Topics: Student Engagement Featured Science High-Quality Curriculum Getting Started - PhD Science

Embracing Student-Centered Instruction

Great Minds

by Great Minds

October 17, 2022
Embracing Student-Centered Instruction

every child is capable of greatness.

Posted in: Aha! Blog > PhD Science > Student Engagement Science High-Quality Curriculum Getting Started - PhD Science > Embracing Student-Centered Instruction

When students feel like they have a voice in how their learning takes place, they often take additional initiative and engage more in lessons and activities. And when they actively construct their own knowledge, they are better able to retain and develop a deeper understanding of what they learn.

Educators who openly show that they trust students to take responsibility in driving instruction forward with guidance from the teacher help their students see more of the value of what they are learning and how it affects them in and out of the classroom. But how do educators who embrace student-centered learning successfully ensure students are engaged in content-rich and relevant learning? First, let’s look at the roles of observation, questions, and explanations in student-centered instruction.



A big part of science learning involves students observing the world around them. It is important that students connect what they learn in class to what they already know about the world and what they see when they interact with the world around them so that they begin to ask questions and try to make sense of how things work.

That is why, while other science curricula may use made up locations or events, PhD Science® includes real-world, rich, and multilayered phenomena to help students develop deeper understanding of scientific concepts and of the world around them.

In PhD Science, a key instructional routine is for students to Notice and Wonder about many things, including phenomena. The first part, noticing, connects to the importance of making observations. Students explore the module’s anchor phenomenon or any supporting phenomena from the lesson and share what they notice. As a result, students feel more connected to the concepts as they drive their content learning forward through discussions and activities. They also increase their critical-thinking skills and develop an increased attention to detail as they observe the world around them.


The second part in the Notice and Wonder routine is wondering. As students try to make sense of the world around them, they start to ask questions and to wonder about how things work or why they work the way they do. Finding opportunities for students to wonder and to share their thoughts with others sparks their interest in science learning and can foster a lifelong curiosity and love of discovering new topics and information.

In PhD Science, students are encouraged to use what they observe⁠ to make related wonderings about the student-generated phenomena related to the module topic. This method of inquiry encourages them to consider what they already know from what they have noticed, what they don’t yet know, and what they want to know.

Student-generated questions are then captured through anchor visuals, such as driving question boards. As students return to these visuals with their teachers and classmates, they ultimately recognize how their questions drive class conversations and activities, giving them a personal stake in their learning as they work together to answer the questions that they develop.


As students seek to find answers to their questions and the module questions presented by the anchor phenomenon, they also collect evidence that either supports or shifts their thinking. From the beginning of a module to the end, they may shift their thinking and their reasoning on a topic multiple times. This is important since students are developing their reasoning and problem-solving skills and then using those skills to explain phenomena they encounter. This is also why students revisit the driving question board and other anchor visuals throughout the module, working together to come to a consensus on how they want to add, remove, or modify the visuals as their understanding grows over time.

PhD Science is coherently designed for students to build knowledge across modules and grade levels. As students mature and deepen their understanding, they will continue to make sense of the world in different ways backed up by the sound evidence they collect. As they reflect and revise their thinking, they learn that it is okay—expected, even—to adjust what they thought they knew based on new evidence. Allowing students the time and the space to make these shifts while also teaching accurate scientific concepts is crucial. We can think of these shifts as stepping stones to understanding and a necessary process that students go through as they grow as scientists.

Hands-On Learning

To help students develop deeper and longer-lasting understanding of concepts, they also need to experience science, not just read about it. Science is a dynamic field, and when students get their hands dirty and take part in science activities and investigations, they take charge of their learning and see science in action.

That is why PhD Science was specifically designed to foster student-driven learning. Teachers are encouraged to act as facilitators and to allow students to take initiative during lessons and especially during investigations. Students don’t just read textbooks and memorize vocabulary, they actively take part in and often design and plan investigations and other hands-on activities. Every PhD Science module also includes a Science or Engineering Challenge that provides students the opportunity to go through the processes of real scientists and engineers. Students will collaborate with one another and engage in scientific discourse as they conduct real-world investigations and address real-world problems.

Student Supports

As mentioned, all PhD Science lessons and modules are designed to build knowledge appropriately within the context of where students are developmentally. The content and method of presentation are all coherent across modules and grade levels. So no matter what grade you teach, you can be confident that the curriculum addresses what is developmentally appropriate for your students at that level.

For instance, in Levels K–2, some of the modules include physical anchor models to bring the learning more to life for younger students with something tangible. Levels K–2 also include Knowledge DeckTM posters and cards to provide students access to important informational texts at an appropriate level while drawing them in and stimulating their curiosity with outstanding imagery and visuals. You can find additional guidance for using these materials and other instructional routines in the side margins of the Teacher Edition and in the Implementation Guide.

Other processes, such as the engineering design process, also become more complex as students progress through the grade levels. For instance, in Level K, the engineering design process is presented as being more linear so that it is easier for students at that level to understand. As students mature and develop their understanding, the process is portrayed in a more cyclical way with the addition of related steps. And this is crucial because it means that students at varying grade levels and developmental stages can engage in the engineering design process, driving their learning forward and getting hands-on experience planning and executing investigations.

PhD Science K–2 Engineering Design Process Linear Diagram    Science Challenge Level 1 Module 1 Concept Engineering Design Process Visual    Level 3 Module 1 Lesson 21 Engineering Design Process  Science Challenge Level 4 Module 1 Engineering Design Process

The Engineering Design Process grows in complexity from Level K to Level 5.

We’re Here to Help

While some educators have already made the shift to student-centered instruction, others may still find making the shift challenging.

If you find yourself needing additional support in implementing our high-quality curriculum, learn about our professional learning opportunities

Read The Makings of a High-Quality Science Curriculum blog post to understand why PhD Science is considered high quality.

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Topics: Student Engagement Featured Science High-Quality Curriculum Getting Started - PhD Science