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Response: Teaching Science By Asking Questions

(Note: This is the final post in a four-part series on teaching science. You can see Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here)

Two weeks ago I posed this question:

What is the best advice you would give to help an educator become better at teaching science?

I've been posting various guest responses in this four-part series, and invited readers to share their comments, too.

Part One appeared last Monday, and featured advice from Dr. Carl Wieman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. Linda Shore, director of the Exploratorium Teacher Institute, and high school science teacher Amy Lindahl offered their suggestions in Part Two. High school physics teacher Frank Noschese, middle school science teacher Paul Cancellieri, and Steve Spangler well-known teacher-trainer and creator of science multimedia tools all contributed to Part Three.

Today, in the final post of this series, middle school science teachers Marsha Ratzel and Paul Bruno share their responses and I also include comments from readers.

Response From Marsha Ratzel

An 18 year middle school teacher of math and science, Marsha Ratzel still loves the start of every school year. Her blog, which details classroom challenges and victories, can be found at Reflections of a Techie. Marsha also contributes to Middleweb:

First and foremost....for middle schoolers (and for many other levels I suspect) connecting what they're learning in science class to the real-world is essential. Use the world instead of simply using the textbook to study earthquakes, for example. Use something like Twitter to follow the real-time updates that are posted about the earthquakes that are happening around the world, 24/7. Help students to look for patterns of what's happening, help them map it and analyze it...and then connect it with what's said in the textbook. Use the world to ask the questions and the textbook to help answer them instead of using the textbook to frame what's happening. This kind of approach puts data and analysis first....and reading for answers second. But there is a place for marrying both.

Secondly, create a classroom where students not only work to answer the questions from the curriculum, from you as their teacher, but ALSO their own questions. Why not be more inclusive so that the things that they care about, related to what you're studying, can have an equal place in how you spend your time??? Sure you'll veer off topic a bit, but imagine how satisfying class can be when you can not only ask the question BUT learn to find your own answers. Wouldn't that be the best function of a teacher....to turn the learning over to students? Not all willy-nilly. But more as a refinement of what is happening in class.

And my last suggestion is this: I have been troubled by the decline in love of reading nonfiction that I've seen since we started down the No Child Left Behind road. Kids don't come into middle school loving nonfiction like they used to. So fight this trend. Fight to make nonfiction trade books a regular part of your class. Find the titles that are accessible, interesting and connected to what you're learning. It's hard because not many authors actually write for middle schoolers, but it's possible. In addition, include lots of other literacy sources....things like Science News for Kids and/or Earthweek. I think a rich, required supplemental reading program in science class is a must if we want our kids to find topics that they can be head-over-heels about. I used to make the kids read one outside source every month and then they led book chats about their book. Yes, it took up valuable time -- but how can that be a bad thing?

Response From Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is a middle school science teacher who began his career in Oakland and now works in Southern California. He also blogs occasionally at This Week in Education and can be found on Twitter @MrPABruno:

1) Knowing science is really important for being able to do science.
As science teachers it's easy for us to take for granted all of the scientific background knowledge that we bring with us to every class discussion or lab activity. All of this knowledge is a large part of why the class activities seem - and are - meaningful to us, but our kids won't necessarily have the same experience if they are not as knowledgeable.

So while it often seems appealing to let kids "do" science rather than "learn" science, that dichotomy is a false one. Yes, in some cases students can learn science by doing science - say, by practicing an investigation skill or by inductively discovering a scientific principle - it will also usually be true that students can gain more from an activity if they know more about the subject before they begin. Having more fluency with scientific facts will allow students to react to each other and to hands-on activities more rapidly and productively, and will give them a stronger foundation upon which to make meaning from new information and experiences.

2) Science can be interesting even if it's not "relevant".
There's nothing wrong with wanting students to make connections between classroom science and their own lives, but that's not absolutely necessary to get kids engaged. In fact, if you think about what makes science interesting to you you'll probably realize that much (most?) of the time it's not that the science applies to your life. Anybody who's ever been engrossed in a nature documentary can attest to the fact that sometimes science is interesting precisely because it's illuminating some part of the world you've never even thought about before.

So if you find yourself struggling to make some scientific content relevant to your students, it might be worth taking a step back and thinking about why else they might find it interesting. Is it surprising? Is there a good story behind that content's discovery? Can you make it light up, bubble, or smoke? If so, the science might be interesting enough in its own right.

Responses From Readers

Pat:

Hands on...lots of activities....lots of predictions (hypotheses)...and showing students that you do not always get the "right" answer or the answer you thought you were going to get.

Doug Lawslo:

You don't teach science, you experience science. The trick is to get your learners to experience it with you. The awe, the wonder, the grandeur that is the universe and everything in it; if that doesn't give you goosebumps, change careers.

Paul Anderson:

Science and science education are most effective when they revolve around a good question.

Rachel Green:

How can we better teach science? Inquiry, PBL and nature of science!

Peter Katsionis:

Science HAS to be hands on. Experiments & field trips create engagement. Science should encourage curiosity.

Josh:

We need to remember that science a process and not simply a book of facts. Teachers forget the process for the facts.

Mr. McCracken
:

Teach people, use science to reach them, connect & build relationship. Science will follow automatically!

Thanks to Marsha, Paul, and to many readers for taking the time to contribute their responses!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I'll be including reader responses in Thursday's post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

I'll post a new "question of the week" on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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