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Teach High School Science

Planning Science Lessons Using the Five E’s
Judy Jones

Several years ago, I came across an effective idea for planning learning units called the Five E’s and I have found it useful in many ways. I often use it for planning my biology units and I even use it for planning specific lessons. I find that my students are more interested and involved when I plan a lesson that keeps in mind these five aspects of learning.

What are the Five E’s?
The Five E’s are:

Engage: The idea of “engage” is to get the students excited about and interested in the lesson and learning that will follow. It might be a demonstration, a quick activity, an interesting reading, or maybe even a discussion centered on what the students already know about the topic. The idea is to “engage” the student’s curiosity about the topic. The engagement activity can also help the teacher learn what the students already know about a topic and even reveal some misconceptions.

Explore: After the engagement activity, there follows an “explore” activity. The idea of “explore” is to allow the students to experience some of the concepts involved in the lesson. Too much teacher intervention should be avoided. Students will work together to investigate and question the concepts. Through exploration, students begin to develop an understanding of the ideas involved in the lesson or unit.

Explain: During the “explain” stage, the teacher may provide more information for the students so that they can begin to explain the concepts in more depth and in their own words. The activities during the “explain” stage might involve further discussions, videos, interactive notes, or further reading. The “explain” stage is often what teachers jump to first without doing the “engage” and “explore” stages. Once students have been engaged and have had a chance to explore, they are much more interested in dealing with explanations.

Elaborate: The “elaborate” stage is where students apply their knowledge to new situations. Students might do further lab investigations or solve similar related problems. They might carry out projects or get involved in decision-making (bioethical debates, for example). During this stage students are refining and deepening their understanding of the concepts by seeing new applications and perhaps even exceptions.

Evaluate: In the “evaluate” stage, the teacher assesses the learning that has occurred. Although teachers tend to think of traditional tests, evaluation can take many other forms, both formal and informal. Evaluation may involve lab reports, presentations, or discussions where the teacher is looking for students’ ability to apply new concepts and skills. It is valuable to have students evaluate their own knowledge by assessing how well they can apply their learning to related situations.

How do I use the Five E’s in planning?

Let’s say that I want to develop a lesson about how organisms communicate with each other. Here is how I might structure the unit around the Five E’s.

Engage: To begin this unit, I ask students what they know (or think they know) about termites. They will probably talk about how termites “eat wood." They might mention that termites live in colonies and need to communicate. It is important to just let the students brainstorm and discuss – don’t try to “feed” them information at this point. (The link below is just for teacher information at this point.) Then I will let them go to the lab tables and examine some termites using magnifiers. Hands-on experiences with “critters” is always engaging – even when it is “gross.”


Explore: I set up lab stations for groups of three students each. Each lab station has a small soft paintbrush, a collection of ball point pens of different brands (include some Papermates) and different colors; I often include some markers and/or colored pencils. There will also be some white paper and a small dish of five to six termites (with some moist towel). I show the students how to handle the termites carefully so as not to harm them and then I suggest they try drawing shapes on the paper and place the termites on the marked paper. Then I step back! (It turns out that some of the pens [usually Papermate] have a chemical odor similar to the pheromones that termites use to create trails for other termites to follow.) This activity is very engaging and allows students to ask and explore a myriad of questions – which I don't answer! The website below offers more information for the teacher. This is a very important part of the lesson. Students need to formulate questions and propose possible answers.


Explain: Here is where I let students share their questions and propose answers. Also, I will either do a teacher-prepared powerpoint about termites and pheromones or I will let the students carry out a webquest in the computer lab. I will answer questions or direct students to places where they can find the answers to their questions. This is where I will guide the learning into a particular direction. For example, since the learning goal is focused on “communication” between organisms, I will focus my questions on that area. One important question to have students consider is: “What is the value of communication between organisms?” There are many good websites with information about termites and communication; letting the students discover information on their own (with guidance) is preferable. A few sites are given below.


Elaborate: Now that the students have learned a great deal about termites and the use of pheromones to communicate, I will challenge them to think of other ways that termites communicate or to find out about the use of pheromones (chemical communication) in other species. (As we speed through the curriculum in this era of testing, we sometimes forget to include time for elaboration. And yet, this is a very important step in the learning process.) The students can go back to the lab and investigate other variables using termites or other organisms. I might assign a different organism to each small group of students (two to three) and have them research the communication methods of that species. The group will then prepare a poster project and present it to the class.

Evaluate: Although I do use tests in my biology classes, I have many additional ways to evaluate my students. In this project, a formal lab report on their termite investigations and the poster project are major activities that I evaluate. But it is also important for the students to evaluate what they have learned. I often use a class discussion to culminate a unit. Students can share what they have learned and even share questions that they might want to pursue in the future. I will also use an individual final piece of writing where students describe to me what they have learned. Sometimes I have guiding questions and other times I leave the writing more open-ended. This helps me learn where each of my students is individually – and allows me to intervene in their learning if necessary.

The Challenge
As you plan your lessons and units this year, you might consider using the Five E’s as a foundation. You might even try varying the linear sequence of the Five E’s. Sometimes it is appropriate to provide some information before the students explore, for example. So you might loop back and forth between explaining and exploring and elaborating. You might even do mid-unit evaluations and then go back to engagement. In fact, often evaluation is on-going and can even guide the next steps. It might be that when you are doing the elaboration stage, you find that some students need to return to the explain stage. Sometimes engage and explore get blended together. So I don’t treat the Five E’s as a formula but more like a flexible guide.

As you try using the Five E’s with your planning, please feel free to contact me with further questions.


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