"Planning and Carrying out Investigations" is one of the eight RPS Prioritized Learnings in science. This skill is essential for scientific inquiry and it requires that our students have many opportunities to gain proficiency. For many educators, allotting the time necessary for our students to reach proficiency in this scientific skill can seem daunting and prohibitive.
Many science teachers find that it is easier for students to follow prescribed procedures to "carry out investigations" as all they need do is follow the steps to obtain the results that confirm a scientific concept or theory. The same science teachers often ask, "How do I afford students the time to practice the planning part of this prioritized learning?" Teachers often skip having students plan the investigation because of the very real possibility that the student ideas for procedures will be impossible to implement due to time, materials, safety, etc..
Teachers often find that by sacrificing the planning part of the investigation, the students are more likely successfully complete the lab and see that the science works. Experience has shown us that students often contrive a procedure that will not work or cannot be competed in the school environment. When students do not come up with a workable procedure, we teachers feel that the students will be devastated by a failure.
In reality, much of the research on brain development suggests that by not allowing our students to learn from their mistakes, we are inhibiting their learning. What we need is a way to give students practice in planning experiments in a manner that is not impeded by time, materials, and/or safety.
An intriguing idea to increase opportunities for students to plan experiments is described in the book Academic Conversations-Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understanding by Jeff Zwiers & Marie Crawford. In the chapter "Academic Conversations in Science," the authors lay out a reading activity that fosters scientific thinking, inquiry, and communication skills. The authors contend that much of what students read in science textbooks is written as statements of fact and advocate that educators use these statements of fact to increase student investigative skills. The authors suggest that student pairs design a lab experiment, or research project to support the claim(s) made in the text. The students should look for statements in the text that are testable through experiment.
For instance, two excerpts from our current high school science texts are given in the table below:
Zwiers and Crawford suggest the use of prompts to get our students engaged while reading the textbook. Engagement in and discussion around the text can be jump started with prompts such as:
For instance, in the biology example, students might design an experiment to test the diffusion of various substances across a membrane. In the chemistry example, the students might compile a list of the materials and chemicals they might use to measure the mass before and after a reaction. True, there are already laboratory experiments performed in science classrooms to support these statements but having students follow prescribed procedures without the opportunity to create their own procedure denies the student the opportunity to learn the practice of experimental design. Why not have the students design it first? The simple classroom activity described above allows the student an opportunity to read and understand scientific texts and to practice and be given feedback on the skill of planning an investigation. In some cases, after the students have designed and critiqued their own procedures, the teacher might have students follow a tried and true lab procedure that can be successfully completed in a safe and efficient way.
Many constructive conversations may arise through comparison of the students own invented procedures and the prescribed procedure. Who knows, the students might come up with a better procedure with more consistent results than the one prescribed. By having students read our textbooks we can, with multiple opportunities, help our students to become proficient in the Secondary Science RPS Prioritized Learning of "Planning and Carrying out Investigations."
This post brought to you by Dan Devine, Secondary Implementation Associate
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