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!

Research Apértif: Across Domain Transfer

According to dictionary.com, an apértif is a small drink of alcoholic liqueur taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal. This research apértif is likewise designed to stimulate your mind’s appetite.

If you enjoy the appetizer, click-through at the bottom of the page for the main course!

Background Research/Lit Review

1. Productive Failure (PF) process: Exploration and Generation (activate prior knowledge), Consolidation and Knowledge Assembly
2. Learning about complex systems with computer models can help students learn complex systems principles and transfer their knowledge
3. Far across domain transfer can be encouraged by allowing two scenarios to be seen as embodying the same principal (lab only, so far)


1. Female 9th grade students at a high-achieving all girls school in Australia used computers to understand climate change
2. Study was conducted in 6 class periods of 80 minutes
3. One group used a single climate model and wrote down the “key ideas”
4. the other group used two models (one climate model and one non-climate model w/ similar deep structure) to compare/contrast


1. Both groups improved in declarative and explanatory knowledge
2. Students taught by an expert teacher w/ high content knowledge showed significantly higher complex systems knowledge
3. Students taught by an expert teacher showed higher performance for near within domain transfer
4. Performance for the one model group were more dependent on the quality of the teacher
5. Two model group showed better far transfer regardless of teacher expertise


1. Prior knowledge activation and differentiation may give students more chances to practice and encode critical info for the studied concept
2. Highly contrasting models may activate more prior knowledge (of structural and surface features) allowing for more connections between prior and new knowledge (creating a more integrated schema, making schema abstraction more likely)
3. It is most effective to use maximally contrasting models, w/ same deep structure along w/ explicit teach instruction about the shared deep structures of each model

Link to Article

Schema Abstraction WIth Productive Failure And Anological Comparison: Learning Desings For Far Across Domain Transfer (Free for ~50 days)


Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, C. (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222

Research Apértif: Facts Before Higher-Ordered Learning?

According to dictionary.com, an apértif is a small drink of alcoholic liqueur taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal. This research apértif is likewise designed to stimulate your mind’s appetite. 

If you enjoy the appetizer, click-through at the bottom of the page for the main course!

Summary of Article

  1. Higher-ordered thinking increases with higher-ordered retrieval practice
  2. Fact quizzes do not facilitate higher-ordered learning
  3. Robust strategies for fact learning and far transfer of knowledge (retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving)
  4. Retrieval practice works in a vast array of settings with diverse learners, and diverse content


Study combines 3 frameworks: Desirable Difficulties, Transfer Appropriate Processing, & Foundation of Factual Knowledge
Subjects: College psychology students, and middle school students


  1. Fact quizzing significantly increases final test fact question performance, but does not improve performance on higher-ordered questions
  2. Higher-ordered quizzing does not increase final test fact question performance, but does significantly increase performance on higher-ordered questions
  3. Mixed quizzes (fact & higher ordered) increase final test performance on both fact and higher ordered questions

Link to Article

Retrieval Practice & Bloom’s Taxonomy: Do Students Need Fact Knowledge Before Higher Order Learning?


Agarwal, P. K. (2019). Retrieval practice and Bloom’s taxonomy: Do students need fact knowledge before higher order learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 111, 189-209.

If I Were The King Of A School

🎶And if I were the king of a public primary school
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the lies and the busywork and the poor pedagogy
And give sweet knowledge to you
Sing it now, joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me🎶

What follows might not always be possible due to staffing limitations. However, if I am going to pretend to be the king of a public primary school, I might as well pretend to be king of a good one.

If I were the king of a school, here is what I’d do…

First, I would name it Normal Elementary School for several reasons. The first and most important being that I am trying to set a “new” norm (teaching knowledge systemically). The second, it is a shout out to two things, historical teacher’s colleges and my hometown. Three, I like wordplay.

School Culture/Environment

At Normal Elementary School, our staff would also be knowledgeable of their students’ cultures and backgrounds. This will reduce misunderstandings and hopefully help create a schoolwide environment that is more tolerant of differences and deals wisely with disagreements (even ones that cannot be resolved). An added benefit of knowing student cultures and backgrounds is that it helps create a safe, welcoming environment.

Another way we will create a safe environment is to have a “warm/strict” discipline policy. Essentially, every student will both know the school rules and expectations and trust that they will be fairly enforced, while, at the same time students will know that they are deeply cared for and valued, i.e., the school discipline policy will involve teachers being warm and strict at the same time.

The combination of high academic expectations with high behavioral expectations is paramount. Over time, with careful crafting they can become somewhat self-reinforcing. Students can internalize expectations and I want their internalized expectations to be good ones.

All elementary students would have the following classes every single day from kindergarten through grade 5. If I were king of a middle school, students would have some choices, followed by still more options in high school. But let’s focus on elementary school, because it’s the most important!

