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How to Make Middle-School Science Instruction Stick

By Kim Marshall, TIE Columnist

The article: “Teaching Practices That Matter in Middle-Grades Science” by Christopher Harris and Ronald Marx in Better Evidence-Based Education, Spring 2010 (2 3, pp. 4-5); no e-link available.
In this article in Better Evidence-Based Education, researcher Christopher Harris and University of Arizona professor Ronald Marx describe Project-Based Science, an inquiry-based approach designed to improve motivation and learning.
The idea is for students to investigate a “driving question” that frames important science content, connects to their interests and curiosity, and guides them through several weeks of collaborative investigations, weighing of evidence, writing explanations, and discussing and presenting their findings. Harris and Marx highlight five key practices for this kind of teaching:
• Make it relevant. Students are more likely to learn science content if it is linked to need-to-know situations—for example, learning about force and motion by exploring the difference that wearing a helmet makes when a bicycle rider or skateboarder wipes out.
• Activate prior knowledge. People use what they already know to make sense of new information—but what if prior knowledge is incomplete or inaccurate? “Research tells us that these fledgling ideas can actually serve as productive starting points for building more sophisticated science understandings,” say Harris and Marx.
• Support reasoning and explanation. “Scientists advance in their understanding not simply by describing the natural world, but by explaining it,” say Harris and Marx. “… [S]imilarly, students can advance in their own understanding by weighing evidence, interpreting results, evaluating claims, and sharing and critiquing explanations of their own and others.”
• Focus on learning goals. It is easy for students to lose sight of the central point of a curriculum unit when they are immersed in a series of activities over several days or weeks. That is why it is important for teachers to clearly state the main learning goals and essential questions and organize instruction around them. “Without some sense of the learning goals,” say the authors, “... students run the risk of missing relevant features of the phenomena under study, overlooking key science ideas, or picking up disconnected pieces of information.”
• Attend to student thinking. “Teachers need to have a rich, flexible grasp of the science ideas under study as well as an understanding of how to move students forward in their thinking,” say Harris and Marx. Get students to make their thinking visible—getting them talking about their observations, hypotheses, and findings, listening carefully to gauge their level of understanding, and prompting when necessary to move students toward a deep understanding of the concepts.
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 338, 1 June 2010.

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