Classroom Discussions in Science, Part 3

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This is the third of a four part series. Here is part 1. Here is part 2.

I have been working to delineate and describe a typology of four types of conversations that could be powerful and effective in secondary science classrooms. They are:

  1. Conversations that gather, focus student experiences or insights
  2. Conversations that make real the processes of science and reflect science as a human (as opposed to received) activity.
  3. Conversations that deepen and expand observations made during classroom demonstrations or laboratory activities.
  4. Conversations that make visible the processing of learning itself.

This post is the third part of a series discussing each of these types of conversations.

Part 3: Conversations that deepen and expand observations made during classroom demonstrations or laboratory activities.

Traditionally, science education has privileged the laboratory as the center of learning. And, since inquiry is central to the scientific enterprise, this makes sense. However, in a K-12 school setting, the pressures of time and resources narrow the potentially wide experience in the laboratory to something far more scripted and standardized. The broader implications of this for science education are a topic for another post on another day. Today’s goal is to discuss how classroom discussion can open up and focus these laboratory based investigations.

So, let’s imagine a laboratory experience in which students look at the effect of temperature and substrate on the action of enzymes. This could take place in a biology, chemistry, or even physics classrooms. In this thought experiment, students are looking at the time it takes for enzymes to work on their substrates under different temperature conditions. It doesn’t take much to imagine the data table which would be central to this activity.

Data table from our thought experiment

In a typical classroom, the students would collect the data, and then work (together or separately) to answer questions in their lab packets. Then, the labs are turned in, graded, and life moves on to the next topic.

But there is an opportunity between the time the data are collected and the questions are answered to have a class discussion about these data. This discussion could start out simply and concretely: at which temperature did the enzyme work the fastest or the slowest? Were there any enzymes that worked better being colder than warmer? What else surprised you.

The discussion can then follow the students’ interests. “But what about …?” “Wait, I didn’t get those results. Why not?” or even “Could enzymes work on the Moon or in space?”

These discussions are by definition communal, which can add a dimension and sense of inquiry that the individual or even small group work cannot or does not (usually). Also, as stated in the earlier parts of this series, these discussions remind the students (and the teacher) that science is a human activity.

And speaking of discussion, be sure to leave a comment or otherwise interact with these posts.