Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Case Studies in Science Education

Audrey, Year Two — Grade 7

Teacher Profile

Name Audrey
Experience 14 years
Grade & Subject Grade 7 science
Classroom Middle school in an inner city setting
Demographics 5 classes; 150 students, total; 90% African-American and Hispanic
Science Teaching 5 meetings per week
Curriculum Developed by teacher
Other First year teaching seventh-grade science


Module 1 -- Introducing the Case

Audrey has polled her class and discovered that what students most want to learn about in science is the human body. Building on this motivational topic, Audrey develops a unit that explores the human muscular and skeletal, circulatory, and digestive systems. At the end of the unit, Audrey encourages her students to provide evidence of their understandings by explaining the reasons for their answers to questions. Convinced that students could do more to explain their reasoning, Audrey uses interactive questioning techniques to draw explanations from students.

At the heart of Audrey's science teaching and learning is her desire for students to feel good about themselves and, in turn, to feel confident that they can learn. One manifestation of this is her introduction of the Latin names for the skeletal system. Audrey hopes to connect activities that build students' self-esteem along with their reasoning skills as a way for them to become more confident critical thinkers.

Skeletal System Activity

After studying the human skeletal system, students construct drawings of the system on cardboard templates, then name each bone, using both common and Latin terms.

Discussion Questions

In the human body unit, what opportunities, if any, provide students with opportunites to think critically? What does "think critically" mean to you?

What does it mean to think critically in science?

From start to finish, how do you think opportunities for critical thinking can be built into a unit of study in science?

Module 2 -- Trying New Ideas

Audrey meets with Jeff Winokur, a science educator at Wheelock College. Together they discuss the four phases of one version of the learning cycle and how critical thinking can be integrated with these phases. Audrey will use this model with her class as a way of developing students' critical thinking skills.

At the beginning of the physics unit on structures, Audrey elicits from her students what they already know about structures as a way of beginning Phase One, Getting Started. During a walk around the nearby community, Audrey engages in interactive questioning as a way of helping students connect with their prior understandings. In this phase, Audrey's invitation for students to think critically is not constrained by the experiences students have shared, but rather, is drawn from their own diverse backgrounds.

To launch the next phase, Exploring and Discovering, Audrey challenges students to build the tallest, strongest structure they can by using plastic straws and paper clips. Audrey sees her role as a keen observer of what is happening during this phase; she asks questions that derive from students' hands-on experiences to help students build and explain their understandings.

Structure Activity

Groups of students are challenged to build the tallest and strongest structure they can, using plastic straws and paper clips. Later, students test the strength of each structure by dropping coins into a paper cup suspended from the structure until it collapses.

Discussion Questions

What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Audrey's approach for engaging students in critical thinking during Phase One (Getting Started) of the structures unit? During Phase Two (Exploring and Discovering)?

What do you consider to be the essential aspects of the teacher's role in fostering critical thinking? Of the student's role?

Once students have had preliminary experiences within a unit of study, how do you think these experiences can be built upon to further critical thinking?

Module 3 -- Reflecting and Building on Change

The third phase of the model, Processing for Meaning, is implemented by means of a bridge-building project. First the whole class reviews some of the physics terms and their meanings. By being asked to build the strongest bridges, students are called upon to make meaning of what they have learned from previous activities with structures and apply that meaning to construct another structure.

During the fourth phase, Elaborating Upon Ideas, students are engaged in building the tallest, strongest structures they can by using their own choice of household materials. Audrey helps students by guiding them through an organizational period wherein she elicits students' ideas about materials and reviews what students already know about what makes structures tall and strong. Upon completion of the project, Audrey is pleased with the extent to which students have taken previous learning experiences, reflected upon them, and applied them to the project at hand.

Free Form Structure Project

Groups of students bring to class materials such as cardboard, craft sticks, and connecting blocks, which are used for constructing the tallest, strongest structure possible. After a period where groups of students work independently to build their structures, they explain the structure design to the full class and test the strength of the structure by adding weight.

Discussion Questions

What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Audrey's approach to engaging students in critical thinking during Phase Three, Processing for Meaning? During Phase Four, Elaborating Upon Ideas?

In your experience, what are the greatest challenges in engaging students in critical thinking as a part of science? How might teachers overcome these challenges?

Which aspects of this learning cycle model do you find most useful with regard to fostering critical thinking? Which aspects are least useful? Why?


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