Just a few weeks ago, fifth-graders were asked at the beginning of a science class whether a cup of 50mL of water with 1 spoon of salt dissolved in it weighs more, less or the same as a plain cup of 50mL of water. Some students hypothesized it would weigh less because “the water absorbed the weight of the salt”, others felt it would weigh the same because “the salt had disappeared,” while others thought it would weigh more because “you added more of something to the cup.” After sharing their predictions, they were then charged with collaboratively designing a procedure to test their ideas. The excitement and engagement for the work and the discovery were heightened by their desire to determine if their understanding made sense.
At the core of my approach to science teaching is the belief that all my students walk in the door filled with ideas and questions of how the natural phenomena of the world work. My role is to push them to evaluate their own ideas by using experimentation and analysis to support or reject the ideas they’ve developed. In graduate school, I was fortunate to be able to work closely with Eleanor Duckworth, a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and researcher who had worked side by side with Piaget. Her coursework was framed by a book she wrote called, The Having of Wonderful Ideas. She argued that students thrive when teachers invite their questions and thoughts and help them take these thoughts deeply in their own explorations.
Duckworth also stated that “it is difficult to change what people think or feel about something simply by telling them or even showing them something different.” While teaching the important concept of matter, I could simply teach them this important concept and give them the “right answer”, but they will have a more lasting understanding if they discover this idea by designing their own procedure and challenge their own thoughts about this phenomena. And in fact, by the end of my class that day, all students saw that adding salt to water will add mass (matter) to the cup, and, therefore, the salt water will weigh more than a cup of plain water. This discovery then becomes a powerful launching pad for our study of conservation of matter, an important crosscutting concept they will be exposed to throughout their coursework in science.
This year some of the Park Tudor faculty have been meeting monthly to discuss Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. The authors of Make it Stick discuss the idea of “elaboration” and “generation,” essential components of classrooms with effective learning and at the core of our fifth-grade science classroom. The authors define elaboration as “the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.” They also state, “the more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.” They discuss, as well, the idea of “generation” as an attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution.” Indeed, you generally create deeper learning when you have unsuccessful attempts at solving a problem.
Eleanor Duckworth would often discuss the idea of “honoring confusion.” As a young educator, I found this notion liberating for my own science teaching and for my own learning. Asking probing questions, allowing students the luxury of not knowing, and finding opportunities for discovery should be key components of a science classroom. It has been particularly exciting that, in the past decade, science education at the national level has seen a transition to an inquiry-based approach, and new curricula continues to be developed to support three-dimensional learning, which includes students actively engaging in science and engineering practices and applying crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of core ideas. While many of us learned science where we read a textbook and then did an experiment to support the content, the model has switched. Today’s students conduct investigations, engage in open-ended discussions, write in science journals, and then use the core ideas and terminology to support the discovery. As our world is ever-changing and new technologies seemingly appear in the blink of an eye, I am hopeful our students at Park Tudor will be prepared to solve the challenging problems of the world, design innovative solutions, and make new discoveries so each can have a positive impact on our world.