Reading & Writing in the Disciplines
Reading In Science
OBSERVATION, MEASUREMENT, AND DATA
The key scientific habits of mind—curiosity and skepticism—are focused on data, on obtaining it and understanding what it means. When scientists talk about evidence, they typically mean collections of data. To read science well, students need to understand some fundamentals about data, including its limits and shortcomings.
Science is concerned with observing and measuring natural phenomena—in some cases directly, and in other cases, resulting from the manipulations of the investigator in the field or in the lab. In practice, scientists will call nearly any measurement they make an experiment, even if they aren’t manipulating anything. As scientists read both text and graphics, they are constantly thinking about data and evidence.
Important aspects of scientific data and evidence include the following:
- Observations and qualitative descriptions. Qualitative observations are somewhat rare in the modern scientific literature, but do exist. For example, a research report might contain a description of animal behavior, or a chemist might record a color change and odor associated with a chemical reaction. There isn’t a way to do statistical analysis of observations without first making them quantitative. The most common source of error is misjudgment on the part of the observer. Repeated observations, careful notes, and technology to record and store observations are common ways to minimize errors.
- Counting categorical data. Some data collection involves counting without any measurement. The researcher must apply criteria for whether the observation fits in the category. For example, in counting the number of cars going past a school at different times of day to get a measure of traffic, the decision must be made on whether to include motorcycles. Many sophisticated research reports include counted data; for example, the number of particles emitted in a high-energy physics experiment or the number of mitochondria found in a cell. Statistical tests can be applied to counts, also called frequency data. Errors can be made in categorizing or in counting; the best way to mitigate this is to have a large sample size and more than one person counting.
- Quantitative measurements. Beyond simply counting, careful measurements are a typical aspect of many experiments. Physical dimensions of size and weight—and also things like energy produced, or speed—may be measured, and it is important to keep track of the unit of measure. Two important aspects of measurement are precision and accuracy. If a metric ruler is being used to measure length, the precision will be defined by the smallest increments marked on the ruler. Accuracy is a reflection of how consistently and effectively the ruler is being used as a measuring tool. If the researcher is sloppy and inconsistent, that will lead to inaccuracy. It is possible to use a high-precision tool in a very inaccurate way, and also to be highly accurate with a low-precision measuring tool.
- Defining and controlling variables. The classic laboratory experiment is designed to record how one thing changes (the dependent variable) in response to experimentally changing a single other factor (the independent variable) while attempting to keep all other factors constant. Designing a good experiment involves being able to incrementally alter the independent variable while making accurate and precise measurements of the dependent variable. Working scientists don’t use the terms dependent and independent variable in their research or in their writing. They are awkward terms and easily confused with one another; in practice. what’s being measured is obvious. Scientists are more concerned with what they call controls (see below).
- Comparison, controls, and sampling. Very accurate and precise measurements can be produced, but may be of limited value in drawing conclusions if a proper set of comparison or reference data hasn’t been identified. Reference or control information can come from published sources or from control experiments done by the researcher. For example, if a new fertilizer were being tested on plants, a typical control experiment would be to not treat half of an experimental field with the fertilizer in order to have a comparison for the half that did get the fertilizer.
Apply: If possible, work with one of your colleagues in mathematics to choose two or three data examples that would help introduce your students to data basics, including statistics. Invite your colleague to visit your class as a guest speaker, and treat the person like an outside expert. Students might interview the guest on his or her education and training and introduce the guest before the presentation. The goal is not to have a mini-course on statistics, but rather for students to think seriously about data analysis and to begin to see the important connection between math and science. You might choose real examples: perhaps a normal distribution, a histogram with error bars, or a scatter plot that is nearly linear.
READING TO UNDERSTAND EVIDENCE AND DRAW CONCLUSIONS
The goal of most scientific experiments is to determine cause and effect—to establish that one factor (variable) influences or determines another. By establishing cause and effect, insight into underlying mechanisms can be gained in a process that digs deeper and deeper into a problem. The process of breaking problems down into smaller problems to assemble highly detailed explanations is called reductionism. Since reductionism drives most of basic scientific research aimed at discovering new things, students need to become conversant with its goals and methods. However, it is helpful to remind them to periodically consider the broader meaning of the highly focused research. The presence of broader motivating questions and context can also help students who are lost in the weeds, or even bewildered by complex and narrowly focused scientific experiments.
