Steps For Addressing Alternative Conceptions in Science

Misconceptions are one of the toughest opponents in science classrooms today. It is seen throughout research that “students conceptual misunderstanding of natural phenomena indicates that new concepts cannot be learned if alternative models already exist in the learner’s mind” (National Research Council 3).

How do we, as future science educators, address alternative conceptions?

Step 1: Set Up a Culture of Inquiry

Setting up this culture allows for inquiry-based discussions. This allows the teacher to determine their students misconceptions about a topic. Constantly asking & receiving questions and allowing students to formulate their own thoughts is one of the most important processes in science education and can being up some of the misconceptions that are present in the students.

Questions could be:

  • What causes this to happen?
  • What is the reason for that?
  • Can you explain why this happens?

Step 2: Let Students Engage in Self – Clarification

Ask your students to elaborate upon their ideas. This will give the teacher a better perspective on their students’ views and a better idea to where this alternative conception came from.

Step 3: Get Hands On

Provide an experience, a lab, a demo or just anything for the students to see with their own eyes and do with their own hands. It is vital that the students create their own knowledge by doing an activity. This creates a much more rich experience for the learner.

Moon Phases Demonstration - YouTube

Step 4: Explain Scientifically & Correctly

Give students the correct explanation for the phenomena wanting to be observed. Explanation must be clear and simple so that more misconceptions do not begin in the students minds.

Some Things to Remember:

  • Students are coming from all different backgrounds (culturally, racially, economically as well as different in the ways that they have been exposed to science)
  • Show respect
  • Meet the students on their level

Citation:

National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/5287.

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Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Common Misconceptions in Science

Plants can only reproduce asexually. Daughters inherit most of their characteristics from their mothers and sons from their fathers. Eating sugar causes kids to become hyperactive. These are all examples of common misconceptions.

A misconception is defined as: a belief that contradicts the currently accepted state of scientific evidence.

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Commonly held misconceptions

Throughout history, common misconceptions have been passed down from generation to generation. Whether it’s for religious beliefs or just simple misunderstandings, it is important to address these and understand what makes them misconceptions.

When it comes to teaching science in the classroom, it can be difficult to address these misconceptions and discuss them with your students, for several reason:

  • The misconception is derived from a religious belief
  • The misconception is something that the student learned at a very young age
  • The misconception is something that is believed by all of the student’s family
  • It is human behavior to construct ideas based on prior knowledge
  • Students base ideas off past experiences which can be incomplete and incorrect

Here is a video that gives some interesting misconceptions that are commonly held in the science community!

Clearly misconceptions in the science classroom are an issue that every teacher has. So the question is, how do we address them? Here are a few tips:

Tip #1: Help students understand why you want them to change their belief

In order for students to change their belief, they first need to understand why they are doing so. If a student has held a certain belief for the majority of their lifetime, they may not want to change it unless they are shown exactly why they need to.

Addressing Teacher Turnover in Public Schools
Explain to your students why it is important to understand a certain topic fully.

Tip #2: Use Hands-On-Learning

One of the biggest tools you can use in helping students understand why a certain idea is a misconception is using hands on experiments to allow students to see first hand an explanation for something.

An example of this would be that there is a dark side of the moon. If you set up an experiment with a lamp at the center and a moon revolving around it, students can see that what appears to be a dark side of the moon is just a shadow cast on the moon based on its position.

Moon Phases Activity | NASA/JPL Edu
An example of a moon phases experiment
Understanding Astronomy: The Moon and Eclipses


Tip #3: Addressing What Is Appropriate Inside vs. Outside the Classroom

Addressing certain misconceptions can be a sticky situation. For example, a religious student might believe that humans walked the earth at the same time as dinosaurs. While their religion might tell them this, the scientific community disagrees.

Science Vs Religion Cartoons and Comics - funny pictures from ...
Science vs. Religion

In these types of situations, it’s crucial to tell your students that they have the freedom to believe what they want to believe outside the classroom. However, in the science classroom, you must follow the ideas that the science community accepts.

