Written by Ted Willard and Nikki Snyder, authors of Discovery Education Science Techbook
Students must be active participants in their learning—asking questions, sharing their ideas, and engaging in substantive discussions with their classmates. But figuring out how to encourage students and drive that engagement isn’t always easy. For science educators, it’s essential to create and build a classroom culture where all students feel that their questions and their ideas matter, and also provide guidance in how to carry out productive conversations with their classmates.
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When creating a classroom culture that encourages productive discourse, it’s important to think about the different reasons for discussions that take place as students work their way through a unit. With science instruction, there are three key purposes for the discussion that students engage in:
When encountering a new phenomenon, the goal of a discussion is to give students a chance to share their thoughts about it. That may involve making observations, asking questions, and developing a model or an explanation of the phenomenon. In Discovery Education Science, this occurs with the presentation of an anchor phenomenon at the beginning of a unit but may also take place in a lesson later in the unit when students explore an investigative phenomenon. During these discussions, teachers should encourage students to share their ideas and not worry about the accuracy of those ideas. The time for accuracy will come later.
As students dig into their investigations, they’ll need to discuss how to conduct those investigations and what data they will collect. Sometimes this process of gathering information involves analyzing text and images rather than observing experimental data. During these discussions, teachers should guide students to focus on how they can accumulate as much information as possible from their investigations and how to sift through that information to find evidence that’s most relevant to their questions.
The final purpose for discussion lies in making sense of phenomena. Students should engage in constructive arguments with evidence as they work to refine their models and explanations. Teachers should focus students’ attention on identifying mechanisms in models as well as ensuring that explanations provide sufficient reasoning to connect claims to relevant evidence. Throughout the process, there should be an emphasis on clear communication of ideas.
Sometimes discussions involve the whole class with the teacher acting as a moderator, but students should also be involved in peer-to-peer discussions. Over time, students should gain greater facility in carrying out such discussions without any assistance from the teacher.
For student discourse to thrive, all students must feel comfortable in the classroom, and one of the most useful tools in creating a comfortable environment is setting norms for behavior. The following are particularly helpful in fostering a positive environment for meaningful discourse.
Most lists of norms build off the principle that all participants in the conversations should respect one another. That means that they should let each other speak, listen with an open mind, and provide feedback with good intentions. While ideas may be critiqued, individuals should not be.
Discourse is most successful when everyone can contribute. There are two essential aspects to making this happen. First, everyone needs to collectively ensure that the participants who are the loudest or most comfortable talking do not take over the conversation. In addition, each member of the classroom has a responsibility to pay attention and be prepared to share their ideas.
The final norm in this list involves everyone remembering that discourse is not a competition. The broad goal is for everyone to learn more about the universe, but individual discussions will have more narrowly defined goals. It is important that everyone know what the goal is and that they do their best to keep the discussion focused on that goal. Discovery Education Science frequently uses the Driving Question Board and “What Did You Figure Out Today?” activities as a common goal for discussion.
Productive student discussion breaks away from teacher-led conversation and gives students the room to make sense of scientific ideas with one another in a supportive setting. A whole-group discussion involves students using evidence and citing data to support their claims. Students listen to one another to understand each other’s thinking. These productive discussions reveal students’ understanding and help develop rich connections to scientific content, prior knowledge, and their everyday lives. In a classroom that fosters productive discussions, every student feels safe to share ideas, and effort is valued over ability. With well-established classroom norms, productive discussions lead to robust, evidence-supported explanations of scientific ideas.
The process of building classroom culture and getting students to engage in positive, relevant discourse takes time. Many students are not familiar with process, and they may be resistant at first. But the teachers who have made this shift report that, over time, students come to appreciate the opportunity to be heard in the classroom. Likewise, teachers appreciate increased—and more meaningful—participation from their students, which ultimately leads to deeper learning.
Ambitious Science Teaching, by Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, Melissa Braaten, © 2018, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA
Talk Science Primer, by Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor, © 2012 TERC, Cambridge MA
OpenSciEd Teacher Handbook, © 2020 OpenSciEd
O’Connor, C., Ruegg, E., and Cassell, C. (2017). Establishing Classroom Discussion Norms. Strategic Education ResearchPartnership (SERP), https://serpinstitute.org/.
Michaels, S. and O’Connor, C. (2014) Establishing Norms: Laying the Foundations for Academically Productive Talk. Next Generation Science Exemplar Program. ngsx.org