Reflect: From an engineering perspective, it’s clear that you can explain how a hybrid car engine works by describing what each of the engine components do. In this case, the hybrid engine is the sum of its component parts. You can also examine the underlying physical and chemical principles that the hybrid engine is based on, such as the storage of electricity in a battery and the principles of combustion, compression, and friction. Consider asking your students to come up with examples of defining and studying the parts to understand the whole. Encourage diverse examples from medicine, ecology, chemistry, physics, and everyday engineering.
Most important scientific discoveries begin with establishing a correlation. But because correlations can be spurious and misleading, they get a bad rap. For example, data may reveal that the majority of speeding tickets go to cars that have license plates ending in an odd number; however, it is clearly unlikely that the odd number license is either causing the driver to speed or the police to issue the citation. The process of going from intriguing observation, to strong correlation while sifting out the bad correlations, to a good case for cause and effect can take a lot of research and generate many research papers. It would be misleading to leave students with the impression that correlations are negative or to be avoided. But it is good to help them see that correlations are not sufficient as scientific explanations of phenomena.
Reflect: Consider developing breast cancer as a case study in correlation and causality for your students. There are many reputable websites with good information and statistics on breast cancer. Breast cancer research features an exemplary mix of important correlations, established causality, and the benefits and limitations of reductionism. Some aspects to explore include: How many cases of breast cancer are reported each year among woman compared to men? How many cases of breast cancer appear sporadically in the population as opposed to appearing to run in the family? What findings have led to vastly improved diagnosis of breast cancer?
Video and Reflection: Watch Making Writing Explicit in Social Studies to see a 10th grade social studies teacher work with his students on writing about complex topics, to use language that explicitly cites evidence and signals cause and effect. You may want to take notes on the questions below.
- Before you watch: What words signal that you are drawing a scientific conclusion? What words or phrases signal the degree of confidence about data?
- Watch the video: As you watch, notice what methods is Mr. Lazar using to help students identify cause and effect. Does Mr. Lazar or his students ever talk about correlations rather than cause?
- Reflect: List the ways in which cause and effect considerations are similar and different in the realms of science and social studies.
Much of the reading that students have done in science has probably focused on what is known rather than evaluating and thinking about the evidence that supports a factual conclusion. Few students think about how facts make their way into textbooks.
Some strategies for focusing students on evidence include:
- Present students with a scientific problem or motivating question and put them on a fact-finding mission to provide context. After assembling some facts related to the problem, you can ask them where they think these facts came from and frame more specific questions in a whole-class discussion.
- Focus on a scientific question or problem and have students work in teams to assemble information from multiple sources, including graphs; tables of data; and text from textbooks, online sources, and research papers. Tell students that they are contributing pieces to a puzzle, but that you don’t actually know what the final picture looks like. Contributions from various teams will showcase various types of data and evidence about a topic. As pieces to the puzzle fall into place, you can keep asking where the gaps are in order to direct further inquiry.
- Have students choose a factual statement from their textbook. Then, through reasoning and research, have them come up with three kinds of data to support the statement.
- Pose leading questions for students to ask about the data they encounter, such as: Are the researchers measuring or counting? What are they comparing their data to? Do they have control experiments? How many experiments did they do? How many pieces of data do they have?
- Frequently ask students to succinctly state results from their reading.
Video and Reflection: Watch Tackling a Scientific Text to see how a 12th grade science teacher encourages her students to engage with dense scientific text. You may want to take notes on the questions below.
- Before you watch: Make a list of ways in which you might help students get started on a very hard to read text.
- Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Tran moves back and forth between individual and group work. What effect does setting time limits have on students?
- Reflect: Do you think the most important role of a teacher is to model literacy, or to be a coach when students are working on their own products?