Helping your students to understand that your classroom has specific rules and accepted theories can help to crush the common misconceptions that are seen in the classroom and allow for more complete and thorough learning and understanding of the scientific world.

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Lets Address the Misconception in the Room

Everyone once in their lives have believes some type misconception in science. These misconceptions are often learned as a child and have been with you since you can remember. For example, I remember from a young age in girl scouts that daddy long legs are the most venomous spider in the world but their fangs are too small to bite a human. This is something I believed for years along with many others like

  • Fish can’t blink
  • The seasons are due to the earth being closer to the sun in the summer
  • Momma birds will reject the baby if she smells human on her offspring
  • Blood is blue in the veins

Chances are if you once believed these common misconceptions, students believed them too or have different misconceptions that the bring into the classroom. However dealing with misconceptions in the classroom can be difficult for many reasons

  • Students learned these misconceptions at a young age and may refuse to think otherwise
  • If students have misconceptions in science, this may inhibit their ability to grasp new concepts
  • These misconceptions might be based on religious belief (Ex Women have one more rib than men due to Eve being given one of Adam’s ribs by god)

So how can we begin to show students what is right and what is wrong? Well let me show you the right way to guide students to truth and the wrong way. First watch this video over 5o common misconceptions held in science classrooms

Now that you have watch this video, how many of these misconceptions did you still want to argue for? How many did you disagree with and still believe? This video while it does cover a lot of misconceptions, would be an ineffective tool in telling students their misconception is wrong. Students will not change their minds about a misconception just because you say so, they change their minds when they can physically see the truth or understand the reasoning behind what is real and what is fake.

So how do we start to change a students mind on a misconception? Students need to be engaged in the process of discovery and should be allowed to explore the possibilities. For example, if a student thinks that fish don’t blink, ask them to observe a fish for a while. When the student finally sees the fish blink, they can accept that what they thought was wrong. Here are a few tips to address misconceptions

#1 Ask students why they think this

If a student believes a misconception, ask them to explain why or how they know this. During this discussions, ask student to not only explain the origin of where they learn this but why might it be true and why might it be false. Ask students questions like

  • Why do you think that?
  • Why might people think that?
  • Can you explain more about why this is true?
  • What could be another possibly explanation?
  • Where are you getting your sources?

#2 Don’t simply say that they are wrong

When dealing with misconceptions, we don’t want to accuse students of being incorrect. Not only does this not work because most students are stubborn about their preconceived misconceptions, but it can cause the student to fell embarrassed or stupid. However if students are engaged in the discovery of the truth, they can feel a sense of pride and accomplishment instead

#3 Whenever possible, engage students with hands on learning

If the misconception is something you can physically test, get the kids involve! If a student can physically see that what they thought isn’t what they are seeing, they will reshape their understanding to better comprehend what they see in front of them Below is a video that shows exactly that! This video shows the narrator not only actually having the participants conduct the experiment, but he is also asking them questions and guiding them through the process of reshaping knowledge

But what about if the concept is not something you can test in a classroom? If this is the case engage students in research and use Making Thinking visible Strategies. Use methods that engage students in argumentation, research, reading articles and making new connects. These strategies allow students to follow reason to discover the truth. You can find more about these strategies in my previous blogs below.

https://blogs.miamioh.edu/edt431-531/2020/02/visible-thinking-the-visible-guide-to-student-growth/

Why should we address misconceptions in the classroom? there are hundreds of misconceptions in the the world and it is impossible to address them all. While it’s important that you address misconceptions that may hinder a student’s learning in your classroom, its not realistic assume you can address them all. However what you can do is provide students with experience.

These experiences will teach students one of the most important things you can teach them. The ability to be a skeptic and think critically about a claim. When students leave you classroom, they need the ability to think about what a person is saying and ask if this seems credible and where they can find out if it is. This is what addressing misconceptions does, it provides student the opportunity to practice skepticism and critical thinking so that can go on to be people who don’t believe everything they hear blindly.

