Stepping Back: 7 Ideas to Transform Student Science Discussions

“The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.”

stem-blog-121317There is little point in covering material if students don’t have the time to process and internalize it. We need to stop trying to fill students’ brains with so much information and focus on depth over breadth.

Now that we have Google, there is a plethora of information right at our fingers. We don’t need to store random facts in our heads. Carving out time for students to make sense of and apply those facts to new situations will have a much stronger return on investment in the long run.

Not only should teachers NOT be the ones articulating the science content to students (as this only serves to deepen the teachers’ understanding), but they should NOT be the only ones evaluating students’ ideas.

Put the onus on the kids!

Have students verbalize the connections between the reading/lab/activity they just engaged in and the science phenomenon they’re working to explain (or engineering problem they’re working to solve). Have students discuss the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence their peers are using to justify their claims. Rich learning grows from this type of talk.

In my observations of dozens of science classrooms both within and outside our network, these seven strategies or actions are nearly always evident in highly effective whole-class discussions. 

  1. Establishing Discussion Norms: Have STUDENTS set them, revisit them as needed, and own them. For example, show students a news clip of an unfruitful discussion (e.g., where politicians from opposing parties are talking over one another in order to get their point across) and have them critique it and name the ways the participants can make the discussion productive. Ms. Rogers from Howe School of Excellence created the charts below to help her students to Talk Like a Scientist (click to enlarge).
  2. Asking the right focus questions: This often makes or breaks the discussion. Post them on the board to ground the discussion. Look for areas of  divergence in student thinking. Pose questions that require students to apply evidence they’ve been gathering through investigations and readings. Ask students to make connections between a specific learning activity and a larger phenomenon they’re trying to explain (e.g., What did you observe in the investigation? Why do you think that happened/what science ideas are involved? How do you think this helps us explain the phenomenon we’ve been studying?). Craft meaty “how” and “why” questions that don’t have an immediately obvious answer.
  3. Facilitating Sharing of Evidence: Ensure sources of evidence from learning activities are accessible for students to draw on during discussions. Have the class follow along on their own reading, graph, table, etc. when their peers reference a quote or piece of data, or project the image for all to see. Encourage students to get up and show the class what they’re talking about (point to a part of a displayed image, pick up materials used in their investigations to illustrate their idea, draw a diagram, etc.). Visuals are important. This is what active learning looks like!
  4. Providing Sentence Stems: Introduce sentence stems to support students in engaging in scientific discourse (e.g., My claim is… My evidence is…. This data is relevant because…). Refine this list of stems over time–remove stems that students have adopted into their repertoire and add new ones to further the discussion.
  5. Offering Both Feedback and Praise: Provide students with digestible, incremental feedback on their discussions and ensure they have the opportunity to immediately try it out. Waiting until the next class to practice feedback is too late. Praise students when they try to implement the feedback. Students are often reluctant to share a divergent idea or an idea they don’t feel they’ve fully fleshed out. To establish a classroom culture where students feel safe to do so, it’s crucial to make a point of praising students who are brave enough to work out their thinking aloud or state when they are confused. As students learn the qualities of good discussions, encourage self-reflection and evaluation of their own discussions around these criteria. Turn over the role of facilitator to your students. Have them begin to follow your lead (e.g., prompt students to start giving a shout out to peers who push themselves out of their comfort zone).
  6. Getting (Mostly) Out of the Way:
    Tarkington's Sheri Roney (far left) listens as her students lead a whole-class discussion about sound waves. Note how Sheri still appears engaged in the discussion even as she sits well away from the circle.

    Tarkington’s Sheri Roney (far left) listens as her students lead a whole-class discussion about sound waves. Note how Sheri still appears engaged in the discussion even as she sits well away from the circle.

    You MUST take yourself out of the discussion and give students the space to speak directly to one another. Students have been trained over years of schooling to talk and look to the teacher to evaluate their ideas as right/wrong. You will have to undo this habit and train students to look to their peers as sources of knowledge. You may need to hide your eyes or turn your back so they talk directly to peers, or physically move yourself out of sight until students get comfortable talking to one another. That said, the teacher still has an important and active role to play. The teacher’s job is to listen carefully and figure out the most high-impact feedback to provide, question to pose, or idea to focus the conversation on when you do, periodically, step in.

  7. Patience: Developing a classroom culture where students feel safe being wrong takes time. It also takes time for the teacher to learn how to give effective feedback and to pose effective questions. However, I promise it is worth every minute of your investment!

Watch some of these strategies in this powerful video of Ms. Roney’s science class at Tarkington School of Excellence and consider how her strategies might be implemented at the grade level you teach.

Interested in reading more about scientific discourse? Check out this past blog:

Talking the Talk: Tips for Engaging Your Students in Scientific Discourse

Do you have other high-impact strategies for whole-class discussion that I forgot?

Share them in the comments below!

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