Talking Science

scientists talking scienceThis blog is the first of three on talking, reading and writing in science. Students like to talk. Even in science lessons. Harnessing this love of talk would be a great for learning. In this blog I have described a discussion model adapted from Sapere’s “Philosophy for Children” (P4C).

This approach is particularly suited to discussing practical work in science. Too much of the thinking about practical work is done by the teacher (or technician – you lucky secondary teachers). Using the practical as a stimulus for philosophical discussion leads to deep thinking about the design of experiments.

Talking in science lessons has several useful purposes, including:

  • Rehearsing scientific language. Many primary school writing strategies rely on talk before writing. Students have the opportunity to say the words and phrases several times before writing them down. This strategy is described in my third blog in this sequence.
  • Asking questions and negotiating meaning. Discussing ideas with peers and others is a skill that requires practice and support.
  • Cooperating during tasks.

P4C encourages students to ask better questions and to learn from others through discussion. Students are shown a stimulus (I have used music, photographs, video, objects and stories) which they use to generate questions. The teacher then supports the students to develop the questions from specific to general and from factual to philosophical. For example, if the stimulus were an African mask, students might ask what it was made from? Where did it come from? How was it used? These questions are factual and specific. The teacher would encourage the students to develop more philosophical questions such as “Why do people wear masks?”  leading to a richer discussion. The P4C sequence is described below:

  1. Explore the stimulus. In a science lesson this could be a demonstration, text, diagram, results table, method, piece of equipment etc.
  2. Students generate questions in small groups.
  3. The teacher plots the questions onto the grid below and then works with students to develop the questions so that they are less specific and more abstract.

    Example questions plotted onto the grid.

    Example questions plotted onto the grid.

  4. Students choose which question to discuss. This is usually done with a vote.
  5. The students sit in a circle and take it in turns to discuss the question as a whole class. Everyone is encouraged to participate, however, listening is as important as talking.
  6. The teacher leads a plenary asking: what went well? Did the question lead to a good discussion? What made the question work / not work?

Encourage good discussion sentences. Set initial rules and support with effective model sentences (e.g. I’m not sure I understand what you mean Mary, could you explain it again? I think I understand you Sam, but I don’t agree with …. Your answer works in this case Jasmine, but it doesn’t work if….).

The following is a science example of a discussion with year 6 pupils: Gases have mass experiment.

  1. Show the video (or demonstrate it yourself).
  2. Students generate questions. These were by my pupils: Where does the extra mass come from? Why does the mass go up? Is there really something pouring from the jug? Is it a trick? All of these are important questions that a teacher should want their pupils to be asking. They are useful for addressing misconceptions later.
  3. Plot the questions onto the grid. Help the students make them more general and more abstract.

    Pupil generated questions plotted onto grid

    Pupil generated questions plotted onto grid

  4. Pupils vote on the question they most want to discuss. (It can be hard to watch a good question go at this point. Cheat if you have to, but the bigger picture is that students are learning to ask better questions). My pupils chose “How do I know if it is real?” (I was relieved it wasn’t “Why do substances have mass?”)
  5. In a circle, discuss the question. Encourage the students to talk to each other, not the teacher. This gets easier with practice. Choosing a confident chairperson can be effective at getting everyone to speak. My pupils came to the conclusion that you could never really know (it got a bit “Matrix” by the end), but that if you could see it or see it do something, then it was probably real.
  6. Plenary. Let students identify what worked. Reflect on the choice of question and whether it lead to productive discussion.

It feels strange finishing there, without something concrete to assess. I think there’s nothing wrong with an unwritten outcome, but I sometimes ask the pupils to copy the question and then write their own answer. It often leads to disappointment though, as the ideas are at the limit of their verbal ability, and far beyond their writing ability. Better to model the writing yourself at the front, but that’s for the next blog.


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