Many years ago, I was the kind of student who would sit in class furiously writing down every word my teacher said. It was a source of stress if a friend distracted me or the teacher talked too fast because I might miss a word, or worse, a whole sentence. At the end of class, I would shut my notebook, put it in my backpack, and take my transcription home to “learn” the information, mostly by memorizing. There were exceptions; some teachers did more labs or more problem solving or more collaboration, but for the most part I diligently wrote down the words and hoped that there would not be too much of a difference between what I had in my notebook and what was on the test.  

A ninth-grade student takes notes on a clay cell model he created in biology class.Years later, I chose a profession focused on improving science teaching and learning. I began a position as a full-time curriculum developer and was able to focus on the best ways to support students and teachers in high-quality instructional practices. I began to realize that no one had ever really helped me understand how to organize my notebook or to think through the process of doing science. Here are a few key ideas that would have supported me as a thinker to make sense of the world around me rather than just a knower of science facts. 

All Students Can Do Science 

Many students have an idea of who is a “science person” and who is “not a science person.” Even if they are thinking beyond the stereotype of an old white man with a lab coat and wild hair peering into a beaker of colorful liquid, their perception often relates to whether the person gets science questions mostly right or mostly wrong. In phenomenon- and problem-based classrooms, this contrast is no longer valid. All students can develop the critical thinking skills necessary to explain phenomena and solve problems. Instructional design can support this skill development by making the process of thinking explicit and offering opportunities to practice.  

Science is a Process 

Today’s science standards emphasize major shifts in science teaching and learning. It has become much clearer that science is a process rather than a list of right and wrong answers. Students must learn the habits of mind that help them develop that process. Curriculum developers and others who support science teaching and learning have opportunities to ensure that students understand science as a way of thinking. In making this thinking explicit for students, they will begin to understand how one takes on explaining a phenomenon or developing a solution to a problem.  

Supporting Students in Learning Science as a Way of Thinking 

One way that curriculum developers can support teachers and students in the process of science is by making the process visible through scaffolding the necessary thinking. Teachers and materials often direct students to an end step, such as “write the best solution to the problem.” However, students do not necessarily know how to do the thinking to get to this end step. Developers can scaffold the thinking by breaking the task down. For example, one process for older students solving problems might look like the following. 

  1. Brainstorm ways to solve the problem. 
  2. Join with other students to share ideas. Add any new ideas to the brainstorm list.  
  3. Narrow the list by crossing off any ideas that would not work to solve the problem. Add a note on why the idea may not work. 
  4. Once there are only two or three ideas left on the list, write at least three strengths and three limitations for each solution. 
  5. Decide the best solution to the problem and write it down.  

Although these steps should not always be linear or go in this order, breaking down a task into smaller, scaffolded steps helps learners understand that they need to come up with ideas and evaluate them, rather than just writing down the first idea that comes to mind. This is the type of thinking that goes into solving problems. If curriculum developers can help make this process of thinking visible to students, it can support students to develop a habit of mind of possible steps when facing a new problem. 

Supporting Students in Organizing Their Ideas 

When I was frantically writing notes in my own classes, no one helped me know what I should write (or not!) or how to organize my notebook. Materials can help students learn this skill. For instance, imagine if, in the example above, the steps started with writing the heading, “Brainstorm Ideas.” Maybe when students added new ideas to the list, they would be prompted to do so in a different color. As students compared ideas, they might receive a suggestion to add a heading in the notebook says, “Comparing Ideas.” Then they might draw three two-column charts with the columns labeled “strengths” and “limitations” to make it easier to compare.  

Not only does this kind of organization help the student with thinking by labeling each part of the process, but it makes it easier to understand the process later. Students could remember that they brainstormed ideas because there is a clear heading. Students could see that they crossed off ideas and noted why they crossed them off, so they understand the reasons they eliminated some. Better yet, they could see that they do not have to come to science with all the “correct” ideas. They could track the learning and ideas from collaborating with peers because they added new ideas in a different color. This would help send a message that people their age have good ideas and that the teacher is not the only source of information. That is empowering!  

Curriculum developers can support students by helping them figure out the kind of organizer to use. For example, when students are looking for similarities and differences, they might use a Venn diagram. When they need to understand a process, they might create a flowchart. This not only helps students pick out the important information in a reading or set of instructions, but also helps them develop the habit of mind of using different strategies to organize ideas.  

Teachers are sometimes concerned that students leave class with “wrong information” in their notebooks. However, when exploring phenomena, students will engage with explanatory ideas over many days. By clearly organizing, labeling, and annotating their ideas, it becomes readily apparent when a list is a brainstorm or when an idea is no longer valid. Students begin to see that they can contribute ideas, take some off the table, come up with new ones and reflect on how their thinking has changed—a process that truly deepens their understanding. They also feel a sense of pride in the work they have done, complete with evidence of their learning apparent in their notebooks. 

Scaffolding Learning Over Time 

Certainly, including more steps, more labels, more graphic organizers, and more supports is daunting. This is where intentionality comes in. High quality curriculum design includes careful consideration of how to gradually adjust supports over time so that students are increasingly responsible for making sense of phenomena or designing solutions to problems. There is not just one way to do this. Consider the following examples.  

  • At the beginning of a unit, students might develop skills where particular graphic organizers are matched to the information for which they are well-suited. By the end of a unit, students might be able to choose an appropriate idea organizer on their own.  
  • At the beginning of a year-long program, it may be more important that students collaborate and add ideas in a brainstorm. By the end of the program, the teacher might expect that they be able to offer a specific reason for each idea that is crossed off a list.  
  • Sometimes, students get more if they can evaluate an already-prepared shortlist of solutions, rather than taking the time to come up with possible solutions, evaluate each of them, and go through a complete design process. 

In the same way that today’s science standards build across the year and across grades, consider how to support students in developing their habits of mind related to the process of science. In doing so, we will see students who know that they are “science people” and who realize that science is a way of thinking about the world they live in and the decisions they make.  

What examples have you seen that help shift students’ thinking from science as a set of right and wrong answers to a way of explaining phenomena or solving problems?  

Brooke Bourdélat Gorman is a Science Leadership Development Specialist at WestEd, focused on supporting states and districts in improving science teaching and learning.
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