The discipline of asking good questions is core to science and its discourse. A piece of science writing, whether a popular article, a section of a textbook, or a research report, always addresses an overarching bigger question and usually addresses a smaller specific research question. In turn, a specific research question can usually be broken down into subsidiary questions. Ironically, the bigger questions require less background to understand (for example, How does the brain work?) as opposed to the more subsidiary and specific question (What chemicals are involved in the exchange of information between neurons?). The former question is easy to understand, but might be hard to act on experimentally. The latter question depends on more prior knowledge to be understood but has moved toward a question that can be answered with an observation or experiment. Scientists keep track of the big questions but are always in pursuit of the smaller subsidiary questions that can actually be addressed experimentally and answered in rigorous ways.
As students read, they should form questions at several levels: about understanding the overall purpose of the research, more specific questions about the evidence being presented, and questions concerning their own understanding of what they are reading. They should also form questions that are stimulated by their reading, questions that they are personally curious about that may be only slightly related to the reading.
Video: Watch Annotating Across Disciplines to see how a 7th-grade science teacher uses learning how to use a microscope as an opportunity to engage students in scientific language, habits of close reading, and forming questions.
Reflect: Do you think students who learn to take notes well and to ask good questions are also likely to gain science content knowledge?
In general, the more you know, the better your questions will be. Thus, as students read more in science, their questions will become better informed. But if they are explicitly instructed to ask questions and develop the habit of recording their questions as they read, they will progress much faster and achieve a deeper level of science literacy. While keeping a journal or notebook is a good tool, the best place to record questions while reading is on the material itself, when possible. In the case of material like textbooks that students are not supposed to make marks on, post-its or simply inserted pieces of paper can be used. Many electronic formats support storing notes and highlights.
Useful questions when reading in science include:
- What is the bigger question being addressed?
- What is the specific research question or problem?
- What is the main finding reported in the research paper?
- Do the results presented answer the questions posed?
- Do the results yield insight into underlying mechanisms?
- Why are they doing this specific experiment and not another?
- Is this how I would have done the experiment?
- What is the next experiment that should be done?
- Could this experimental approach be adapted to study other things?
- What is completely clear to me about this research?
- What do I mostly understand about this research?
- What things do I really not understand at all?
- What do I need to learn about to understand this research better?
- How would I describe this research to another student?
- What does this research make me curious about?
These questions can also be useful when students are writing and reviewing their own lab experiments.
Reflect: Have a careful look at the preceding list of questions. Can you think of additional questions? Once you’ve added some questions, try categorizing the questions: data-focused questions, interpretation questions, or personal connection questions are examples.
UNDERSTANDING SEQUENCED METHODS AND PROCEDURES
Many science experiments involve complex laboratory procedures that must be done in the right order to work properly. Procedures and methods are an important part of scientific research reports because they provide detail on exactly how the data were obtained and allow other scientists to replicate the results. Students also have to follow carefully sequenced directions to do their own lab work. Like so many things, following a detailed, even tedious set of directions is easier to do the more you know. Because of time constraints, there is understandable pressure to just get students to follow the directions and achieve the intended results for an experiment. However, it is much better for students to understand why they are doing certain procedures and why doing them in order matters. If they understand why they are doing something, they are more likely to retain what they’ve learned and be able to apply the principle in another context. Sequenced procedures are another opportunity for inquiry, for peer interactions, and to build vocabulary.
Video and Reflection: Watch Making Observations Like a Scientist to see how a 7th-grade science teacher stimulates students to ask questions while learning technical vocabulary and carefully following sequenced instructions. You may want to take notes on the questions below.
- Before you watch: Think about the ways in which following a lab procedure is similar and different from following a cooking recipe.
- Watch the video: As you watch, think about the importance for students to generate their own questions. What is the effect of hands-on experience on developing literacy skills?
SPECIFIC READING STRATEGIES
Questioning the Textbook
Textbooks are imperfect but useful sources of scientific information and can be used as an inquiry tool for developing literacy skills. Consider some of the following strategies:
- Have students read an entire chapter section—one of the major headings in the textbook. Ask them to list as many questions as they can as they read. Steer them toward questions about what is known and how it’s known rather than questions like, What does this word mean?
- To develop students’ ability to think more conceptually, have them focus on the table of contents and write down broad themes or big ideas that they see.
