High School Students Thinking Like Scientists
There’s a famous scene in the comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that captures the essence of bad high school teaching. A teacher delivers a droning lecture to students who sit in bored silence. Periodically, the teacher attempts to engage the class with a “question” along the lines of “In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the … Anyone? Anyone? … the Great Depression … passed the … Anyone? Anyone? … the tariff bill, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act.”
Even the best high school teachers occasionally resort to answering their own questions. Or dumbing down the questions to guarantee that one or two students will speak up. Generating classroom discussions with high school students can be arduous work, requiring both careful planning and quick thinking. EDC’s Center for Science Education has developed an online course focused on helping teachers pose questions and manage classroom discussions that are both more engaging for students and more scientific in substance.
The course, called High School Students Thinking Like Scientists, has been offered twice to more than 40 high school teachers across the country. Taking place over seven weeks, the course gives teachers the opportunity to use their existing classes as laboratories where they can immediately test out and report back on new techniques. For many teachers—including many veteran teachers—the experience has been eye-opening, according to Joseph Flynn, one of the course designers.
“It’s amazing to watch what can happen when teachers try something different,” says Flynn. “We heard a nearly universal reaction from all the teachers in the course: They had never heard the kids talk so much—and they’re dying for kids to talk. They hadn’t realized that when they ask questions, they are usually looking for yes or no answers—they aren’t inviting the kids to talk. When teachers opened up the discussion, they were flabbergasted at the amount of thinking these students were doing, and the extent to which students were open to sharing ideas.”
The course features readings on science curriculum and standards, teaching strategies, and adolescent cognitive development. Teachers read and discuss the materials online and then work at incorporating “inquiry science” techniques into their typical lesson plans on topics like chemical reactions, algae, and gravity. In their postings to the course, teachers provide a window into high school science classrooms and the process of changing teaching practices.
Providing an Initial Context
Many of the readings in the course stressed the critical role that context plays for adolescent learners; high school students are particularly concerned with the relevance of what they are learning. Course facilitators encourage teachers to take a fresh look at the lessons and labs they are teaching during the course and create opening questions to frame the activity. Those initial prompts range from science issues in the news to framing questions designed to put the scientific ideas in a broader context. An Iowa teacher, for example, frames each lab as a problem to be solved and engages students in a beginning brainstorming session:
I think a lab with good context creates the environment for the students to think about solving a problem or, in the case of this lab, they actually have several problems to solve. In my experience, it is the problem that drives the inquiry as the focus of the activity. The discussion between the students ranges from bizarre ideas to practical, measurable experimentation. I have never been in a research lab working with scientists but I would expect the students’ brainstorming session would mirror that of a team of scientists beginning [to work on] a new problem.
A teacher from Idaho talked about how she shifted her usual introduction to a unit on volcanoes from a lecture format to a series of guided questions:
I did not rewrite any of the lessons at this point, just taught them differently… . My previous lectures were fact-based, with lots of slides and colorful overheads and labs to reinforce content. This time I started the unit by asking students why volcanoes erupt. I wanted to have an overriding context for the entire unit. We brainstormed and developed questions we wanted to explore. Instead of going through my nice orderly unit, I pulled the information and activities that addressed the questions. I still included a station lab that looks at different types of lava, but instead of giving structured questions to answer as they completed the lab, it was set up as a series of clues to help them discover why some volcanoes erupt explosively and others do not. We still covered all the benchmarks required by my district and met the content suggested in the standards.
One teacher from Florida shared a successful strategy she uses to build discussions around student presentations and current events in her ninth grade biology class:
All students are required to submit a current event to the class for discussion and they are graded on their ability to get everyone involved. The current event must relate to science and be no more than one week old. They are to summarize the event and include visuals, then prompt the class for questions. If the class does not respond, they should bring questions and answers of their own to try and get a discussion going. Even then, I may need to intervene with a [provocative] opinion to get them going. These discussions are a highlight of the week, and students usually look forward to them. An example from last week was an article on the link between obesity and watching television. Students were immediately interested and had opinions that the presenter polled and then allowed questions and comments. The discussion lasted twenty minutes and evolved into a debate over nature vs. nurture regarding weight gain. This is a ninth grade biology class, and the discussion was a learning experience for all. By doing these current events throughout the year, I find students better able to conduct a class discussion without it becoming a free-for-all.
In addition to changing the nature of teacher-student conversation, the course designers also sought to change the quantity and quality of student-to-student conversation. Several teachers were surprised and pleased to see that when they turned questions over to the class, the students readily took up the challenge. A teacher from Iowa commented:
What I found most interesting was not their responses to me when I questioned them on aspects of their procedure but the questions they were asking each other while designing the procedure. I think they ask harder questions of each other than I do because they don’t expect anyone in the team to be able to answer the question—whereas my questions get limited in their scope as I hope one or more of the students will be able to respond and answer.
A teacher from Michigan also noted the vigor of student-to-student inquiries in her classroom:
We were discussing algae and how they reproduce (for you non-bio people, they reproduce with both spores and gametes). Tiffany raised her hand and asked, “Which came first, the spore or the gamete?” Before I took this class I probably would have said, “Gee…I don’t know,” and moved on. I turned it over to the class, and we had a very interesting discussion on what they thought. They shared many ideas and explanations for their idea. I just kept asking, asking, asking!!!
As part of the process of helping students think like scientists, the end of the lesson is perhaps more important than the beginning. The course encouraged teachers to make time for explicit reflection and debriefing to draw out the scientific content and reiterate the relevance of the activity. Debriefing a lab was a new technique for several participants, including this teacher from Florida:
I often just end my labs with students turning in their completed lab reports. They have opportunities to work together and discuss in lab, but we do not come back together as a class for debriefing. The closest we have gotten to this would be during flame testing. Students are given several known elements to view the flame test colors and then they are given an unknown to view and research in the literature. No one knows the identity of the unknown for one week while they complete their analysis and defense of the element’s identity. It was interesting that the class split on two elements and defended their positions emphatically. I did not fully realize the value of this experience until reading about it this week. Adequate planning for these discussions will help transform these informal and random occurrences into true debriefing sessions.
Ultimately, Flynn believes, changes in teaching practices will produce important consequences for students—in terms of their social development as well as their science education. “It’s extremely relevant to science education to get students thinking very hard about the evidence that supports their conclusion—and then to publicly defend it in class,” says Flynn. “That process opens them up to the judgment of their peers and helps them build confidence and learn not to be thrown by that. If they can exchange views and make changes and not feel threatened by that, they begin to see themselves working the way adult scientists work—the way they collaborate and expose their thinking to the scrutiny of peers. That’s all part of science.”