The Classes

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Art/Music
  • Foreign Language
  • Physical Education

Each class would be 45 minutes long followed by a 4 minute passing period. Lunch and recess would be 30 minutes each and would, of course, add a passing period to the schedule. So the total time my students would be in school is 360 minutes for classes, 40 minutes for ten passing periods, 30 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes for recess. Giving us a grand total of 460 minutes or 7.7 hrs.

For those of you who may be concerned about how long students are in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average American student spends 402 minutes in school or 6.7 hrs. So my students would be in school for 58 more minutes per day than average.

The Science of Learning

I would establish a school ethos that explicitly values knowledge. By choosing to explicitly value knowledge, we are not, and will not be dismissive of skills, critical thinking, or creativity in any way.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that skills are built from knowledge.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge makes critical thinking possible (p3 & p8).
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge unlocks creativity.

My staff would all have a pedagogy informed by cognitive science. In practice, this means we would integrate spaced practice and retrieval practice into everything we do while also combining them with other research-based teaching/learning strategies where appropriate. Our students’ learning would be research informed as well because we will explicitly teach and model effective study strategies and would encourage their application with various tools/assignments. I consider having sky-high expectations for all students to fit into this approach seamlessly.

This does not mean that I expect all students who walk into my school’s doors to be academic rockstars. It means that every teacher will expect consistent effort and progress from every pupil. Every teacher’s default approach will be to push and challenge students to learn more and grow their curiosity. This will be done with a kind and encouraging spirit.

The Curriculum

The curriculum itself would generally be delivered in a spiraling format, allowing students to revisit content over the years, building their schema. An example of this could be in 3rd grade, students are introduced to basic physics, in 6th grade students learn several common physics equations and apply them to varying contexts, and then in 9th grade students may take variables such as friction/air resistance into account when calculating their equations. Each time the students are exposed to a topic, they go deeper into the content, intentionally building upon what they previously learned.

As we go through this curriculum-building process we would determine what is Core vs Hinterland. The core content would be what we want students to know for forever and would be referenced throughout a student’s time at our school. The hinterland content is used to set up the core content with a grand narrative. This creates a story and makes all of the content more memorable.

An example of core content would be the three branches of government. The hinterland content could be the story of how a bill becomes a law. Another example of core content might be the Revolutionary War. Songs from the play Hamilton could be used as the hinterland in this case because it shows the relational and emotional dynamics leading to the Revolutionary War.

The overarching goal of developing our curriculum in this manner is to build student knowledge and skills in all subjects. We want our students to know lots of things and to be able to do lots of things. As knowledge is the limiting factor to both knowing and doing, we will emphasize it.

All of this leads to questions of primary concern.

What schemas do we want students to have? What specifically will we call core knowledge? What knowledge and whose knowledge will be taught?
I would seek to answer these questions in an open manner, to build trust with the community and to make open, healthy discussion and debate possible.

One goal of the discussion would be to communicate the importance of educating students of every ethnicity and socioeconomic background in such a way that they become culturally literate and therefore prepared for success in “mainstream” America.

Cultural literacy entails teaching knowledge that speakers and writers (think NPR, The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, National Review, etc) assume their audience has such as, understanding the Bible and classic works of literature, America’s founding, along with basic math and science skills. In no way is this approach assuming that the mainstream, or empowered culture’s knowledge is better than other knowledge, but it acknowledges that access to opportunity is often limited, intentionally or otherwise, by the culture of the “elites.”
At Normal Elementary, we want to give our students access to the same opportunities the privileged few have, and are convinced that the best way to do this that we can control is by teaching students information that has been deemed culturally important. This is a norm we are trying to set.

For a further point of clarification, this does not mean my school would only teach students history/literature from mainstream or white culture. Doing so would be fundamentally wrong, even in a monocultural society. I do not have an exact ratio or plan on how to include the histories, literatures, or arts of other cultures beyond saying that we will do it in an intentional and meaningful way. This is a norm we are trying to set.

The world is too big, varied, and interesting; and time is much too limited to teach all that is worth teaching. So we will reach a compromise with the open, honest, good faith debates I wrote about above and make painful cuts and thoughtful inclusions in our curriculum. This likely means that our curriculum, particularly in history, literature, and the arts will change and shift over time, while having a relatively stable core. This is a good thing. This is a norm we are trying to set.

As far as our curriculum’s specificity goes, we would generally use the nominally “national” standards as our absolute basement. This would give us a decent framework to build around, as we seek to enrich and fill out those standards with specific content that fit our context.

Normal Elementary’s Norms

  1. Staff that are knowledgeable of their students’ cultures.
  2. Staff that have high behavioral and educational expectations for all and maintain this by concurrently being warm and strict.
  3. Staff know and apply the findings of cognitive science to their teaching.
  4. Students are explicitly taught effective study skills.
  5. A curriculum that builds on itself and expects students to remember what they have learned.
  6. A curriculum that helps ensure students can find success in “mainstream” America by becoming culturally literate.
  7. A curriculum that is culturally responsive to the school’s student body.

