(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used to teach science?
This post is part of a longer series of questions and answers inviting educators from various disciplines to share their “single most effective instructional strategy.”
Three weeks ago, educators shared their recommendations when it came to teaching writing.
Two weeks ago, it was about teaching English-language learners.
Last week focused on math.
There are more to come!
Today, Frank Dill, Cheryl Matas, and Fred Chapel share their science favorites.
‘My Favorite Word Is the F-word’
Frank Dill has been teaching science in Tampa, Fla., since 2011. One of his favorite projects is a student-generated science magazine on Flipboard called “Raven about Science”:
My students swear that my favorite word is the F-word. Fail. My students fail a lot. I make sure of it. I try to provide my students with an environment where it is safe to fail because I am trying to teach them how to be resilient.
I show students where I have failed and how I take steps to improve my performance. eLearning has provided ample material for these demonstrations. Being vulnerable to students in this way builds rapport. Students are more trusting and willing to share their failures and misunderstandings when they know it is possible to improve.
Failure is important in science. Lab experiments go wrong all the time. A reasonable hypothesis may be totally wrong. Data and evidence from research will reveal what is valid no matter how unlikely.
My students do a lab that uses hydrogen and oxygen gas to launch projectiles across the room. This is a very popular lab. What is less popular is my grading scale. I put pieces of tape on the floor indicating how far the projectiles must fly to get a particular letter grade. The students get unlimited attempts, but to get an A, they must launch their projectile past the farthest mark. Students complain that this is unfair, but I tell them that nature is grading them, not me. Failure is an option. In the real world, the forces of nature will tell you when you have failed. Gravity will make a defective bridge fall, and even NASA loses rockets. In science, progress is made by learning from failure.
Learning how to fail is important for students at every academic-achievement level. Some of our highest-achieving students are having mental-health issues because of their fear of failure. As teachers, we must demystify failure for them. Failure is part of life. They shouldn’t live in fear and anxiety over failure. They shouldn’t be willing to harm themselves if they fail.
Learning to fail isn’t just a lesson for the science classroom. It’s a life skill. In an era of high-stakes testing, students need to know that it’s OK to fail. No one gets everything right on the first try. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts. Teach students to be resilient. Show them how they can bounce back from failure. As long as students are growing and improving, progress is being made.
Cheryl Matas has been an elementary teacher for over 30 years, specializing in science education. She currently works as a STEM observer for CREATE 4 STEM and writes for The Practical Science Teachers blog:
Since NGSS came to town upending how we teach science, a whirlwind of new strategies has been coming our way. All promise to make our students better problem-solvers, but I’ve found one method really does help students learn and retain science concepts. It’s modeling, but it’s a strategy that’s as different from the old volcano model as vertebrates are from invertebrates.
When most people think of models, solar systems or the popular volcano come to mind. While these objects can be models, a newer definition of modeling requires students to incorporate new knowledge into their models by revising them.
Why are models important in science education? Students use models to explain how phenomena work in the real world. Their thinking and evolving learning is visible. Teachers easily discover how student learning is progressing and any misconceptions that need attention along the way.
Models and their revisions are invaluable for student explanations and predictions. Using models in discussions cements their new knowledge and promotes critical thinking. Students must use evidence to back up their ideas in group or whole-class discussion. Other questions often emerge that spur new investigations.
Teaching students to revise models as the unit progresses requires planning and consistency, but it’s an easy strategy to implement and requires a little more time.
As a STEM observer for Michigan State University, I work with 3rd graders using this model-revision strategy. One unit focuses on squirrels, their survival in the wild, and their adaptations. The first lessons build background knowledge and observation skills using squirrels around the school and students’ homes. Students were then asked to draw models of what squirrels need to survive in the wild. Students shared their models with their groups and were given time to revise the models based on peer feedback.
As we progressed through the unit, learning about structure, environment, and how today’s squirrels evolved from a tiny animal called leolestes, students continually revised their models to reflect new information. We went from a single squirrel on a page to drawings of skulls, labels, environments, and better understanding of squirrel survival. Students were enthusiastic about science and often reported on squirrels observed outside of school. The revised models a picture of how each student progressed in learning NGSS concepts.
The model-revision strategy is crucial to deepening student understanding of the concepts outlined in NGSS.
Fred Chapel is core faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University-Los Angeles, where he teaches science methods and clinical practice classes to preservice teachers. Prior to that, he spent 25 years teaching science to middle school students:
The key to successful teaching in science can be found in one word—play.
When you hand something to children, they will immediately begin to “mess around” with whatever was given to them. Why not harness this natural curiosity to form a strong foundation for learning?
Because it is student-directed, play provides for robust, relevant, and developmentally appropriate learning, particularly for science.
The control that students have over their play has several beneficial outcomes for learning. First, play develops students’ executive-functioning ability as they negotiate, direct, and organize their play. Secondly, play significantly lowers the affective filter for students, reducing the stress of learning, and thus leads to increased engagement and readiness for learning. Thirdly, play provides a natural language approach to language acquisition for English-learners and allows for self-directed, personalized exploration that is comfortable for atypical learners.
How might this “play” out during a class session? Here is a very general outline of learning activities (this is not prescriptive, only a guideline).
The teacher provides the class with a demonstration or hands-on activity related to a topic to be explored.
The teacher allows sufficient time for students to explore/play with the materials or demonstration (this is the “mess-around” portion).
During this playtime, the teacher makes observations of basic vocabulary or explanations that can be built on later. Once the playtime is ended, the teacher will collect general observations from all of the students.
The teacher then has the students explain/describe those observations.
The teacher identifies concepts introduced by the students as they appear during student talk of their observations. Discipline-specific vocabulary can be attached to those emerging concepts as they are discussed.
As this process plays out, students will begin to ask questions for clarification and further development. At the same time, patterns within and between the observations will begin to emerge. The teacher should be on the lookout for these since they are the key to the development of more formal conceptual structures.
As students continue to elaborate on their observations, the idea of variables can be introduced and identified. Once students become more fluent in this skill, it is used as a tool in subsequent activities. The scientific outcomes of play can be quite significant and will make the play more efficient and focused.
The most important thing for the teacher to understand is that the process will be chaotic and “messy,” but that, if allowed to “play” out, the result will be a classroom of relaxed, fully engaged students developing strong, proudly owned scientific skills in investigation and experimentation.
Thanks to Frank, Cheryl, and Fred for their contributions!
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