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Revealing and Dealing with Misconceptions

  • Teachers (especially ones who teach High School) often have to teach students who have pre-instructural knowledge about a topic.
  • This pre-instructural knowledge is not always correct
  • These incorrect understandings are called alternative conceptions or misconceptions
This video addresses many misconceptions that are inevitable in science and why people think these misconceptions are true.

How to Deal with these Misconceptions

We are going to deal with the misconception that “Things float if they are light and sink if they are heavy.”

Identify the Misconceptions

Before misconceptions can be corrected, they must be identified. A way to do this is to develop a pre-assessment to understand the misconceptions your students may have.

For this misconception, the teacher can bring in objects that will either float or sink. They can hold up each object, one at a time and have students write down whether they think the object will sink or float.

Ask Yourself Why Students May have the Misconceptions

It is important to understand why the students think they way they do and possibly where they may have gotten their information from.

In this case, students could possibly have the past experience of throwing rocks into a pond. Rocks typically sink when put into water and are heavy. Students may have assumed that this is the case for all objects.

Explain or Show Why the Misconceptions are Wrong

Present competing theories to students and give them the opportunity to reject or accept the new theories presented

Below is a video of a possible demonstration to do on why certain cans of pop sink and why others float.

Provide Tasks to Students to Show that They Understand the New Theory

Doing this will allow you as a teacher to know if your students understand the new theory and that the students are able to recognize why the past misconception was incorrect.

Something to have students do is work together as a group to theorize and understand why cruise ships that weigh 20,000-60,000 tons float.

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The Duckworth Approach

Eleanor Duckworth is a firm believer in “the having of wonderful ideas.” You may be wondering, what classifies as a wonderful idea? She describes the very essence of wonderful ideas as the ability to surprise others by your idea and show them what you can do with it.

Image result for eleanor duckworth

One of the major focuses of Duckworth’s writings is that every human has difficulty accepting something that they do not fully understand or that goes against their beliefs. To combat this, Duckworth encourages educators to allow room for students to ask their own questions and explore every possibility of a situation to come up with their own explanation.

For example, a common misconception in science classrooms is that there is a dark side of the moon. In order to allow students to investigate this phenomenon, you could set up a demonstration for them with a lamp and a model sun and moon and allow them to see for themselves what happens as the moon rotates and orbits.

This is a video that shows very well how you could set up this type of experiment.

Duckworth also says that not knowing is far more valuable than knowing. What she means by this is that when a student doesn’t know the answer to something, it provides a learning opportunity. It provides a space for the teacher to allow the student to ask questions and explore. Duckworth argues that teachers are rarely encouraged to provoke students to ask their own questions and solve things for themselves. Rather, the teacher is pushed to teach to the test and tell the student the right answer without allowing for exploration.

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This approach to learning connects with the Next Generation Science Standards very smoothly. One part of the NGSS is Science and Engineering Practices. This allows for students to utilize inquiry and investigate the natural world. The moon demo above and other demos like it would be a great example of inquiry for the students and would align with NGSS.

Another example of a way to allow students to investigate on their own would be to take misconceptions that might be portrayed in movies they have watched and to allow them to test them for themselves. For example, in the movie Wall-E, Twinkies are shown to have an endless shelf life and stay preserved forever. However, Twinkies actually only have a shelf life of about 45 days!

Image result for wall-e twinkie
Wall-E’s friend, the cockroach, dove deep inside of the Twinkie

You could allow your students to investigate this by allowing a Twinkie to sit out and record weekly observations. After a couple of months, the students will see that the Twinkie has gone bad. You can use this as an opportunity to dive into preservatives and the science behind the food we eat everyday!

When teaching in the classroom, it can be easy to fall into a habit of wanting the students to get the right answer and continue on with the lesson. However, allowing your students to explore incorrect answers and be curious about the world around them is the key to making science really stick in their minds.

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Constructing Student Knowledge: A Duckworth Approach

The foundation of learning is the construction of one’s own knowledge. This is an instrumental theory in education. Many philosophers have developed their own theories of the way children go through this process, the two most notable theorists are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. While I am a Vygotsky man myself, I’d like to take a look at another theorist who was a student of Piaget, Elanor Duckworth.