At Normal Elementary, these are the norms we are trying to set. These are norms every school should have, norms every child should have the privilege of being educated under.

If I were the king of a school that is what I’d do.

What Is A Practice Guide? How Should You Use Them?

A practice guide is designed to be an accurate, accessible, and applicable summary of the topic’s research. The guides are written by experts, for non-experts. This approach helps ensure they are accurate and accessible. The writers work to make them accessible by providing concrete worked examples of the suggested strategies.

Doing this involves naming a specific strategy, rating the level of evidence, and summarizing the evidence for it. Then the guide explains how to implement the strategy and provides sample scenarios. Finally a practice guide also identifies common roadblocks to successful implementation and how to overcome them.

1. Naming a Strategy

2. Level of Evidence

  1. See the bottom of the article for an explanation of the “level of evidence”.

3. Summary of Evidence

4. Implementing a Strategy

5. Sample Scenario

6. Roadblocks and Solutions

So that is what a practice guide is. How should you use a practice guide?

It is helpful to think of a practice guide as a set of generally applicable rules. All of its recommendations will not necessarily work for your particular circumstance. But, the practice guide should be based on a broad survey of the topic’s research, so it should generally be helpful. They will also be relatively quick reads (less than 1 hr).

If you are pressed for time or do not enjoy reading, go straight to the “strong” levels of evidence. Here you will find strategies that the writers deemed to be the most robust (proven in the lab and classroom). Then you should read through the section/s, thinking about your classroom, paying special attention to the “How to carry out the recommendation” and “Roadblocks/Solutions” sections.

At this point, plan it. Then do it.

*Remember to scroll to the bottom of the page to see an explanation of what the “Levels of Evidence” mean.

Links to some IES What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guides

1. Reducing Behavior Problems In The Elementary School Classroom Improving behavior in the elementary classroom with evidence. Includes 5 concrete strategies (Table 2, p12). Includes challenges of implementing strategies and provides solutions. *I disagree with how the summary uses the term “student needs”. But it is still helpful and worth reading.
2. Organizing Instruction And Study To Improve Student Learning How to include learning strategies in your classroom. Includes challenges of implementing strategies and provides solutions.

1. Spaced Repetition
2. Interleaving Worked Examples
3. Dual Coding
4. Concrete Examples
5. Retrieval Practice (Quizzes)
6. Teaching Study Skills
7. Deep Explanatory Questions

3. Teaching Elementary Students To Be Effective Writers Provides recommendations to enable elementary students to become effective writers.

1. Write everyday
2a. Teach students the writing process
2b. Teach students to write for a variety of purposes
3. Teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing, and word processing
4. Create an engaged community of writers

Pedagogy: Changing Minds Changing Lives

Education is rife with bad practices. The effects of these practices are clear and have devastating outcomes. We use Whole Language and Balanced Literacy to teach reading, avoiding the evidence and Synthetic Phonics. This leads to students who can’t read. We have similar problems with how we teach math, and similar outcomes. 

Unfortunately the consistently poor results of common educational practices have not pushed their promoters out of education or caused educators to take a serious look at research. What these poor practices have achieved is the complicating of thousands of lives, often along socioeconomic and racial lines. 

The sad truth is that consistently poor results have not been enough to create anything beyond a sincere yet generic belief that education is not perfect and does, in fact, have problems. 

Some individuals have done the soul-searching required to look at the evidence and change their practices, but the shame is that as an educational system we think the problem is outside, we think the problem is the others, and we leave our soul unexamined, our practices unchanged, our students condemned to a poor education.

This tragedy is happening because evidence alone is not enough to correct someone’s actions even if it can change their beliefs. Research from the article, Effective Messages In Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial in the journal Pediatrics found that correcting misconceptions does not necessarily lead to a change in actions.

“None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes.”


By itself, evidence can have strange effects. It can cause an intensification of views or over-corrections. Evidence can even be rejected outright because it conflicts with someone’s underlying beliefs (confirmation bias).

So what is a concerned teacher to do? It is obvious that we cannot just hang our heads and say, “Oh well.” The futures of too many children are at stake. The correlations between educational attainment and life outcomes are too clear for us to merely be concerned about our own classroom. In fact, caring about social justice demands us to work for change (See the disparities in the table above, or better yet peruse the 2019 Kids Count Data Book). Which brings us back to the original question, “If facts aren’t enough to change a teacher’s practice, what can we do? How can we change the practices of other teachers so that all students have a fair chance to learn?”

We cannot abandon facts. For facts help shape reality. However, reality is not created from mere facts. Reality is crafted from a concoction of facts and emotions. But this is particularly tricky. I am not comfortable engaging with contentious issues using emotion. It can devolve into mere anecdotes that tug on heartstrings. It can feel like I am flirting with some type of educational prosperity gospel, “Just do this, and your students will excel, be creative, lovely, and wonderful!” Playing on emotions is what cult leaders do.

