Claire Bove, Carnegie Scholar - CASTL K-12 Program, Carnegie Foundation

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Science discourse


When I was an undergrad studying molecular and cell biology, I worked in a cell biology research lab.   There were eight of us in the lab: the professor who was the head of the lab, two post-docs, four grad students, a tech, and me.    I was the most junior member of the lab and I was using the electron microscope to do an investigation of cell division in diatoms.  

One of the most interesting parts of the job was going to the weekly lab meetings.   Each week, one of us would present our work.   The point of the meetings were, first, to help each other with our investigations, all of which were related to each other, and second, to practice presenting.   Sometimes a conference was coming up, and the person presenting at the lab meeting would be practicing a talk he or she was going to give at the conference.   The other members of the lab would pretend to be the audience, and they would ask, "Do you want easy questions or a hard questions?   How tough an audience do you want us to be?"  

The main difference between the talk at these lab meetings and the talk in a science classroom was that no one in the lab knew the answers to the questions we were asking.   Some of the people in the group had more knowledge and more experience than others.   But the point of the discussion was for all of us to collectively find the answers to the questions we were working on.   The point was not for the professor to teach us things, although that often happened.  

It is hard to have this kind of genuine discussion in a middle school classroom.   One of the reasons is that the teacher usually does know the answer to the question the students are working on.    And, because the teacher does know the answer, students are used to trying to figure out what the teacher thinks the answer is.

To change this classroom dynamic, and to get students to try and figure out what they themselves think the answer is, I try to frame classroom discussions so that I ask about students' experience of, and opinions about, the things we are studying.   For example, to bring in their own experience, I ask them if they have ever felt an earthquake, and what happened when they did.   (The teacher clearly does not know the answer to this one.)    And to encourage them to state their own opinions, I frame questions like this: "Jerrad said that a pinto bean will sprout if you get it wet, but a popcorn kernel won't.   Do you agree or disagree?"   When the question implies that it is another student who is proposing a science idea, instead of the teacher, it is much easier for a student to put forth his or her own idea.

Before we have the class discussion, I often ask students to find out what the person next to them wrote.   And then I ask them to tell what they, or the person next to them, answered.   All of these techniques are attempts to help students practice saying what they think, and to defend what they think, and often to change what they think.   In short, to practice discourse as a way to learn to think.

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