Science Labs in Primary School: Structure and Routine

Process and content knowledge are in the foreground because they are what students do or produce. But, both become possible only when structure and routine are operating in the background.

One of the primary ways teachers can shape the structure of their class is by how they manage it. How you choose to reinforce positive behavior and discipline negative behavior has a substantial effect on learning. There are many ways and approaches to this, but the best fall closely in line with the approach of authoritative parenting. Warm/Strict is a popular application of this method. For more, you can read about it here, here, and here.

Some Principles of Classroom Management

Essentially this means teachers should manage the class…

  • with clear, high expectations (behavioral and academic)
  • with support students to help them achieve expectations
  • with clear, fair rules enforced with fair consequences
  • with an understanding of extenuating circumstances
  • with everything done in genuine warmth towards the students

The bookends to the above list are the most important because when paired, they make the rest possible. High expectations without genuine warmth all too often leads to more authoritarian approaches. And, to say it simply, genuine warmth towards students without high expectations is flat out impossible. This is a false warmth. If you are treating students “warmly” but not demanding students work towards a high bar, you aren’t being kind or caring for them. Instead, you are actively working to reduce their potential.

Structure Puts Principles Action

Principles are not put into actions by pasting posters on the wall or even by telling students the rules and enforcing them. They are only put into action if you model the principles and support students as they strive towards them, providing discipline when needed.

One simple way to put the first three principles in action is with facial expressions and gestures. It may sound strange, but getting a variety of expressions and gestures down will make your life as a teacher better and will make handling disruptions smoother. These small routines provide structure that gives your students the support they need to reach the high expectations we must have.

When a student is off task, catch their eyes and give them the look. When they acknowledge you, nod and move on.
When a student isn’t writing and they should be, catch their eyes and pantomime writing with one hand holding a pen and the other being paper.
Etc.

What is key here is that students understand what the signals mean. If students are guessing the purpose, it will not be effective. Introduce the signals and tell students what they mean. Take guesswork out of the equation. This allows you to redirect students quickly, directly, and subtly.
*Note: These work best for minor disruptions, you will need other tools to deal with more significant problems.

In addition, these signals make transitions easier. Something as simple as a 3, 2, 1 Stop! (slightly increased pitch on the “Stop”) accompanied with a hand countdown makes it very clear to students that they need to finish and look at you. Whatever you choose to use for transitions, be consistent and make sure students know what the signals mean.

These structures are supports. They allow students to put their efforts towards achieving academically because they provide focus. They allow students to reach that high behavior bar you set because they provide clear direction, making it easier for students to stay on task.

Structure in the Lab

We must bring these established structures and routines to the lab with our class. The strategies are versatile enough to survive the new and exciting environment. As you enter the lab, expect for your students to be excited and to need a bit more correcting and time to settle in/transition than normal.

Stick to your already established structures and routines. Your students will adjust. Labs are naturally a bit more chaotic than a normal class. This makes structure and routines all the more important. Settle your students down by using the countdown or some other method. Then give instructions (verbally and written). It will be best if you can pass out a small sheet of paper with the instructions. This gives students a reminder that stays right in front of them.

Make sure all eyes are on you as you model step one. Be explicit about your directions. Say something like, “You have 15 seconds to set up step one, Go!” Then bring attention back to you with whatever already established method you’ve chosen. Once everyone is refocused, go on to the next step, and so on.

Keep a snappy pace. This will keep faster students focused. And students who move more slowly will be able to follow along just fine because they will have your model for each step.

Transitioning into Less-Structured Activities

Follow a similar structure when you are moving from one part of the lab to another. Once the setup is done and the experiment is ready to begin, you will still want to have teacher led transitions. This reduces confusion. 

Chaos is more susceptible when students are making observations or inferences. There is only so much we can do here. I like to preface these activities by briefly reviewing whatever we have learned and having students reread their hypotheses. I find that this helps transition their minds go from setting up the lab to being ready to actually do it. Then I say, “You will have 2 minutes to make observations. You have to talk to your partners, but you must talk like you are in a library. Do you understand?” 

My students are familiar with this routine and know to respond with a whispered, “Yes, we understand.” I often have to repeat this part a second time because they respond at a normal or even excited volume. But, this makes my expectations explicit. There is no guesswork and, as a result, my students work quietly and are focused during observation time. Then I set them loose to make observations or inferences with a hand signal.