And even so, emotions matter. We should use them to our advantage without manipulating others. 

We can do this by realizing that emotions are needed to make all decisions, even ones that seem to be just logical. 

A study by neuroscientists Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio R. Damasio in the journal Cerebral Cortex is summarized by ChangingMinds.org,

“Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had received brain injuries that had had one specific effect: to damage that part of the brain where emotions are generated. In all other respects they seemed normal – they just lost the ability to feel emotions.

The interesting thing he found was that their ability to make decisions was seriously impaired. They could logically describe what they should be doing, in practice they found it very difficult to make decisions about where to live, what to eat, etc.”

So, if we want people to change their actions we need to involve emotions, even when the data is clear. So, how do we use emotions in a non-manipulative manner?

We need to first get some type of initial investment, and then sustain it. Which is obvious if you pause and think about it. Too bad actually achieving this is not so clear or straight-forward.

I think this can be done in a similar way we get our students to become invested in learning. When we are passionate about what we teach, we are passionate in such a way that it draws students into the content. However, when we talk about how to teach (or politics or religion), our passion tends to turn divisive.

I think there are ways to harness our passion to make evidence informed teaching attractive to doubters. We need to tell a (true) story and not just spit out some facts about good pedagogy. This is challenging. (I am trying to write this blogpost to clearly convey the facts while appealing to emotion. It is taking much longer than normal and I am not sure how effective I am, but I’m convinced it is worth trying.) 

When we turn good pedagogy into a story, we make our methods larger than a mere procedure. When we fail to personalize the issue, to make it a story we often come off as cold and calculating, as if we think educating a child is a matter of plugging in an equation. So, tell a story.

In the rest of this article I will use explicit instruction as my example because I think an easy to digest system of instruction with a proven track record that is based on cognitive science. For those interested, there is an absolutely excellent book about explicit instruction written by Anita Archer Ph.D and Charles Hughes Ph.D called Explicit Instruction: Effective And Efficient Teaching.

You: “I use explicit instruction because I want children to change the world with their creativity and ability to think critically. I use explicit instruction because I want students to have fun in school. I use explicit instruction because I want students to be both tolerant and understanding about other cultures/values.” 

This also plays on the “others’ needs and goals from step #2. Everyone wants these things. Now they are intrigued. 

Them: “Why does your approach to teaching produce those results? Does it really work better than what I have been doing?” 

Now we can move on to step number three, “offering proof that socially desirable other people are already invested”. Basically this is an appeal to authority. Be careful! Remember! Use emotions, don’t manipulate. Appeals to authority can be useful.

You: “Here is what Professor X has to say about explicit instruction. She is very concerned about making education authentic and applicable to students.”

Doing this well involves knowing who you are talking to. Show them that your side shares many of the same goals as their side.

Them: “Oh, that’s interesting. So how does explicit instruction work?”

Now, hit them with the steps! Make it simple. Make it easy. Remember they are new to this and may not have a schema for explicit instruction. Give them small, easily applicable steps. Just like what you would do when you introduce your students to a new topic.

You: “Well, it’s basically like “I do. We do. You do.” You just need to make sure to fully explain and model something before having students work on it in groups or individually. This helps students apply what they are learning to real-life.”

By adding the last sentence and linking explicit instruction with real-life application, you are helping make it easier for the person to buy in. You are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one because you are showing them that explicit instruction is aligned with their values (Step #1 of sustained investment).

Them: “Oh, that sounds easy. I already use “I do. We do. You do. But doesn’t explicit instructions involve a lot of lecturing?”

You: “It’s great that you already use that method. The lecturing within explicit instruction always involves a lot of student interaction. It is never just teacher talk. For example, you briefly explain something and then you pose a question and students can work together to solve it. Then you can explain things a bit further and pose an application question where students again talk and work together to come up with an answer. All while clarifying and answering student questions yourself. So there is a variety of T-S, S-T, and S-S interaction. Explicit instruction is actually quite dynamic and it even encourages students to come up with creative answers.”

Them: “That is interesting. And it is a bit different than what I do.”

Here is where you can get them to give something they value, step #5. They likely value creativity, engagement, and critical thinking. Here you can, depending on the context of your conversation either encourage them to try it out in their classroom and/or share an accessible blogpost about it.

You: “Why don’t you try it out in your classroom I think you would see your students come up with some really creative answers, especially if you have them apply the skills your teaching to real-life. I’d love to hear how it went.”

By linking explicit instruction with creativity and “real-life” you are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one (step #1). A call to action includes step #2 of sustained investment. You are involving them in a public manner (in front of their students and in a conversation with you). 

Hopefully this will segue right into step #3 of sustain involvement by creating evidence that explicit instruction is working. This evidence may involve more engaged students, higher achievement, changing student attitudes towards the subject, etc.

Then, the last step, #4 involves trying to cement the change and making it difficult to divest. For teachers, I think that the best way to do this is to point at the changes they saw when they began consistently using explicit instruction and to give more data (research summaries work great for this). 

