Saturday / July 20

How to Make the 5E Model Work for You 

Science teachers everywhere are encouraged to craft lessons that align with the 5E instructional model. The 5E centers on five instructional phases—usually called Engage, Explain, Explore, Elaborate (or Expand), and Evaluate. Follow the plan and your lessons will be “good.” Supposedly.  

The basic 5E model has predecessors dating back a remarkably long time. In the early 1800s, Johann Friedrich Herbart discussed an instructional approach that was strikingly similar to the 5E model (minus evaluation). He wrote about the importance of engaging pupils’ interests at the beginning of instruction, providing students with direct experiences, and students applying their ideas in new contexts. His ideas spread to the United States. The 5E model’s direct predecessor, however, was the Learning Cycle, popularized in the Science Curriculum Improvement Study in the 1960s and 70s. BSCS expanded the Learning Cycle into the 5E during the 1980s. 

Interesting as this history might be, what’s important to take away is that the model has survived the test of time. It’s not just reformers, theorists, or university people like me who think it’s effective. Teachers also think it’s OK. Educational research and personal experiences both support its value. 

And that’s not surprising if you keep in mind the instructional approach grows out of common sense ideas about how people learn: 

  • learning is enhanced when students have direct, tangible experiences with an idea before its formal introduction, and 
  • learning is enhanced when students do something with their new learning, using it in another context after its formal introduction 

So, how can you evaluate whether a lesson fits the 5E model? Here are five questions to consider: 

1. Is the lesson or unit set up so somewhere students will have relevant, tangible experiences with an important idea before the idea is formally introduced?  

When you look at the part of the lesson sequence where the teacher introduces students to the key ideas they’re expected to understand, can you point to previous part(s) of the lesson where students observed and experienced the ideas first hand?  

I think it’s important to note that these kinds of experiences can happen multiple times during an instructional unit. You don’t need to always follow an engage-explain-explore-expand-evaluate step-by-step sequence. Students can have an (exploratory) experience, be introduced to a new idea, have another experience (or continue the same one), be introduced to another idea, etc. multiple times during a unit. The order of the lesson’s phases is flexible—as long as students have relevant experiences with an idea before being introduced to it (and eventually go on to use their learning in a new context, see below).  

2. Does the lesson include discussion or some other classroom activity where students share their ideas before being formally introduced to words scientists use to name the concepts they’re talking about?  

Are new concepts introduced in a way where the teacher or students make use of students’ own ideas and words? It’s not always possible, but ideally students are learning words to describe things they’ve experienced for themselves. 

3. Once introduced, do students use the new concepts in some other context?  

Applying concepts helps learning. For some students it’s a way to cement their understanding. Others, who didn’t really understand previously, have another chance as they use the same ideas in a different context. And deductive learners like to be introduced to a concept and only then work with it. (If you were successful in traditional school settings, this might be you! … But not all students are like you and me.) 

4. Now go back to the beginning.  

Does the lesson, or lesson sequence, start with something brief students will either (a) think is cool or interesting, (b) connect to their lives, or (c) at least show how what’s to come connects with what they’ve already learned? In states implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, it’s fair to ask whether the lesson or unit begins with students observing interesting (or familiar or personally relevant) phenomena they’ll ultimately be able to explain. This is the hallmark of the engagement phase of the model. (And phenomena help ground the lesson in something tangible and concrete. See #1 above.) 

5. The fifth “E” in the model is evaluation.

While typically at the end of an instructional unit (summative evaluation), it can also come during the unit where the information is immediately useful to the teacher. Are students learning what you want them to be learning at this point, or do you need to back up a little and decrease confusion (formative assessment)? 

5E-based lessons are not just about checking to see if activities are present for each of five “E” boxes on a lesson plan. That turns the instructional model into a rigid series of rules, and filling in five lesson plan boxes doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, the various “phases” of the lesson don’t even need to be the same length of time. 

You’ve probably heard about and explored the 5E model on your own. Now you’ve had a more formal introduction. So you know what the model says comes next: go apply the ideas in your own classroom! 

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