It’s all about Student Talk:

Being Purposeful and Scientific!

05/11/2020  |  By Dr. Terry Talley
STEM
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There have been several “aha!” moments in my life as a science teacher that have really changed the way I teach.
One such moment was when my seventh-grade science students were observing pond water under the microscopes. They brought in many samples of water from roadside drainage ditches, neighborhood streams, and the puddle that formed under water fountain by the athletic field.

When I was doing all the talking and explaining – I was missing the opportunity for my students to engage in the practices that are key to science – creating scientific explanations from evidence and entering into discourse with their peers about the amazing things they were observing. That was my “aha” moment.

 The excitement was amazing as they were calling me over to see what they were seeing. They were trying to figure out what each of these squiggly and fast moving creatures were from the key they were provided. I gave them approving nods, congratulating them on finding each creature.

I caught myself silencing the room and explaining what the students were seeing and how I knew what each creature was. Then realized, the excitement died each time I did. In that moment, I realized I was cutting them out of the learning process. Their voices held the enthusiasm for their discoveries and I had to be quiet. I let the students talk about what they were observing with each other, how they knew what it was, and why they thought it lived in the area the sample was taken. Lively discussions ensued.

As students began talking to each other, they worked together to figure out what they were observing by using the key, then explaining to other eager observers why they identified it as they did. Discussions were lively and animated as they cited their evidence and made claims about what they thought it was.

I began to hear the scientific names being used, argumentation about the fine differences between two similar water fleas, as well as helping each other focus their microscopes to see more amazing creatures.

I recently found two separate articles about STEM instructional strategies that reminded me of this moment. One is the September 2014 blog written by Philip Bell and Andrew Shouse, of the University of Washington, that can be found at www.STEMteachingtools.org/brief/1. The blog is called, “Is it important to distinguish between the explanation and argumentation practices in the classroom?” In STEM Teaching Tool #1 the authors make the distinction between constructing explanations and making arguments from evidence. Citing the Practices of Scientists and Engineers from the National Research Council’s publication, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012),” they ask if it is confusing for students if you do not distinguish the differences between argumentation and explanation.

In the moment of the lab, it was not, but in the follow up discussions, it was important. Explanation can easily only focus on finding the “right answer”—rather than developing an understanding of the conceptual ideas. Argumentation is key to connecting observations to the big ideas of science. (Bell and Shouse, 2014)

The other article is written by Brian Reiser, Leema Kerland and Lais Kenyon for the April 2013 NSTA Science Teacher magazine called, Engaging Students in the Scientific Practices of Explanation and Argumentation, where they address purposeful student talk. The article points out that when students are talking they are able to use evidence and models to support and refute explanations about what they are observing. Teachers and students are able to identify the gaps or weaknesses in the explanatory accounts. Argumentation then, not only allows for constructing scientific ideas but also allows for comparisons and critiques of ideas among others making the same observations.

When I was doing all the talking and explaining – I was missing the opportunity for my students to engage in the practices that are key to science – creating scientific explanations from evidence and entering into discourse with their peers about the amazing things they were observing. That was my “aha” moment.

STEM teachers are grounded in their scientific knowledge and can end up being the only learners in the room when they do all the talking. But, based on the research and current literature about the best practices for the STEM classroom, more purposeful student talk and less teacher talk is the key to real student learning and gains in student achievement.

Dr. Terry Talley, is the author of “The STEM Coaching Handbook,” and National STEM Manager for STEMscopes. Talley holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Mississippi University for Women and an Ed.D. in Curriculum, Instruction and Administration from the University of North Texas. She began her career as a secondary science teacher working with students in grades six to nine for 14 years. Talley later served as Science Teacher Specialist, Dean of Instruction, and eventually Supervisor for Science. Dr. Talley joined Rice University to provide teacher outreach and professional development as the Program Manager for STEM Professional Development with Accelerate Learning and the National Institute for STEM Education. With a focus on STEM education, Dr. Talley provided a perspective about STEM-based instructional practices for authentic STEM integration through a nationally recognized STEMposium. Prior to joining Rice, she was at the SRT-STEM Center as Program Director for the UTMB Office of Education Outreach in Galveston, TX. After serving the STEM community for 35 years, Dr. Talley is now retired.
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