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Teaching Opinion

Response: Don’t ‘Steal the Aha’ From Science Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 14, 2019 17 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest mistakes made in science instruction and what should teachers do instead?

We all make mistakes in the classroom, and this post is part of a series highlighting ones that might or might not be unique to our content areas.

Today’s column focuses on science instruction.

Linda Tolladay, Patrick L. Brown, James P. Concannon, Ross Cooper, and John Almarode share their “nominations” for the biggest mistakes made by science teachers. I’ve also included a number of comments from readers.

Though I’m not hosting radio shows this summer to accompany blog posts, you can still listen to past BAM! Radio Shows. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Linda Tolladay

After 30 years as a secondary science teacher, Linda Tolladay left the classroom to become an elementary district academic coach for science in the Madera Unified school district in Madera, Calif. She has been a presenter at all 4 NGSS Rollouts for the State of California and has presented at California Science Teacher Association and National Science Teacher Association conferences. She is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

I see two major mistakes in science instruction across all grade levels and in all disciplines of science.

The first is what the I’ve seen dubbed “

Stealing the Aha.” Science education should be about allowing students to wonder, to question, to explore, and to do their own sense-making of natural and human-made phenomena. Instead, it is often a place for teachers to tell students about science. I see this problem mostly with secondary teachers who really know a great deal of science and, quite reasonably, wish to share that knowledge with their students. In the elementary grades, I more often see teachers who are afraid to let students make mistakes. Rather than working to provide experiences that will shift misconceptions, they step in the minute students are on the wrong track to provide error correction.

I completely empathize! When I work with students, I have to stop myself from telling them all the cool science I know and let them work out their own understanding. It has taken me longer than I like to admit to realize that they will only correct their misconceptions if they have the opportunity to work their way toward a deeper understanding of science concepts. I can’t substitute my understanding for their misunderstanding. No one can.

Teachers need to create lesson sequences in which students first connect with a phenomenon and then are provided with opportunities to explore and explain pieces which lead to a coherent understanding of that phenomenon. This is vastly different from the world of science lectures followed by a confirming lab that epitomized the science learning experiences for many of us currently teaching science. But it is a shift that makes all the difference for students.

The second major mistake I see in science instruction involves not taking time to first listen to student answers and then to dig deeply for student meaning. I recently asked a student to report out on his group’s answer to what caused a difference in the time it took students in the class to eat a LifeSaver™ candy. He said: “Where it was in my mouth.” A couple of years ago, I’d have let that answer stand and believe this group had a misconception about what factors affect the rate of dissolving.

Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Accountable Talk and Talk Moves

so instead I asked him to explain what he meant. This time I got, “Whether it is in your cheek or on your tongue.” Further questioning finally got us to, “It matters whether or not there is a lot of saliva around the LifeSaver™.” Had I not asked follow-up questions, I’d have believed this student and his group had misconceptions they did not have.

Using Talk Moves, or some other strategic questioning strategy, takes a bit longer than simply accepting student answers at face value. However, the interaction above only took a minute, and I learned this group of students had successfully identified a variable they could test.

When teachers take time to create lessons that scaffold to increase student understanding and then work to question students in a way that allows that understanding to be uncovered, they go a long way toward shifting our science instruction from dry teacher delivery to rich student sense-making.

Response From Patrick L. Brown & James P. Concannon

Patrick L. Brown is a STEM coordinator at the Fort Zumwalt school district in O’Fallon, Mo. James P. Concannon is a science teacher educator at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. They are authors of Inquiry-Based Science Activities in Grades 6-12 (Routledge, 2018):

Science teachers explain that they incorporate inquiry in the classroom, but is this really the case? It is easy for teachers to “push” through units for the sake of time due to the breadth of content they are expected to teach (Crawford, 2007). Generally, this results in highly structured laboratory activities where students are not provided opportunities to engage, explore, and make evidence-based explanations in a meaningful or authentic way. The same phenomenon occurs when teachers rely on “out of the box” materials and methods to teach science.