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“As a student of Piaget, I was convinced that people must construct their own knowledge and must assimilate new experiences in ways that make sense to them. I knew that, more often than not, simply telling students what we want them to know leaves them cold.”

Duckworth’s view of learning is summed up in her seminal work The having of wonderful ideas. Through a series of essays, she outlines what is her own interpretation of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development into a beautifully simple idea, which is, the essence of intellectual development is the having of wonderful ideas. I would like to emphasize wonderful because I believe it is a perfect word choice. She is not arguing that children must be creating new knowledge or be approaching problems in a new way, but that they wonder about the world around them. And ask questions.

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So what does Duckworth look like inside of the classroom? The examination of misconceptions in science allows for many of the key components of her work to come to life including

  • building on prior knowledge
  • challenging existing notions
  • asking questions

Students hold many misconceptions about what causes the phases of the moon. Some believe that its the Earth’s shadow, or clouds in the sky. Addressing student misconceptions gets at the core values of Duckworth’s philosophy, which is the uncovering of knowledge, not the covering of content. Through a series of hands-on investigations, like the one in the video below, students can start to uncover what is really going on between the Earth, Sun, and Moon. What is important to keep in mind as the teacher is that students are coming to their own conclusions about what they are observing, and not looking to you for explanations.

Duckworth was also a firm believer in learning by doing. One of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards is for students to see that science is not just a body of facts, but rather a community of learners who make discoveries through active experimentation. Duckworth would absolutely agree with this principle.

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Teachers can develop this mindset in their students by allowing them to conduct independent research. When students investigate a topic that they are truly invested in it can be an invaluable experience. With assistance, students can build their own knowledge through active experimentation, posing their own questions, and interpreting data based on evidence. All of these skills lead students to develop the necessary habits to be critical scientists, as well as an informed member of society.

“The virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run”

This quote exemplifies what these practices really mean for you and your students. Too much emphasis is placed on getting the right answer. The quickest way to get the “right answer” is to just memorize it. However, we know that this does not lead to the development of robust skills that we wish for our students. The virtues of not knowing and the quest for true comprehension is the essence of intellectual development. It is the act of observing, not knowing, and wondering, “how?”

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The Wonder in Wonderful Ideas

In the book “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”, Duckworth emphasizes the importance of the virtues involved in not knowing, just as much as the virtue of knowing the right answer. As educators, we must not underestimate the power of wonder in our students.

In this video, Duckworth talks about allowing students to “figure it out”. As teachers, we need to listen to our students – What are they thinking? What are they curious about? We should encourage our students to explore, wonder and be curious!

As I have mentioned above, the process of developing understandings is crucial. Students have been taught their whole schooling life that getting the correct answer is what matters. It is our job to make sure that they learn how to develop their own ideas, learn about their own misconceptions and to gain confidence in having their own, original, wonderful idea!

So… How do we start?

#1: Student-led Experiments

The best part of being a Science teacher is being able to hold experiments in the class. Allow your students to dive into their sense of wonder, to be curious! When students are curious, they are then motivated to learn more and find out.

  • The learning experience is handed over to students
  • Starting discussions from experiments can also help to enrich the learning experience
  • Students are encouraged to teach themselves, learn from the process
  • They can share their findings and learn from each other

This also ties back to the Science and Engineering practices in NGSS. Through these projects, not only does this promote inquiry in science, but the students also get to experience what real scientists do to investigate the world around us.

#2: Genius Hour

Utilizing genius hour in the classroom helps to spark curiosity in students, direct their own learning and actually be passionate about it! This idea originated from Google, by allowing their engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on anything they want, which has actually increased productivity and resulted in 50% of actual Google projects.

So how do we implement this in the classroom?

Set up an hour or two a week, where students are in control, choosing what to study, how to study or what they want to produce. They are allowed to design their own learning in school, which will promote curiosity and wonder in students.