Now, will following this procedure always work? Of course not. But we know that simply telling people about research doesn’t really help. So let’s start our conversations by leading with the story of good pedagogy, don’t just jump to the procedure or statistical outcomes.The story invites those outside our circle to come in. Then, when real interest has been aroused, talk with or message them. Remember that the research is so persuasive to us, in part because of our experiences. Share your experiences and encourage them to apply good pedagogy. If we want them to see the educational light, show them the easy access points. Show them where good pedagogy aligns with their morals and views. Remove the barriers to good pedagogy and you might just change some minds. It might just change some students’ lives.

Planning For The Upcoming School Year

I have big plans for the upcoming school year. Foremost among them is to improve my teaching so that my students can learn more. I plan on accomplishing this primarily by more thoroughly, more consistently applying the science of learning in my classroom. 

I will accomplish this by giving my students knowledge organizers (KO) at the beginning of each chapter. The purpose of this is for my students to have an outline with the relevant vocabulary, concept questions/answers, and important diagrams. I will explicitly teach my students how to self quiz with the KO by covering up the term, definition, or answer column with a piece of paper and then saying/writing the answer. For a good introduction and primer on KOs and how to use them, check out this blog from Durrington High School.

erosion and deposition KO

I am also going to  ask my school to pay for a subscription to Quizlet. The purpose behind paying for Quizlet is to get access to the data. My plan will be to use Quizlet in class about once per week for ~10-15minutes, and to require students to use Quizlet for homework once per week. 

The questions students will be answering with Quizlet will involve nearly everything I want them to learn. The content will range from simple vocabulary memorization to concept questions. To see how to quickly and easily make flashcard decks with Quizlet, click here.

Quizlet should improve student learning by giving instant feedback and tracking their answers over time. I can harness this data to directly benefit my students by having them look at their own data and teaching them how to interpret it and then to spend more time studying what they struggle with. 

The data is also where I get the benefits of subscribing. Quizlet will aggregate the data for me and I will be able to see which questions are easy for students and which are hard, and the assignments will be automatically graded. I will have access to all of this at the click of a button, with NO GRADING. So, the hope is that I will improve student learning, be able to give specific feedback to individuals/groups/classes, be able to dig deeper into the content because students will be retaining more due to the spaced repetition and retrieval practice Quizlet provides. AND I should be able to do all of this while reducing my workload!

I am planning on using one more tech based tool, Seneca Learning. In my 6th grade class I will use the KS3 Geography content because it fits perfectly with Earth Science. My plan for this is to provide students with time to go through the modules about every other week. When the content is relevant but we do not have class time, it will be assigned as homework (Most of the modules can be done in less than 10 minutes).

This will be helpful because, like Quizlet, I will get data on student time and performance without having to grade the student work myself, saving time. Seneca Learning also does a good job of providing numerous examples, diagrams, and applications that reinforce and extend what we are learning.

I will need to be careful of how I have students use tech. I think the above tools are helpful, provided students engage with them smartly. In order to encourage this, I will have a zero tolerance policy with tech. If students are on the wrong website/playing, then their iPad will be taken away in a series of escalating lengths.

I am also planning explicitly teaching my students 6 effective study strategies. I will primarily teach my students about retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding. I will tell them about spacing, but the spacing will be more passive for my students (it will be based on my planning) whereas the students will be active in retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding.

These strategies will help them reap the full benefits of their own study time and improve their use of various study tools (KOs, Quizlet, Seneca, etc). 

One study strategy that I am focusing on in a new way will be elaboration. The elaboration study strategy involves providing explanations of ideas/concepts and making connections between different topics and your life. To facilitate this I made the worksheet shown below. At first, we will do the worksheet together. Then as students become used to the format and process they will have more and more independence.


The goal is to encourage my students to move from memorizing everything (This is a real problem in Taiwan) to seeing the relationships/distinctions between different vocabulary and concepts, which will help their memorization, understanding, and ability to apply what we are learning.

In order to help students make connections between what we are learning in the science classroom and the “real world” I am going to provide students with a handful of articles each month of which they will choose one to make connections with and summarize. They will also cite the article in a simplified format before moving to proper MLA format 2nd semester (Cross-curricular!).

Through all of this, I will give students regular low/no-stakes quizzes that require students to be able to know the vocabulary and concepts and apply them to different situations. The quizzes will generally take between 5-15 minutes of class time. This time includes checking their answers and clarifying misconceptions.

I am not implementing all of this from scratch. Doing all of this from ground zero would be impossible and lead to an exhausted teacher and less educated students. I am not implementing anything new, I am just tweaking how I use various tools with the goals of being more consistent and enabling my students to learn more.

