Teacher Roadmaps - Facilitating Class Discussions and Science Talk

Science Talk Allows Teachers and Mentors to Attend to Students’ Ideas

PlantingScience relies on science talk in the classroom – as a whole class, within a team – before and after online dialogs. Science talk is a powerful tool for the dynamic process of building and refining conceptual understandings. The art of teaching and mentoring for productive science talk is to attend to students’ thinking.

Science talk makes students’ ideas and thinking visible to the student him or herself, to their peers, to you as a teacher, and to the online mentor. In the moment and over the course of the conversation, students self-assess, get feedback, and are coaxed to dig deeper for meaning rather than a rote knowing. In what students say and do, the students’ life experiences become part of the conversation. Even though they may sometimes be contrary to “what science says,” using those experiences and reasoning about them can be a productive way to dig into central concepts.

Together the online and classroom conversations can help students think, reflect, and improve understanding. The more students hear ideas and reasoning of their peers and online mentors, the better they will become at reasoning and recognizing robust evidence and valid arguments. Using evidence to test claims and reasoning through counter-examples to examine alternatives are a significant part of scientific practice. Evaluating evidence is important for all students, not just those who become scientists, as these skills will help them to make informed decisions, personally and as citizens.

Discusion prompts:

  • What does that mean?
  • How do you know?
  • What if…? (present a counter-example)
  • Does that mean…? (When conflicting ideas or pieces of evidence are presented)
  • Bring the students’ ideas back to the class or team members: “What do you think of that?” followed by “What makes you agree/disagree?”

Tips for Class Discussion Ground Rules:

There are many ways to run productive discussions in classrooms. What works best will vary by the grade level of the students, their background and personalities, and the group dynamics of the class. However, in all contexts it is important to establish classroom norms that emphasize responsibility, respect, and the construction of arguments based on theory and evidence.

Classroom norms for behavior that lead to successful science discussion include:

  • Taking and responding to questions
  • Asking questions and participating
  • Debating ideas, not people
  • Respectfully listening to others for understanding
  • Speaking loudly enough for the whole group to hear
  • Providing agreement or disagreement (with reasoning) in response to other people’s ideas
  • Using evidence to weigh competing claims


What You Can Do to Help Students Embrace Talking and Doing Science in Community

Give students the space to put their ideas out onto the floor.

  • Take up students’ ideas by asking questions about them and the reasoning behind the ideas.
  • Ask students questions that help students reflect, clarify, and go a bit deeper into their thinking.
  • Challenge students’ often blind acceptance of a “science fact.”
  • Juxtapose the ideas on the floor so that students have to reconcile inconsistencies.
  • Establish both successes and failures in the science lab as valuable learning opportunities.
  • Encourage students to see themselves as a member of a science community.


Using Juicy Questions to Spawn Science Talk

A juicy question is powerful if:

  • it makes you go, “Ah, now that’s an interesting question.”
  • you don’t already know the “right” answer.
  • you don’t know what will happen once you start investigating it.
  • you’ve played around with it in your mind and can’t find a good explanation.

“Juicy questions” are deceptively simple questions that might, on the surface, seem much too easy for your students. For example, “is air matter?” turns out to be a juicy question. By asking students questions that probe beneath the surface of a pat definition, students are forced to make sense of concepts and even at times connect them.

Planting and unpacking juicy questions can be a productive way to help both you and your students. It helps students assess their own understanding – authentic understanding – of how the natural and physical world works. Through artful facilitation by the teacher, the conversation also helps them to connect their observations of these worlds using intuitive sense-making strategies and evidence. Through these conversations, a teacher gains insight into students’ current understanding, helps students rely on innate reasoning skills and validates their life experiences, while building skills of scientific thinking.

Anticipate Some Unease With Uncertainty

For many students, especially the highest-achieving students, the uncertainty of inquiry is unsettling and it may go against most or all of their prior science experience. Students want to know what the “right” answer is so that they can memorize it, whether or not they understand why it is the “right” answer. To help your students become comfortable with the process of science and their active-learning role in it, resist the temptation to immediately give students the answer.

It’s important to monitor the conversations and projects closely to maintain a delicate balance between a productive discomfort with uncertainty that can happen before a mental breakthrough and too much discomfort that then causes students to give up and shut down. A critical hint or reference at the right time can keep the students on a path to building new understandings.

Facilitating Peer Communication and Review

Both scientist and peer mentoring interactions are possible on the PlantingScience platform. If you feel your students are prepared for peer mentoring, you may orchestrate student-to-student dialogs in addition to the scientist mentor matches made by the project staff. Prepare students with examples of helpful, thoughtful peer remarks. Expect some level of off-topic commenting, and be prepared to moderate if needed.

We recommend starting with cross-comments among teams in your class for students to practice giving and responding to constructive feedback with peers. For productive exchanges with students across schools, we recommend you collaborate with a teacher whose students are working on a similar topic and inform mentors. Project staff will gladly assist in setting this up. You may find Peer Communication and Review on the student page helpful.

Here is an example of a helpful student-to-student peer review:

“Hi I’m Lacey from Team Germinators (Southwest High School). Our teacher asked our team to find another high school project similar to ours and review your project. Our project is about which seeds will germinate in cold temperatures, so we thought it would be neat to post on your project about what temperature water is best for radish germination. We think you did a really good job making sure that you controlled your variables and measured that the water was the same temperature every time you watered the seeds. We like your graphs and it’s easy to see that the seeds watered with the room temperature water did best.

Here’s what we think you could improve. You say that room temperature water is best for radish germination. But you only tested three temperatures of water…really hot, room temperature, and really cold. Why did you pick those temperatures? We think gardeners and farmers would be most interested to know if water that’s only a little warmer or a little cooler than room temperature is better for plants. It would be a lot of work to make water for irrigating fields really hot or really cold. But it would be helpful to know if cold water from a hose is worse or better than water that’s been sitting in a bucket in the sun.

We don’t think you can say that room temperature water is BEST for radish germination just from your experiment. We think you might want to change your conclusion to say that room temperature water is BETTER for radish germination than really hot or really cold water. Maybe a little warmer or a little cooler water is even better than room temperature water, but those weren’t included so you don’t know. It could be a future experiment…”

Science Talk Resources and References

The Inquiry Project – Talk Science Professional Development
This site has extensive videos to see talk in the classroom in action and resources about talk moves.

Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching – Discourse Tools
This site has strategies for eliciting ideas and pressing for explanations along with case studies.

Talk Science – contemporary science discussion for the classroom
This site from the United Kingdom has straight-forward tips for setting the stage in the classroom and using particular techniques such as Socratic seminars.

Levin, D.M., T., Gran, and D. Hammer. 2012. Attending and responding to student thinking in science. The American Biology Teacher 74(3):158-162.

Llewellyn, D. and H. Rajesh. 2011. Fostering Argumentation Skills: Doing What Real Scientists Really Do. Science Scope 35(1):22-28.

McNeill, K.L. and J. Krajeik. 2012. Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing. Pearson.

Michaels, S., A.W. Shouse, and H.A. Schweingruber (2008) Ready, Set, SCIENCE: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms. National Academies Press, Washington D.C.

Osborne, J.F. 2010. Arguing to Learn in Science. Science 328: 463-466.

Sampson, V., J. Grooms, and J. Walker. 2009. Argument-Driven Inquiry: A way to promote learning during laboratory activities. The Science Teacher 76(8): 42-47.


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NSF_Logo.jpg This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #2010556 and #1502892. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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