  • The students can create whatever they want, vocalize their own wonderful ideas
  • Students are able to find their own purpose of learning
  • Students realize that their ideas are significant and worth exploring
  • With designing their own learning, students gain confidence in their own ideas
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Brain Blasts in the Science Classroom

Image result for eleanor duckworth quotes

When I was younger, I absolutely adored the show Jimmy Neutron. Every so often during an episode Jimmy would get a brilliant idea of how to solve a problem and would excitedly exclaim “Brain Blast”. His peers were often skeptical of his brain blasts and didn’t think it would actually work, but that didn’t matter to Jimmy because he knew that what he had was a wonderful idea.

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In our world today and in our schools, we are so focused on the right answer that we ignore the wonderful ideas of our students or we shut down their ideas without giving them the chance to explore it. Eleanor Duckworth, however, encourages the development and exploration of wonderful ideas had by students. Even if the idea does not lead to the “right” answer, the process of coming to an answer is more important than the answer itself.

Image result for learning is about the journey not the destination

As science teachers, we can apply the principles suggested by Duckworth by:

  • Encouraging students to view topics from different perspectives
  • Creating a classroom environment that is conducive for inquiry and asking questions
  • Never discouraging any ideas or suggestions presented by students
  • Learning alongside students
  • Providing students with enough knowledge to form questions and wonderful ideas
  • Focusing less on the “right” answer (wrong answers can be very productive!)
  • Raise questions and push the limits

In this Ted Talk, Amy Yurko speaks more about how important wonder and curiosity is to education and how that can be obtained in part through the physical learning environment.

While the environments we learn in can be very important to the creation of wonderful ideas, how information is presented and explored in the classroom is even more important to the kind of education Duckworth describes. So what exactly does a Duckworthian classroom look like?

Putting Theory Into Practice

We have already learned about so many different kinds of teaching strategies that promote inquiry and would be considered Duckworthian including:

  • Teaching in the Margins
  • Techniques that make thinking visible
  • Inquiry based learning
  • Engineering activities

All of these techniques not only help to teach curriculum, but may often involve the exploration of cross cutting concepts and overarching scientific practices, all of which are a part of the three dimensions of science learning presented by NGSS. While not every single lesson is going to be completely Duckworthian, using these strategies and practices will give your classroom a little splash of Duckworth to keep those questions and wonderful ideas rolling.

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Now let’s take a look at a couple lessons that are worthy of the title “Duckworthian”:

Conservation of Matter:

Students can explore conservation of matter using stations that all involve how matter is conserved. Using their prior knowledge on how/if matter is conserved, they can use materials provided to further explore their ideas and what they think will happen. Stations may include:

  • Dissolving an ice cube in water
  • Burning a piece of paper
  • Dissolving a solid in a liquid

Although there should be structure to these stations, students should have the ability to explore, try to support their hypothesis and draw new conclusions, therefore, this should not be a cookie cutter lab that directly asks “What happens to the water level when you dissolve and ice cube in water? What does this mean?” The purpose of an activity such as this is for students to explore, question, and draw their own conclusions.

Image result for burning a piece of paper

Black Box Activities:

Black boxes are a great way to promote many of the major themes described by Duckworth that are important to education including:

  • Asking questions
  • Exploring
  • Developing ideas about how to solve a problem
  • Being curious

In this NSTA lesson, black boxes are used to explore the idea of mapping landscapes and can be connected to the idea of geological mapping.

https://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=53017

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Just like Jimmy Neutron, we want our students to have “brain blasts” in the classroom that they are excited to learn about and explore. It is our job as teachers to encourage our students to ask questions, inquire, and come up with wonderful ideas. Kids are naturally curious, so let’s allow them to do their thing!

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“What’s Middle School like now?”

“What do you see when you walk into a middle school classroom in 2020?”

This is a question that I have been asked numerous times in the past couple of days by my housemates. They know that I am in the field and they are genuinely interested in what I am doing so I really appreciate the questions.

However, when I describe my day to them, I have to describe what i’ve observed thus far. Students have their heads on the desk for 30 out of the 44 minutes or they’re constantly watching youtube videos on their chrome books and just generally not being engaged and losing interest in school altogether.

Cropped shot of a university student falling asleep in the library

I do not believe in this as being education and neither does Duckworth.