To sum it up, I will

  1. Use Knowledge Organizers throughout my units
  2. Use Quizlet to help students learn both vocabulary and key concepts (retrieval and spaced practice)
  3. Use Seneca Learning to reinforce what my students are learning
  4. Teach and model effective study strategies (retrieval practice, elaboration, dual coding, etc)
  5. Encourage connections to the “real world” by requiring summaries of science articles
  6. Integrate low/no-stakes quizzing throughout all units

Choosing A School For Your Child: What To Look For

When parents are looking at schools for their children, what should they be looking for?

I would recommend focusing on a few areas.

A. School’s Overarching Philosophy
B. Academic Approach/Standards/Expectations
C. Teaching Reading

A. School’s Overarching Philosophy

It is probably impossible to find out an individual teacher’s approach because the school is not likely to allow you to interview its teachers (for good reason, teachers are busy!). But you can find out what the school’s basic philosophy is (or, at least the principal’s basic philosophy) when you are talking with an administrator about potentially enrolling your children at their school. 

In a school wide philosophy you should be looking for a generic approach to education. Is the school doing what they can to create a safe and warm environment? 

A huge part of creating a safe and warm environment involves rules, procedures, transitions, and discipline. It will be harder for parents to figure out rules and procedures because these likely vary from teacher to teacher. Hopefully there will be some school wide policies.

Things to ask about…

  1. Class Rules: Rules matter, and even rebellious children are acutely aware of when someone breaks the rules.
    1. There should be few written rules in a classroom. The reason for this being, simple rules can be broadly applied. Having many rules leads to an environment of expecting a specific rule for everything.
      1. For parents, you can ask the administrator general questions about class rules (there may be school-wide rules in every classroom). In an ideal case, you could ask for the classroom rules list from your child’s future teacher (This will not always be possible, and not being able to provide this is not indicative of a problem. However, being able to provide this would indicate a well organized school.)
    2. All the rules in my classroom: 
      1. Be respectful
      2. Be responsible
      3. Get work done
      4. Hopefully have fun
    3. The rules in your child’s classroom should be short and sweet. From this point, it is the teacher’s responsibility to elaborate on the rules. This gives the students clear examples and non-examples on what each rule means. The teacher will occasionally refer back to the rules, especially when a new circumstance comes up and the teacher needs to explain how the students broke one or more of the rules in a new and creative way. 
    4. I demand that students get work done (I would go as far as to say teachers who do not demand this are engaging in malpractice and should change their minds or leave the profession). 
    5. I include the “Hopefully have fun” as a rule because I want students to have fun and enjoy learning. But I cannot force fun. This rule is more about intentionally creating a positive classroom culture
  2. Class Procedures: Children, especially small children love routines because they love to know what is coming next. Why else would they ask you to read that book to them for the 8th time today?
    1. I think that the best a parent can likely do is to ask the administrator to see a class schedule/explain a typical day as this gets nitty gritty fast and will vary from teacher to teacher. 
    2. Once your child is enrolled however, hopefully the teacher will have a variety of verbal/visual cues that are used consistently. And hopefully each class has a clear structure, allowing your child to know what to do and to know how to be prepared. The structure needn’t be the same everyday, but is should be ~the same most days.
  3. Class transitions: How the school deals with non-teaching time is a big tell. 
    1. Ask about how students transition between classes. Ideally you would be able to observe students going to P.E./Art/Lunch/Recess.
    2. These transitions should not be chaotic, even for lunch/recess. If chaos is allowed, then that tells you something. Students who are in a class will lose learning time if the hallway outside their door is loud. This time adds up because there are many transitions each day.
  4. Discipline: You will learn bits and pieces about how the school deals with behavioral issues by asking about rules, procedures, and transitions but it is helpful to be direct.
    1. Hopefully the discipline policy of your child’s school will embody the “warm strict” approach.
      1. Here is a succinct Twitter thread on the warm/strict approach.
    2. Questions to ask about discipline would be..
      1. How does the discipline process work? When/How will parents be involved?
        1. What qualifies for an in-school/out of school suspension?
        2. Various forms of detentions
      2. How does the school deal with both the perpetrator and the victim of bullying?
  5. One way you can effectively get an inside peek at the schools practiced values as opposed to their stated values is to ask about the professional development (PD) they offer teachers.
    1. Ask how much money the school offers teachers for PD each year.
    2. Ask to see their professional development library. 
Good Books Bad Books
Powerful Teaching: by Pooja Argwal and Patrice Bain These books are all about having a powerful presence in the classroom and are essentially based on a cult of personality around the teacher (An unsustainable approach). Or the books are fluffy on content.
Understanding How We Learn: by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, and Oliver Cavigioli Teach Like A Pirate
Why Knowledge Matters by Ed Hirsch Jr. Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire
Bringing Words To Life by Isabel Beck Chicken Noodle Soup For The Teacher’s Soul
Making Kids Cleverer by David Didau Anything that reads like a list. Ex: 13 Quick Ways To Be A Better Teacher!
The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham
The Learning Rainforest by Tom Sherrington
Language At The Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg
The Curriculum by Mary Myatt
  1. The “Good Books” column are books that I can vouch for. I have certainly not provided anywhere close to an exhaustive list, but this list is relatively wide ranging, if focused on the teaching and learning aspects of education. 
  2. I would say that it would be great if the library included various books on how the cultural/economic backgrounds of students influences their education. Unfortunately I am not as well read on this topic so I have no suggestions because my teaching context is not particularly diverse (it is limited to upper-middle/upper class Taiwanese students).