- Have students use the index to read passages out of order in the textbook to build an understanding of vocabulary and concepts in different contexts.
- When assigning textbook reading, ask students to briefly describe an experiment that they think should be done that relates to the material they read.
- For an independent research project, have students research a textbook topic in more depth and prepare a short paper or a slideshow that includes background information, a statement of the problem or question, and experiments and data that address the problem.
- Have students do close reading on the same topic in two different textbooks to compare and contrast the content presented and the conclusions emphasized.
- Select a graphic from the textbook and have students write a paragraph that explains the graphic. Alternatively, have them describe the experiment(s) that were likely done to generate the information in the graphic.
In general textbooks have enough richness of text complexity to be useful for honing students’ skills at interpreting various elements of more complicated text. The following interactive activity is designed to focus in particular on graphic elements.
Representing Different Styles of Data Activity
You will now complete an interactive activity that explores how to interpret different styles of representing data. This activity focuses on data related to the thinning ozone layer. First, some background:
Ozone is a form of oxygen found in trace amounts in Earth’s atmosphere. The oxygen we breathe is a gas consisting of paired oxygen molecules. In contrast, ozone is a gas of triplet oxygen molecules and is toxic for us to breathe. But in the upper atmosphere, a very thin layer of ozone turns out to be important for life on Earth in providing a protective filter for damaging UV radiation from the sun. Without the thin ozone layer of the upper atmosphere, most of the life on the surface of our planet would be destroyed.
Starting in the 1970s, concerns arose about whether our extensive use of CFCs might be harming our planet’s protective ozone layer. CFCs are a class of chemical compounds that contain chlorine, fluorine, and carbon, and they were used extensively in aerosol products like hairspray and deodorant and as a coolant in refrigerators. A team of researchers, led by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, established that CFCs could destroy ozone. Different research teams looked for and found evidence that the ozone layer was actually being damaged.
The graphs in this activity represent two key pieces of evidence that helped convince politicians and the public that CFCs should be banned in order to save the ozone layer. By international agreement, the ban started in 1990; today, the ozone layer has begun to recover. Click here to begin.
Reflect: Even though science emphasizes conciseness, researchers often choose more than one way of presenting data because of individual differences in how people absorb information from graphics. Can you think of other examples in which showing the same data in more than one way is helpful or important? In this activity, which graphic was easier to read and most informative and why do you think that?
Science in the News
News reporting on science is a mixed bag, from sloppy and sensationalistic to high-quality science news and in-depth coverage. It would be useful to make a list of resources for your students, ranging from local newspaper to national papers, television and radio, and magazines in print and online. Consider having students subscribe to newsfeeds on specific topics relating to science. Students might keep a journal on what they hear about science in the media, contribute to a class wiki, or make entries in a shared online document.
Even some of the highest-quality science reporting tends to emphasize a scientific “discovery” or “breakthrough” without providing adequate context and background on the research. Rarely does science reporting emphasize how the experiments were actually done to produce the new information or insight. Direct students to critique the reporting and offer their opinion on whether it’s effective science communication. Guiding questions might include: What background do you need to know to really understand this piece of science news? Was adequate context provided to understand the meaning and importance of the finding? Did the reporter explain how this new finding was an advancement of what was previously known? Did the report adequately identify data and differentiate it from an interpretation of data?
Graphic Organizers and Concept Maps
Graphic organizers, including concept maps, can be useful tools in both reading and writing: they can be used to get students started and keep them organized, as a foundation for close reading, to encourage the development of better questions, and to see the relationships between the various parts of good writing.
A graphic organizer can be very simple—even just a standard sheet of paper, with a title line on top, that is divided into four squares, one for each of the four parts of a scientific abstract (see the video Reading and Writing Scientific Abstracts). Simple organizing rubrics function like checklists to help students develop literacy habits and see how the pieces of the literacy puzzle fit together. Ultimately, the goal is to wean students away from using the organizers; however, there isn’t a real downside for students who want to continue to use them. Organizers can be useful and familiar tools to return to throughout the course.
Concept maps are a type of graphic organizer that resembles flowcharts and other devices used to map out complex processes or relationships in business, industrial production, or government agencies. There are highly entertaining relational maps on the history of rock and roll, for example.