Duckworth is a renowned psychologist who worked under the great Piaget and calls for many things in education after conducting some of her own research.

Duckworth calls for:

  • Creation of knowledge by students
  • Connecting new knowledge to preexisting schema
  • Uncover a topic, do not just cover it
  • Reward students for their thinking not necessarily the right answer
  • Implementing wait-time

I really admire these standards that she calls for in education as a whole but what I really enjoy about them is that they could be very rich and rewarding if implemented into science education.

Implementing Duckworth into Science Classrooms:

  • Using stations to create knowledge
  • Have students create CERs
  • Go to the “margins”
  • Have students create their own experiments
  • Ask probing questions with reflection time

Lesson Outline #1 – Demonstration Stations

  • Prepare two different demonstrations (ex. inertia demonstration with table cloth) for students to actually do that are related to the content in the unit that is being uncovered by the students
  • Set up four stations around the room (two of each demo)
  • Divide students into four different groups
  • Have students perform the demo themselves and then come up with a CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) for the phenomena that is being observed
  • Have the groups switch stations and repeat
  • After the groups have been to both demonstration stations and completed the CER, have a class discussion about the CERs

I think that this is a great way to have students create their own knowledge, be curious, uncover a topic and have their thinking rewarded. This also relates to NGSS by tying in cross cutting concepts of cause and effect, structure and function and systems and system modeling (depending on the corresponding discipline and what demos are picked).

Lesson Outline #2 – Power Prompts

  • This lesson would be great for the end of a unit once the students have begun to master the content
  • Group the students into groups of three
  • Give each group a prompt, situation or question that they need to answer using their knowledge from the unit
    • These prompts could be: “Build a marble rollercoaster using your knowledge from the kinetics unit” or “There is an epidemic sweeping across the nation. Using your knowledge of bacteria, viruses, the immune system and treatments, determine if the epidemic is viral or bacterial and a course of action.”
  • Each group could have a different prompt or they could all have the same prompt
  • Groups would then present the solution they created to the prompt to the class

I think that this lesson outline is very Duckworthian. It challenges students to think about a solution for the prompt, create their own experiments and has them connect new knowledge to pre-existing schema. This is related to the NGSS because it relates the interdependence of science, engineering and technology. As well as the influence of science, engineering and technology on society and the natural world.

I hope that when my housemates ask me in the future about what a classroom looks like in 2020, I will be proud to say that it looks like these lessons and be confident that students are being exposed to the rich ideas of Duckworth.

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The Power of Curiosity

Duckworth, a student of Piaget’s, urges us to allow children to be curious and support their sense of wonder. It is this sense of wonder that gives our students a desire to learn. Extinguishing our student’s curiosity by denying them the opportunity to explore and expand upon their own ideas is the most harmful aspect of formal education today. It is our job as teacher’s to not only allow our student’s to explore, wonder and be curious, but to encourage them to do so.

This sense of wonder is important in every aspect of schooling, but may be the most prevalent in the science classroom. So how do we as science teachers ensure we are doing our part in promoting student curiosity?

We need to:

  • Give students freedom to explore their own ideas
  • Ask students to question given knowledge
  • Make sure we do not avoid or dismiss any student questions
  • Take every opportunity to explore deeper
  • Get to know student’s interests and incorporate these into lessons
  • Utilize NGSS science and engineering strategies

What are some strategies to promote curiosity and wonder?

Start new units with Exploration Stations

  • Set up multiple stations with different items/activities that relate to a new unit
  • Give students freedom to interact with and explore each of these stations at their own pace
  • Ask students to write down questions they have during this exploration
  • As a class, discuss and further investigate these questions

Have students Design Their Own Labs

  • Instead of having students complete a predetermined lab with already known results, ask them what they would like to discover
  • Use student curiosity and questions to inspire a unique and student centered lab
  • Ask students to create their own lab, including their hypothesis and methods
  • Allow students to explore their hypothesis and discover the answers to their questions

Allowing students to expand upon their curiosities and dive into their wonders will result in interested and engaged students who are eager to learn. What teacher doesn’t want that?

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