Teaching The Scientific Method: Background Research/Knowledge

If you teach primary science, you will inevitably find yourself teaching the scientific method.2013-updated_scientific-method-steps_v6

  1. Asking A Question
  2. Background Research/Knowledge
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Design Experiment
  5. Test and Retest
  6. Analyze Data
  7. Draw Conclusions
  8. Communicate Results

Background research is the cornerstone of any experiment, even in elementary school because your students will use their background knowledge to come up with their hypothesis.

The best way to develop background knowledge is to teach with the science of learning in mind. If you are new to this and want more information, Anita Archer and Retrieval Practice both have some excellent resources and can walk you through how to apply the science of learning to your teaching.

Background Research/Knowledge

Before planning a lab it is helpful to start with some questions.

  1. What content knowledge will my students need in order to perform the lab?
  2. What procedural knowledge will my students need in order to perform the lab?

And the all important follow up, “How will I know my students have that knowledge?”

Content Knowledge

The first question will always depend on what type of lab you are doing, because different labs require different knowledge. 

For example, pretend for a moment that you are planning common elementary lab on rates of plant growth.

Before beginning the lab, your students should at minimum know…

  1. The basic anatomy of a plant (roots, stem, leaves, flower, petal, etc)
  2. How a plant gets nutrients (roots and soil)
  3. How a plant makes food (photosynthesis)

How will you ensure that you students know this? Test it first! Now, you do not need to create a test, the point is that you must assess your students understanding of this knowledge in some way. It would be best if your students do not have access to a neighbor, their book, or notes during this assessment. The purpose of these limitations is to help you accurately assess your students. Do they actually know it? Note: The assessment does not need to be for a grade. No-stakes assessments can be very strategic!

Ideally you will have enough time to reteach information to correct misconceptions but that will not always be possible.

Procedural Knowledge

Procedural Knowledge: knowing how to do something

First, this type of knowledge is often difficult for students to grasp because it is not by itself. You always map the content knowledge onto the procedural knowledge. 

With procedural knowledge, I think there are two main questions:

Do I want my students to learn what happens? Do I want my students to know how to set up and perform the experiment along with learning what happens?

Your students will need to have the procedural knowledge to make observations and record data. This will seem simple to you, but it is not for them, remember, you are an elementary science teacher. Review with your students. A great way to review is to use physical objects and have students make observations together. Monitor their responses. You will need to check to make sure they are scientific observations, not opinions or inferences.

In many elementary experiments, gathering data is straightforward. However, you still need to teach it. Anyone who has ever watched a group of elementary students measure distance, weight, volume, or temperature knows that it isn’t second nature for our students.

We should explicitly explain how to take measurements and model it. Give multiple, short in class assignments where students take different types of measurements depending on what your experiment will be. After all, if they gather bad data, how will they be able to trust the experiment’s results?

As far as designing the actual experiment, it can be a smart choice to reduce the level of procedural knowledge needed. 

For example, instead of having your students set up an experiment and plan the steps, you can provide them with the set up and steps.

“Ok class, we have three pea plants that are in the same type of soil with the same amount of water, the only difference is their location. One will be in full sunlight, one will be in half sunlight, and the other will be in the dark.”

Doing this allows your students to focus on applying their content knowledge. It greatly reduces their cognitive load, and increases the chances of them learning from their hypothesis. However, you obviously do not want to keep your students here, dependent on their teacher to perform an experiment. The solution is to explain why each plant has the same soil and water. And then to explain why you are only changing the amount of sunlight.

Then, as the year goes on, have your students design more and more of the experiment. Small assignments where students are given part of a hypothetical experiment can be very helpful. Your students will read the available information and then finish the designing the experiment. The gives them practice, and then you can give them feedback!

Procedural knowledge must be tested too! If your students do not have it, they have no hope of a successful experiment. So, assess it!

Background knowledge is key. We must teach and ensure that our students have both the content and procedural knowledge that our lab demands. If we do this, then our students will learn more, labs will be less stressful, and I have found that students have more fun if they know what and why they are doing something.

Give them knowledge, make fun possible!

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