Concept maps and hierarchical flowcharts can be used in numerous ways:
- To explore an unfamiliar information space. In brainstorming mode, you can name a topic, such as “rocket science,” and just have students come to the board and start putting things in boxes. The boxes might contain things like fuel, gravity, Newton’s laws, NASA, missile defense, and space exploration. As the activity progresses, you and the students can start drawing lines between boxes to delineate relationships. Ultimately, you might start rearranging boxes. The main point is to get students to start thinking and inquiring on their own and appreciate that most topics are not as cut and dried as the textbook would indicate.
- Concept maps can also be used in a much more directed mode and for individual work. For example, you can have students develop a concept map while they read, and have them modify it after they have read. Then, ask them to briefly write about why the maps are different.
A concept map activity could focus on placing the steps of an experimental procedure in order or on parsing out causes, effects, and correlations.
Organizing Ideas from Multiple Sources
Video and Reflection: Watch Organizing Ideas from Multiple Sources to see how a 7th-grade science teacher has students create graphic organizers to handle various types of text, organize their use of evidence and reasoning to support claims, and lead them to generate questions. You may want to take notes on the questions below.
- Before you watch: How can graphic organizers help students develop literacy skills? In your own practice, what works best to get students to ask their own questions?
- Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Gilbert emphasizes the inquiry cycle in science and helps students broaden their concept of what a text is.
- Apply: Design, or find online, two different types of graphic organizers to help students organize their reading and writing.
Intertextual Reading and Literature Approach
Scientific research reports are dense and intimidating to read, often even for scientists. Textbooks may be more approachable, but also tend to be dry and dense. One way to help make science ideas and content more accessible and engaging to students is to focus on a given topic through reading diverse styles of writing and even viewing videos. For example, the topic could be photosynthesis, or robots, or artificial organs, for which there is a wealth of information from various perspectives and disciplines. You could provide different texts on the topic and related subtopics as well as have students find some on their own. Aim to have a diversity of texts, both expository and narrative, for example: videos, science fiction stories, informational website, magazines, and online course material. A major goal of this approach is to encourage discourse and to enable students to see how even when certain facts may be agreed on in science, there is a lot of room for differing interests and points of view as well as lots of ideas about how to apply scientific information.
Problem Solving and Detective Work
Most people enjoy a detective story; clearly, there can be detective work in solving scientific problems. Current curriculum standards, including NCSS and NGSS, support using examples that students perceive as being relevant to their lives and having real-world meaning, thus motivating them to inquire more deeply. Consider giving students problems in their school, community, or state or region that they can investigate. The best problems would allow teams of students to do some real on-the-ground detective work as well as literature research, and to pull in some science knowledge from textbooks and other sources. Projects might involve looking at food waste in the school cafeteria, or trying to figure out why some rooms in the school are so hot and others too cold, or how quickly a solar array on the school roof might pay for itself. You might prepare data and information on the topics and problems in advance, or have the students do that independently. Most of these problems will relate to bigger questions; for example, food waste can lead to all sorts of questions about food production, nutrition, resource allocation and health, and environment issues. Detective work on the temperature of various rooms in the school could lead to questions about air flow, circulation, and how HVAC systems work in commercial buildings; what the health codes are; what the energy costs are, and about various engineering and environmental considerations. Exploring the possibility of a solar array for the school can be an entry into the engineering and efficiency of such systems, or economic considerations, such as capital costs, maintenance costs, tax incentives, and technology life cycle considerations.
However you organize independent projects, they are valuable ways for students to learn to read independently, evaluate sources of information, have peer interactions, and analyze and present evidence and conclusions. One of the best ways for students to present their project is to make a poster, which can then be presented in gallery walks, as opposed to multimedia slide presentations that take a lot of class time to present.
Building Scientific Vocabulary
The overview of this course on disciplinary literacy presents a three-tier model for the types of vocabulary students will encounter in disciplinary reading (see Unit 3: Reading: Big Ideas). In the case of science, it may be useful to designate two types of discipline-specific words in Tier 3. One category would be for words that have a common meaning and use in English as well as a highly specified technical meaning in science. The second category would be for words that only have a highly technical meaning in science and no common English usage.
