2017 edition of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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1 Response to The Centrality of Phenomena

  1. I’m so glad that you’re working in education, helping so many teachers and their students. Learning is the birthright for all, and it’s heartening that you’re showing how students from every background can engage in discovery and the joys of learning through real experiences.


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