Teaching The Scientific Method: Background Research

If you teach primary science, then you will inevitably find yourself teaching the scientific method.

2013-updated_scientific-method-steps_v6

  1. Asking A Question
  2. Background Research
  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 examples and can walk you through how to apply the science of learning to your teaching.

Background 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 question. 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! Now, you need not always 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! And time saving for you too, no stakes=no grading!

Ideally you will have enough time to reteach information to correct misperceptions 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. 

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!

Teaching The Scientific Method: Hypothesis

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

In order to teach students how to write a hypothesis, you must first give them background knowledge. This is imperative. Elementary students are, by definition studying elementary topics, even top students will have a relatively low level of background knowledge.

In short, you must plan out what your students will need to know before they begin a lab. What background knowledge do they need? How will you make sure they know it before the lab?

 After your students have made observations and obtained the necessary background knowledge, they can begin working on their hypothesis.

Hypothesis: An idea that helps you learn about the world that is testable and repeatable

I start by teaching what testable and repeatable are by using a seemingly ridiculous hypothesis. “If I let go of this pen, then it will go up because of the force of gravity.”

Students think it is funny because the hypothesis is obviously wrong. And I want them to know it is wrong! So I repeat the phrase, and let the pen go to test my hypothesis. Next, I ask my students what happened. Finally I repeat the hypothesis and experiment.

Then I ask, “Was the hypothesis testable?” and “Could I repeat the experiment?” And I follow that with, “Was my hypothesis correct?” 

This leads to something many students find counterintuitive. A hypothesis can be both valid and wrong. Over the course of a school year, I will repeatedly ask my students if a hypothesis can be wrong and be valid because it is important.

Writing A Hypothesis

Then, when we begin working on writing hypotheses. I teach my students to use the “If….Then…Because…” format. I always keep the format the same. This makes the scientific method easier to learn because this step is never changes and makes it easier for students to focus on the science content.

The Variables

Next, I teach my students about variables by writing the definitions and linking them to my hypothesis and the If, Then, Because format.

Independent variable: The variable you change
The ‘If’ statement identifies the independent variable/s (what the student changes).
Letting go of the pen is the independent variable.

Dependent variable: The variable you measure
The ‘Then’ statement identifies the dependent variable/s (what the student measures).
What happens to the pen is the dependent variable.

Next we go over the control variable.
Control variable: What you must keep the same
The height and force that the pen is let go with must be the same in every trial of the experiment.

The Reason

The ‘Because’ statement identifies the proposed reason “something” will happen. This should be based on their background knowledge that you have already taught them.
The force of gravity is the proposed reason.

Putting It All Together

The ‘If’ statement identifies the independent variable/s (what the student changes).
The ‘Then’ statement identifies the dependent variable/s (what the student measures).
The ‘Because’ statement identifies the proposed reason “something” will happen.

What I do in the next class is to have students practice identifying variables in various experiments. Generally, elementary students will be better at identifying control variables than discriminating between independent and dependent variables. That is fine. Expect them to struggle initially and give them regular practice. They will improve. You will improve in your explanations and examples too! Hypotheses are tricky. Work at them and practice it with your students.

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!

Day 1: Messy Labs and Learning

I am an elementary science teacher and I have decided to start a long term science lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Getting 5th graders to set up an aquaponics system is no small task. It was messy.

I was limited to 6 small aquariums to split among 60 students. I decided that groups of 5 would be best, with each group responsible for ½ of the aquarium. Here is a picture of the finished aquaponics system.

While one group of 5 was prepping their half of the aquarium portion, the other was preparing the growbed for our chia and mung bean seeds.

Things were smooth to this point. But shortly afterwards, it devolved into chaos. The group prepping the growbed was supposed to read through the lesson in the textbook when they finished and then they would transition to preparing their half of the aquarium. However, only the conscientious students did this. Many good students and nearly all of my poorer students did next to no reading and decided to chat and play instead.

I believe the reason for this is twofold. One, the area each group should be working in was not clear. Two, I did not have students create a product with the reading. So many students likely felt that they could just do it later or not at all because they are not producing any work for me to grade.

Now, I believe that my students should do as they are told. They didn’t, and their poor behavior is on them. But at the same time, I am responsible for the structure and content of my lessons. The unclarity that helped lead to poor behavior is on me.

In the future, I will clearly demark the areas for each group. This will remove one uncertainty. Students will know where they should be. I will also make students produce some type of work. By forcing students to make a product, I am giving them a concrete goal, something tangible that can be measured. I will also be guiding my students via the assignment.

I believe that these two, relatively small tweaks to my lesson plan will have outsized outcomes. I will find out if this is true tomorrow, when half the class will make observations while the other half does some research. Today was messy, but groundwork for the lab and learning was laid.