Each category has its challenge in teaching. Words that have no common English usage can seem strange and, therefore, hard to pronounce and remember how to spell; however, once the terms are understood, they are less likely to be confused with another word. For example, the word “mitosis,” which relates to the process of cell division, doesn’t have any usage outside of biology. Words that have both a common meaning and technical meaning might actually be more challenging for some students, since the common English meaning of the word may confuse their ability to fully understand or remember the scientific meaning of the word. For example, the word “significance” is a fairly common word that means something “that matters” or is “important” or has “particular meaning.” In science and math, “significance” has several very specific meanings only distantly related to the common English, as in “significant figures” and “statistically significant.” The word “plasma” is an interesting example: its more familiar usage is in biology, as it applies to a component of blood; however, in physics, it applies to a fourth state of matter, and there really is no common language use of the word. Some science terms, such as “DNA,” move from a purely scientific meaning into the common vernacular, which typically obscures their original scientific meaning. The key for students to acquire vocabulary is to use the word themselves in sentences, to label graphics, and in speech.
Many scientific terms have Latin or Greek roots. In addition, German was for a time the language of science, and many science terms have a German origin. Pointing out these roots can be a useful mnemonic exercise and a way to get students to think about words rather than simply trying to memorize them. However, it is highly unlikely that a reader can derive the scientific meaning of words from the Latin, Greek, or German origins.
Vocabulary is so fundamental to science literacy that it is worth dedicating class time to and designing specific activities for building, reinforcing, and elaborating scientific vocabulary. A class vocabulary list, potentially organized by topic or unit under study, is a useful tool. Not only should the list be shared online, but devoting a wall of the classroom to vocabulary is also valuable. A particular advantage to having vocabulary words on posters on the wall is that meanings and nuances and examples can be added as student understanding and appreciation of the word develop. The word can be pointed out when it comes up in discussion, writing, or reading. Lists can be put away, rotated and changed, and then revisited for review.
Learning Vocabulary in Biology
Video: Watch Learning Vocabulary in Biology to see how a 10th grade biology teacher makes learning new vocabulary and complex processes engaging by using a fictional narrative and a variety of structured peer interactions.
Reflect: Do you think fictional narratives might be more effective for learning scientific content if interpreting “clues,” for example, requires scientific understanding?
Self-assessment is an important aspect of student learning. Scientists themselves try to be completely objective about what they know and don’t know. A checklist to accompany readings can be a simple tool for getting students to think about their own level of reading comprehension. The checklist might ask them to rate each paragraph they read on a comprehension scale. By reviewing the class scores, you can identify problematic passages and then spend class time discussing them or having students engage in focused close reading. You might have students who said they understood the paragraph present their understanding to the whole class. In general, the goal is for students to use their own ratings to revisit and improve their understanding of paragraphs that gave them trouble. That said, these checklists can also be used for individualized attention, including individual student conferences. More complicated checklists may also be used to dissect problematic paragraphs using a rubric that categorizes the challenges by vocabulary, sentence structure, graphic/data component, or conceptual understanding.
Teachers understand the student composition and diversity of their classes better than anyone. Class time is limited and precious; it is best used for peer interaction, teamwork, and discussions that can’t take place at any other time. Some peer interactions, and even some of your modeling or lecturing, can be moved online. However, there is also clearly a place for whole-class instruction during class time. During whole-class instruction, you might briefly read passages aloud so that students can hear what fluent reading and the pronunciation of unfamiliar words sound like; it also gives you the opportunity to emphasize and analyze particular vocabulary, sentences, and segments. You can model close reading of passages with the goal of students following a release of responsibility model as they produce a product based on your model (with guidance), then work on a passage with peers, and finally work on a passage on their own. In practice, students are probably most engaged when whole-class, group, and individual work are combined, and where peers and instructor provide feedback and participate in genuine discussion.