B. Academic Approach/Standards/Expectations

Your child’s school will tell you that they have high academic standards. And of course they will. Your job is to figure out what this means. The place to start would be to ask about the academic standards.

  1. Academic Approach: The school will likely have what can either be categorized as a progressive approach (typically valuing experiences and social learning) or a traditional approach (typically valuing content knowledge). And, in all likelihood the school will self-identify as educationally progressive. This will involve being student-centered, project based learning, and inquiry learning. All of these things sound good, but they are actually harmful approaches, especially for struggling students.
    1. As a parent, what you can do is ask if the teachers use direct or explicit instruction. At its core, this is essentially an “I do, We do, You do” approach. Do the teachers teach and model the content and then give students practice? After practice and correction, are students given opportunities to apply what they have learned to different contexts?
    2. The best schools will fuse aspects from the progressive and traditional approaches. They should make sure students know the content with regular opportunities for students to show what they know (graded and ungraded). They should give ample opportunities for students to apply what they are learning. 
    3. A school should be judicious with how it does to group projects because it is too easy for one student to do all the work. It is also easy for students to do a project and not really learn anything of substance because they just look everything up as they need to. (Finding information on the internet is an important skill! But being able to find something does not indicate that learning has happened.)
      1. Schools should also regularly give students the chance to work together. Hopefully the school will intentionally build students’ social skills and ability to effectively work in groups.
  2. Academic Standards: In all likelihood your child’s school will use the Common Core Standards for English and Math and the Next Generation Science Standards for Science. For Social Studies there is not as much of an agreed upon standard. It could range from using an individual state’s standard or an associations standards.
    1. If the school has curated their own standards, beware. What does this mean?
    2. Looking into specific standards is a lot of work and, I think, not really necessary for parents. The purpose is to let you know what the school will broadly be teaching each year.
  3. Academic Expectations: Here is where the rubber starts to meet the road.
    1. What does the school do to help struggling students?
      1. There should be concrete steps. If the answer is vague, beware.
    2. What does the school do to challenge students who excel?
      1. There should be concrete steps. If the answer is vague, beware.

C. Teaching Reading

Even though this teaching reading is academic, I am giving the teaching of reading its own category because of its importance. Approaches called Whole Language and Balanced Literacy are common and their approaches make sense on a surface level. However, both have no validity. Both approaches result in many students who struggle to read. Your child’s school should teach phonics, and ideally will teach Synthetic Phonics.

If you are in a position to choose your child’s school and there is a school that sounds great but uses Whole Language or Balanced Literacy I would recommend avoiding that school. If you are in a position to choose, choose a school with Synthetic Phonics. 

ParkerPhonics is a great place to start learning about what your child’s school should be doing. Here he offers a detailed explainer on synthetic phonics.

This is a lot to think about, and it is unlikely you will have time to ask all these questions when you visit a school. But you can use this as a jumping off point.

Note: The best information will come from trusted inside sources. If you know a teacher at the school, ask them. Also, the best way to get a read on school culture and student behavior is to ask a substitute teacher because most students will be at their “worst” behavior for a sub.

Becoming a Consistent Teacher: Stares, Hand Signals, and Routines

My school year wrapped up and I might be happier than my students. It isn’t that I dislike my job or am burned out. It’s just that having a break is wonderful.

When I compare the end of this year with the end of last year, it is a world of difference. Last year, I was exhausted, burned out, and looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of getting away from work). This year, I am happy, have energy, and am looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of enjoying the break). The primary reason for this change is personal growth.

The primary areas I have grown is consistency in classroom management and classroom routines.

  1. Classroom Management

Having consistent classroom management procedures drastically improved my teaching and reduced my stress. My “secret” is so simple, it is a little ridiculous. 

“3, 2, 1, Stop.”

I hold one hand in the air and countdown with my hand and voice. At ‘stop’ my hand forms a fist and my voice rises in pitch.

That’s it. The beauty lies in the simplicity. The ‘countdown’ cues students to quickly come to a stopping point in their work/discussions. The ‘stop’ cues them to stop. The rise in pitch is yet another cue. If many students do not respond, I pose a rhetorical question, “When I say 3, 2, 1, Stop. What should you do?” This is generally enough to get most students to stop. But for those who require more assistance, I have found it effective to move into their proximity while giving them a teacher stare. 

The Teacher Stare

The teacher stare is not angry, happy, or blank. It clearly communicates displeasure and should always be accompanied/followed with a signal that directs the students towards proper behavior.