In reality, this is not truly engaging in scientific practices. Science is much messier, where often procedures are not provided, and a significant amount of reasoning and reflection are required to answer a very simple question that is often no larger than the tip of a needle in contrast to the larger body of scientific knowledge established. But with little time in the school day and with all the content that needs to be covered, what is a science teacher to do? Teachers must provide students opportunities to question, think, fail, and reflect. Teachers also need to help students make connections about why scientists use inquiry practices and problem-solving strategies to answer questions. Teachers need to provide students time to simply think, make mistakes, reflect, and revise. How is this accomplished? Answer: by using evidenced-driven inquiry (see Brown and Concanon, 2018).

First, science instruction should be sequenced where students explore prior to teachers introducing science terminology, ideas, or concepts. The learning cycle is an approach where students explore prior to any introduction of science terminology or formal explanation. The learning cycle includes three sequential phases 1) exploration, 2) invention (term introduction), (3) discovery (concept application) (Karplus and Their, 1967). More recently, the 5E model was developed by Rodger Bybee from the original learning cycle phases to assist teachers in implementation of constructivist, inquiry-based instructional units that endorse conceptual change and reasoning skills (Bybee et al., 2006; Posner et al., 1982; Treagust & Tsui, 2014).

Secondly, evidenced-based inquiry is an approach where students seamlessly learn science content and the nature by which scientific knowledge is produced in valid and reliable ways. The nature by which scientific knowledge is produced has long been an important learning standard. The practices of how science knowledge is developed has been termed “inquiry.”

A third component in promoting evidenced-driven inquiry is homing in on the phenomenon students explore. The idea behind phenomenon-based teaching is to focus students’ experiential learning on science experiences that lead to wonderment about the natural world. Beneficial explorations invoke curiosity and promote investigations that produce empirical data of qualitative observation and accurate evidence-based claims. In addition, meaningful science phenomena are complex entities that are best understood through multiple learning experiences (e.g., explorations, lectures, readings, discussions, etc.) and allow other key, associated ideas to be easily connected to student’s experiences. Science phenomena are not factoids and are important because they contextualize all science learning during a topic of study.


Bybee, R.W., Taylor, J.A., Gardner, A.G., Van Scotter, P., Carlson Powell, J., Westbrook, A., & Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectives. A report prepared for the Office of Science Education National Institute of Health. Retrieved April 13, 2018 from: https://uteach.wiki.uml.edu/file/view/UTeach_5Es.pdf/355111234/UTeach_5Es.pdf

Crawford, B.A. (2007). Learning to teach science as inquiry in the rough and tumble practice. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(4), 613-642.

Karplus, R., & Thier, H. (1967). A new look at elementary school science. Chicago: Rand-McNally.

Posner, G.J., Strike, K.A., Hewson, P.W., & Gertzog, W.A. (1982). Accommodation of a science conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211-227

Treagust, D. F., and C. Tsui. 2014. General Instructional Methods and Strategies. In Handbook of Research on Science Education Volume II, ed. Norman G. Lederman, Sandra K. Abell, 303-120. USA: Routledge.

Response From Ross Cooper

Ross Cooper is the elementary principal of T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary School in the Old Tappan district in Old Tappan, N.J., and the co-author of Hacking Project Based Learning. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator:

Over the last handful of years, we have seen an explosion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. And coinciding with this movement has been an influx of new STEM-related products that are school-friendly.

While there is no doubt in my mind many of our students will benefit from these products, and I do wish they had been invented while I was still teaching 4th grade, something is missing if we’re not doing much more than placing these items in the hands of our students and teachers, crossing our fingers, and hoping for change. At the end of the day, these are tools or resources that can help in shifting mindsets and culture, but I do believe an over-reliance on them means too much time and energy is being spent in the wrong place.

In short, we must invest in our teachers through professional development and by establishing cultures of ongoing learning and inquiry that expand beyond any defined professional-development hours.

