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How I Got My Students to Think More Deeply in Science

By Lori Leo — July 25, 2016 6 min read
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Over the years, I’ve noticed students know less about nature and more about video games. It concerned me that they rarely wondered about their environment. Why try to figure out the reason for something they observe when they can just Google it? To help my students see themselves as scientists who should ask questions every day, I worked with my class to develop a class motto. I now start classes by having my students recite this each day:

• “I am a scientist.”

• “I can think critically.”

• “I can solve problems.”

• “I am responsible for my education, and I will try as hard as I can to learn today.”

• “I will not interfere with instruction by talking.”

• “I will be respectful to my peers.”

We do this daily to remind ourselves that we are scientists who can think deeply about problems and come up with solutions. But to do that, we need to effectively communicate with one another.

I taught students in special education settings for 19 years before switching to general education 6th grade science. I had always loved teaching science classes and was thrilled to be able to work with a wider cross-section of students. I dreamed of spirited debates and lab reports that clearly explained the results of our experiments. So when I asked, “What did you observe?” I did not anticipate students responding, “It changed some.” I was discouraged because it was not the robust communication that is expected for science writing. How would I get my students to think more deeply?

My first step in tackling the problem of short, shallow, unclear answers was to ban such words as “it,” “stuff,” “thing,” “kinda,” “some.” I made a poster with these words and a red slash through them, with the words “Be Specific!” underneath. That helped a bit.

Next, we rewrote explanations. After sharing their answers, with only a few students providing evidence, we would spend 10 minutes rewriting clear explanations with evidence. The problem was, my students still weren’t thinking deeply enough on their own, and they were not making connections between concepts. They weren’t using the data they’d obtained in the experiment to communicate conclusions.

Scientific Writing

The real transformation came after my training in using the Science Writing Heuristic. I received an email invitation from the University of Iowa that said participating in this training would help me improve my students’ writing in science. The experience, offered at both the university and through POGIL, sounded like what I needed—a form and strategies to get students on the right path. Sign me up! The SWH is much more than a possible template and possible strategies for writing; it is an approach to teaching that nurtures critical thinking.

Brian Hand, one of the originators of the SWH method in the late 90s, along with Bill Crandall, a retired science teacher who initially implemented this approach, challenged all of our ideas of what teaching is and how students learn. Teachers tend to think if we teach “A” and then “B,” students will automatically go to “C.” The brain, however, is a web of knowledge with many connections to each piece of information. Based on someone’s unique experiences, each individual brain decides how “A” and “B” fit into an existing web. This is called “negotiation.” Each piece of information requires a person to ask, “How does this fit in with what I already know?” The challenge of teaching is that the connection to “C” doesn’t always happen.

Before writing, we need background knowledge, and SWH is a guided-inquiry process with a built-in reflection tool. It’s easy to see that if you mention a walk outside, the mental pictures and experiences would be vastly different for someone who lived in Alaska as opposed to someone who lived in Florida. Each observation would be correct for that time and place, yet the students would argue about the answer. SWH takes this guided process of observation and critical thinking, and then combines it with the Common Core literacy standards and the Next Generation Science Standards designed to help students make claims and back them up with evidence.

Fostering Discussion

In my classroom now, discussions happen after students have written claims and provided evidence, creating reflection opportunities and cementing the long-term understandings of content and the big ideas. Engaging questions to ask include: What is your claim? What is your evidence? Why do you think that? What did you observe? What data did you collect? Praise statements could include: Great idea! I agree with you. You have a good point. That is an interesting idea. Thanks for helping me think this through. We practice this script in teams at the beginning of the year and review as needed.

I knew we were making real progress when we had a student make a claim that an apple was not alive. The room quickly divided into whether the claim was true or not, and students were yelling and interrupting, asking “Is the apple attached to the tree or lying on the ground?” During these sessions, my job is to guide the discussion, so I told students to physically choose which side they were on by moving to either side of the room. Then I reminded them of respectful discussion expectations and that one student should speak at a time.

For the next 20 minutes, I didn’t say a word. Let me repeat: I didn’t say a word! I observed my 6th graders negotiating with each other like members of the United Nations. Students moved back and forth as they listened to arguments. “Did you consider the fact...” “Yes, but it said in our book that...” Finally, the last stubborn scientists joined the side of the room, supporting the idea that the apple still attached to the tree is indeed alive.

I could have just told them that it was alive, but that would not have allowed them to think critically about the characteristics that make something alive. There were some semi-logical arguments that it was not alive based on some misconceptions. These were analyzed and then corrected. This negotiation not only increased the likelihood the students will remember this fact, but will also help to generalize these characteristics to other living things and to generalize the process to other critical thinking needs. The social context of teenage discussion is very rewarding to them and therefore leads to deeper thinking and stronger writing. The Science Writing Heuristic student template (Part II) provides an outline for this critical thinking. I have tweaked this template for my 6th graders, and this is one of a variety I use. From this framework, quality learning ensues, including stronger, integrated writing.

It usually takes 18-24 months for behavioral changes to occur. We have had some great discussions with guidance from me using questions like, “Who wants to agree or disagree with that claim?” “What evidence do you have to disagree?” “Why do you agree?”

When students ask me “Is this right?” I don’t answer. Instead, I turn the learning back on them with probing questions: “What do you think the answer is?” or “Where can you find more information on that?” When they get frustrated, I remind them, “What’s our motto?” And they will answer, “I am a scientist, I can think critically...”


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