A few seconds have passed and, in all likelihood, you now have the misbehaving students’ attention. Once they are looking at you, you can use a hand signal to guide the students into proper behavior.

Pro Tip: If there are multiple students misbehaving across the room, you should give each group the teacher stare, moving towards the worst violators. At the same time, use hand signals to cue behaving students sitting near those misbehaving to get their attention. This could involve signaling the behaving students (near the misbehaving ones) to tap the misbehaving students on the shoulder and point towards the teacher.

Hand Signals

Hand signals work because they are clear and simple. They also work well for students who struggle with English because these students will already understand the concept of the signal (be quiet/open you book/write/etc), even if they do not understand the accompanying words. The key to hand signals, is being consistent. You must teach the signals before you use them and then you must use them regularly to ensure students remember what the signals mean (Teaching and reinforcing hand signals is a very quick process). You should find that regularly using hand signals improves student behavior and reduces the amount of time you spend correcting students.


Quiet Open your book/notebook You should be working (move your hand like you are writing, accompany with a look to imply, “get to work”)

Closed hands transition to open hands


The key to classroom management is being consistent and clear. Establishing simple routines and consistently applying/enforcing them is challenging at first because you are not used to it, and neither are your students. But it is worth it. You should persevere.

  1. Classroom Routines

The two types of classroom routines I have focused on building are procedural and transition routines. 

Procedural Routines

Procedural routines involve what students do once they have been given a task. It is easy to just have an inferred procedural routine, I gave “it” to you, so do “it”. But this is unnecessarily vague. Be intentional with your routines. Teach students how you want them to take notes. Organize your class to have the same overall structure each day. Have a few standardized formats for your worksheets. 

The purpose of this standardization in everything from lesson structure, notes, assignments is not for controlling students. The purpose of standardization is to allow for productive freedom. The standardization gives students the structure they need to be creative.

Transition Routines

Transition routines are imperative to build. But, if you observe an expert teacher they can seem to be naturally occurring. But they are not. Successful transitions are a result of careful planning and training. In order to grow in this area you must be intentional. Think about it, and try different setups and instructions in the classroom. Find one that works, and stick with it. 

What is the next step for students?

What do they need to bring?

Where do they need to go?

How should they go there?

What will students do when they get there?

Students will not naturally transition from one task or location to the next. Have a plan, train them. Praise them for their successes, even in something as small as a transition, because successful transitions are not small. A class that is full of successful transitions can easily save you 5 minutes each class. Those extra minutes add up very quickly.

I am certainly not done learning in these two areas, but the progress I made in classroom management and routines seems to have had an out sized impact on both my students’ learning and my quality of life. 

Effective Inquiry in Science Class

Science, as a discipline is intrinsically inquiry based. This is not up for debate. After all, the only way to discover something new is to ask new questions and seek new answers, to inquire. The scientific method, which provides the intellectual framework of science is also a method of inquiry.

Real scientists use inquiry, but they all, always rely on a wealth of background knowledge to make their inquiry productive. So when we as teachers have our students think like scientists we need to be very careful because our students are not scientists and therefor they do not have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from.

While inquiry will always be an important part of science, I believe we have deified it. Think about it. Scientists will often go to conferences or seminars to be lectured at. Why? To learn. To save time. Why take the time to rediscover what your colleagues at another school already discovered? Just listen to them explain it. So, even though scientists are experts in their fields, they still rely heavily on traditional methods (being told).

To be clear, I firmly believe that there should be room for inquiry in all science classrooms and that teaching students how to use inquiry based strategies like the scientific method is of paramount importance. However, I also believe that if we spend less time on inquiry based instruction, and more time on explicit instruction then our students will benefit because they will have developed more background knowledge to apply in novel situations. One way this benefit will be made manifest is in higher rates of success when we do an inquiry based activity.

When should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • Towards the end of a unit

How should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • To encourage students to make, recall, and extend connections between facts/topics/concepts they have already learned

Teachers should regularly use inquiry based instruction especially towards the end of a unit. This can be done in a way that encourages students to make connections between the various topics they have been learning about. For example, in a Biology course a student may learn about life-cycles, nutrient transfer and environmental conditions. The teacher could create an inquiry based activity with algae that requires students to make connections between the above topics.

The students would need to create and test a hypothesis (inquiry) applying what they have already learned through the teacher’s explicit instruction.

The teacher could just tell students these connections and save a lot of time but the purpose of allowing students to form and test their hypothesis is two-fold.

Benefit one: It gets the students using the scientific method.

Benefit two: It forces them to retrieve previously learned information and elaborate on it. The act of retrieval and elaboration help to strengthen and organizer student knowledge, which is the first step towards making knowledge flexible (applicable to varying contexts).

Note: Teachers should be making the relationships between various facts/topics/concepts clear throughout the course of a unit. So, most labs will, in a sense, simply be a test on if students can retrieve and apply previously learned information to a novel context.

So put this into practice. When you use inquiry in your science class, make it productive.