Long Term Goals

Remember, we have primary students, they are not experts in the lab. The lab is still relatively new and mysterious to them. The structure is there to help them succeed. As you do more labs, you can gradually give students more freedom. But make sure they can succeed with it. We don’t want free students that drown in freedom. We want them to swim in it. And the best way to do that is for them to internalize the high expectations, structures, and routines you choose to create.

So give your students freedom by ensuring they have the necessary process knowledge and content knowledge for the lab. Give your students freedom by providing structure and routines. When they are ready, let them swim.

How To Teach A Science Lab: Like A Circus

Labs are the most difficult component to teaching science and it can feel like you are trying to conduct a circus performance on the fly. They are difficult primarily because they are not something you or your students do everyday. You do not have as much practice teaching labs, because most of your lessons are not a lab. Most of your lessons involve you teaching background knowledge and having students apply it in a theoretical sense. Whereas a lab involves applying knowledge in a practical sense.

Think of the circus. Before the performers can perform, they must practice each step many times so they can understand and know what to do and when/how to do it. Science labs are similar. Before most of your students can perform a lab, they must have enough subject background knowledge to effectively create and test a hypothesis (an outstanding few will come in with enough background knowledge) while also already possessing background knowledge of how to use the scientific method.

Then, you MUST require students to write some type of lab report. The entire purpose of the lab is to one, apply what students have been learning and two, further their knowledge in their testing of the hypothesis. Writing a lab report forces the student to reflect on what happened and why. The why has students looking back on what they have already learned in an effort to explain or justify what went right/wrong/as expected.

I have found that doing labs well requires spending an entire week on them (My students have 3 science classes per week). The amount of time you spend on a lab will vary depending on the level of students you teach (My students are 5th-6th grade).

Stage 1: Prep For The Lab

The first class involves preparing students for the lab. In this we review the background information, present the question, create a hypothesis (whole class, group, or individual depending on the lab), write the needed materials, and write the procedure. After you have done several labs in the same format, this stage can be done outside of class. You will need to have some sort of quality control for the procedure, otherwise chaos will reign when you teach the lab.

Stage 2: Perform The Lab

In the second class we perform the lab. This is the most difficult part of teaching a lab for obvious reasons. In order to reduce both difficulty and frustration, I have found the following to be extremely helpful. HAVE CLEAR RULES AND ENFORCE THEM!

  1. Hopefully you have fun. You must get work done.
  2. You must perform one step at a time (by following the teacher’s lead)
  3. You must communicate quietly, in whispers
  4. Record all you data and observations
  5. Cleanup quickly and quietly

That is it. Some may cringe when they read rule number one and two. But that is only because they are reading them draconian measures. Simply, they are not. Rule one works well because it rhymes and students remember it. I tell them that science is fun and I hope they enjoy labs and classes (I do!) but that they are here to learn first and foremost so I require them to work (I demand it!).

The second rule is also eminently necessary for a successful lab, especially for younger students who have less knowledge of both science content and the scientific method. By following step-by-step, standardized instructions you minimize off task behavior and guarantee that students are actually testing their hypothesis, making the lab successful.

That being said, there is a benefit and reason for allowing students to go at their own pace with their own procedure (often nearer the end of a term). When doing this, you are assessing how well the students can follow the scientific method in addition to their understanding of the current content and you will find that many students/groups will need more time to complete the lab.

Stage 3: The Report

The entire third class consists of writing a lab report. The report begins with students analyzing their data. Generally this will involve students creating and interpreting a graph. After this, students will accept or reject their hypothesis. This will then be followed by at least a paragraph explaining why they accept/reject their hypothesis with explicit references to their data.

Again, if you do not require your students to write a lab report, what is the point of doing the lab? It will hopefully be fun, but the purpose is to have students apply/learn the scientific method and to learn more about science. This is best done by requiring reflection in the form of lab reports. Do the lab reports!

After you have done several labs with students, the report can generally be done successfully outside of class (use your discernment).

Labs are a crazy circus. Embrace it. Teach them like the circus they are by training your students and they will wow you with their creative performances, just like the circus!