What might this look like?

As a 4th grade teacher in my previous district, I was one of about 30 teachers in an elementary level STEM cohort. Over the summer, we experienced three full days of professional learning that was facilitated by a consultant from the local science center, and the majority of the instruction involved modules from the Exploratorium website. (Exploratorium is a renowned science museum in San Francisco.) During the training, we were informed by administrators that the goal for the year was for each grade-level team to create and share just one STEM unit (with more work being optional). So, toward the end of the third day, and after the formal learning had taken place, we collaborated in teams to start planning our units.

Throughout the school year, the consultant was made available to teachers to assist with our STEM projects (and any other inquiry-based instruction), and at the end of the year, all of us gathered in the high school cafeteria to share what our students and we had accomplished.

What I have described is just one example, and one of countless ways to roll out a STEM (or project-based learning) program. But, no matter the example or approach, one common denominator should always remain. While prepackaged STEM products certainly have a place in our schools, we must remember to invest in teachers as learners and professionals. Otherwise, students will view STEM as nothing more than “playtime” that serves as a break from the real (and traditional) learning.

Because, at the end of the day, we want to establish cultures of inquiry and ongoing learning, not buildings with “cool stuff.”

Response From John Almarode

Dr. John Almarode is the Sarah Miller Luck Endowed Professor of Education and an assistant professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education at James Madison University. John is also the co-director of James Madison University’s Center for STEM Education and Outreach and co-editor of Teacher Educator’s Journal:

As a high school chemistry and physics teacher, I devoted an inordinate amount of time searching for, finding, and doing awesome demonstrations. If I could find a way to make something sizzle, smoke, smell, or smash, I did it! I believed that a jaw-dropping demonstration was enough to provoke wonder and inquiry and establish real purpose to subsequent study of a scientific concept.

My favorite demonstrations were those events that capitalized on the element of surprise in hopes that the boom or bang would motivate and prompt students to acquire and consolidate science learning. As science teachers, we believe that inside every student is a young child who was mesmerized by a dazzling display of a mysterious scientific concept. However, what I soon discovered, and uncovered in research on science teaching and learning, was that my students did not learn much of anything from the razzle and dazzle aspect of science instruction.

Here was my evidence. I would ask my learners, “What did you learn from that demonstration?” Or, I would ask them, “What is the science behind this demonstration?” Their answer was always simple, but stunning. “I don’t know, but that was awesome.” When the talked about the demonstration in the hallway or at home, as reported by their parents, they would talk about the sizzling, smoking, smelling, and smashing—never the science. In other words, learners were so wrapped up in the demonstration that they lost sight with the what and why behind the demonstration. This was my mistake. I was flashy, not effective.

Now, this is not to say that we should not do demonstrations. We just have to focus more on the learning and less on the sizzle, smoke, smell, or smash. Here are several principles to consider when designing effective science demonstrations:

• Establish a clear purpose. The demonstration must be directly related to the scientific concepts being studied and made explicit and visible to the learners.

• Plan the demonstration carefully. Make sure you select the demonstration after setting the learning intentions and success criteria, rather than selecting an “awesome” demonstration and making it fit into the content.

• Plan for repeatability. Repeating the demonstration at the end of the lesson can support the consolidation of learning.

• Consider visibility. If the phenomenon you are demonstrating needs to be seen from close range, perform the demonstration with small groups of students. This allows you to engage learners in questioning and discussion

• Don’t discount the importance of showmanship. The awe of science demonstrations can intrigue your students. After all of the above points, don’t be afraid to play it up—your enthusiasm is infectious (adapted from Freedman, 2000).

This blog provides an overview of the work of John Almarode and his colleagues on Visible Learning for Science, Grades K-12.


Freedman, M. P. (2000). Using effective demonstrations for motivation. Science and Children,

38(1), 52-55.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Linda, Patrick, James, Ross, and John, and to readers, for their contributions.

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