Blended Learning and Flipping the Classroom
Blended learning and flipping the classroom have each become full-fledged educational movements with strong adherents, moderate practitioners, and even opponents. Blended learning emphasizes combining online and in-person instruction, primarily to provide students with components of self-directed and self-paced learning. Flipping the classroom also advocates a mix of online and in-class instruction, but the emphasis is not necessarily on self-direction and pacing. The main focus of flipping the classroom is to use lecture videos and multimedia to deliver content as homework, saving class time for peer interactions, discussion, and teamwork. Both blended and flipped modes of instruction can be used very effectively for inquiry-based literacy instruction.
The standard sections of a lab report—abstract, background, purpose, results, and conclusions—relate to the activities of an actual lab experiment. For students to effectively read, understand, and critique research reports, they must have experience collecting and analyzing data. It is even better if they can play a role in planning experiments and read about the larger context and meaning of experiments. While it is necessary to be methodical in sequencing and doing experiments and in carefully and consistently documenting results, you could consider more flexibility in how students report their findings. You could also encourage them to question aspects of the scientific method as presented in most textbooks and lab manuals. For example, what is the value of formulating a hypothesis? Do you always need a testable statement, or might a rigorous question suffice in some cases? It’s also worth noting that the conceptual rigor that goes into designing and executing lab experiments also applies to field research, where nature may provide the equivalent of a manipulation, and in clinical research, where you may not have the advantages of the controlled lab setting.
Explore: Examine the How Science Works [JPG] flowchart and think about how the scientific method as taught in schools compares to how researchers actually conduct science.
Field trips are an opportunity to enrich and reinforce the curriculum. Because a field trip is often not directly in synch with classroom instruction, it can expand a perspective on what’s been explicitly covered in the course, moving students from a more narrow perspective to big ideas. Field trips can also help broaden student literacy: they “read” the experience by listening to guides and looking at exhibits and other aspects of a visit; they can also hone note taking and reporting skills. In general, students will get more out of a field trip the better and more explicitly they prepare for the experience with readings, videos, or even a preview discussion about what to expect. Students are also likely to get more out of the experience if they are given some materials to help organize their visit, giving them a purpose as well as a structure and goals for their time. During the field trip, teachers can curate and mentor the experience in a setting that may be more relaxed but more energized than just another day in class.
Collaborative Learning Groups
Probably the best use of student group or team time is in developing project plans, comparing individual results, discussing interpretations, and critiquing each other’s writing. One-on-one as well as larger group interactions are useful. In one-on-one situations, even the most retiring individuals are encouraged to interact. In some cases, reading aloud might be used to break the ice and get conversations started. Peer feedback can be invaluable and have a very different influence on a student compared to instructor feedback. Students of course must understand the norms of polite discourse and constructive feedback.
Video and Reflection: Watch Creating Opportunities for Mathematical Discourse to see how a 12th-grade mathematics teacher asks students to choose a problem to solve, facilitates group work, and has them generate posters and video as a collaborative work product. You may want to take notes on the questions below.
- Before you watch: What do you do to ensure that each individual in a team contributes? Can groups work on solving shorter problems as well as long-term projects?
- Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Langer handles groups working at various speeds and how she responds to student questions, but without providing direct answers.
- Apply: Make a list of science readings that teams of students could tackle in a single class period.
An important goal of instruction, particularly in literacy, is to help students become independent and lifelong learners. Students need to be reading outside of class; however, it can be a good use of class time to have brief sessions of short readings so that you can see how students are doing and provide some immediate feedback and discussion on the reading. The individual reading sessions can be followed with peer or whole-class discussion, when the readings are still very fresh.
Mini-lessons are a useful tool for introducing or reinforcing concepts related to content or literacy practices. Mini-lessons are based on formative assessment and, depending on the purpose, can be pre-planned or more spontaneous. They can be useful in many ways; however, a lot of class time shouldn’t be spent on delivering lectures. You need to know how spontaneous you can be and whether you want to have several set mini-lesson flavors, and then be prepared if you determine you need mini-lessons to support particular content or class activities. Because you may be interrupting activities or peer interactions to deliver a short lesson, it is of the utmost importance that your students understand what the format is. A typical example would be hearing the same question over and over during small group work and deciding to engage the entire class for a short presentation and discussion. To maximize the benefit of mini-lessons, keep them brief—on the order of 5 minutes—and highly focused.