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.

Science Labs in Primary School: Content Knowledge

This is part two in a three part series.

Part 1. Science Labs in Primary Schools: Process Knowledge


The Second Key: Content Knowledge

If you want your students to be able to succeed in the lab, they need to know the science. Do not have your students “discover” the main idea or key concepts in the lab. This will work for some students, but not for struggling students. Teaching with this type of discovery in mind widens the achievement gap. Instead, teach your students the key vocabulary words and concepts before the lab. 

Giving Content Knowledge Requires Structure

The best way to give your students knowledge and skills involves a structured approach to teaching (The Third Key). This structure need not create a stiff, cold environment. In fact, if your structure creates this type of environment, I’d argue that your structure is bad and that you need to adjust your approach to classroom management.

Essentially, this means being an authoritative teacher. Or, in the vernacular of Teach Like a Champion, it means being warm/strict. But more on this in post three.

Instruction and Content Knowledge

We must help our students become critical thinkers if we want them to have a chance in the lab, because a lab is essentially applying background knowledge through critical thinking in order to solve a problem. Luckily for us, the research here is relatively clear. Critical thinking happens with what we already know (Willingham, 2007). 

A tried and true method that helps students learn more is the I do, We do, You do model. In this, we essentially do what it says. The teacher explains and demonstrates, then there is some sort of group work, and after several checks for understanding and feedback, students are ready for independent work.

I am partial to the Explicit Instruction model, which is essentially a detailed version of I do, We do, You do. Here is an overview of Explicit Instruction.

Checks for Understanding: No-Stakes Quizzes

One way I like to check for understanding is by giving a few no-stakes quizzes in the week or two leading up to a lab. Click here to see how I go about using no-stakes quizzes. In our checks for understanding, regardless of the format this takes (quiz, groupwork, assignment, etc) we should mix in a  variety of factual recall and transfer (application) questions covering the same content in different contexts.

Factual Recall Examples:

What is a convection current?
What causes a convection current to form?
Why does change in temperature cause convection currents to form?

Transfer (Application) Examples:

Describe how a convection current forms in our atmosphere.
How does a convection current form in the geosphere?
Explain how convection currents affect the ocean.
Why does your soup have convection currents?

This mix of questions helps to make knowledge flexible, meaning that students will be more likely to successfully apply what they have learned both in the lab and in their daily lives. This is the goal right?

Knowledge in the Lab

So, after we have taught in a way to ensure our students know about the content, they are ready to test and apply it in the lab. By having background knowledge, we are changing the type of questions our students will ask and therefore, we are changing their hypotheses.

For example, if we take a more discovery based approach to labs, we may have our students investigate the following question, “What happens when a heater is placed under a glass of water with dye at the bottom?” 

Whereas if we use a more explicit approach, our students will not ask this question, because they will already know what will happen and why it will happen.

Instead, students with greater background knowledge can ask more involved questions such as, “Will a larger temperature difference change the size or speed of the convection current?” “How will obstacles affect convection currents?” and many more.

This type of question is worth spending a lab on. The first question, “What happens when a heater…” is not worth a lab. It is worth a teacher demonstration. 

Help your students think critically, redeem labs by teaching knowledge. Give your students knowledge so that they may apply it.

Science Labs in Primary School: Process Knowledge

Doing a science lab with younger children can be stressful even to think about. I have made the choice to avoid labs before because I couldn’t figure out  a way to do it without wanting to rip my hair out.

But as my own hair is starting to fall out of its own accord, I have learned how to make labs with primary students relatively painless and certainly useful.

As I see it, there are three key parts of a successful lab with any age of students, but these components are even more important for young learners: process knowledge, content knowledge, structure and routine. 

The First Key: Process Knowledge

Students must understand the process of science before they can reasonably perform a lab. This will look a bit different depending on the level you teach. But the overall ideas remain the same. Our students should be familiar with an appropriate version of the scientific method.

By appropriate, I mean that we can adjust it to our students. A seven year old doesn’t necessarily need to memorize every step in the scientific method. But the seven year old should understand the scientific method to be something along the lines of, “I use what I know to make a hypothesis. Then I test it. I write what happens. I test it again and write it down again. Finally I say why my hypothesis was right or wrong.”

Content Light On Purpose

When I am introducing the scientific method, I want my students to focus on the scientific method, not the “science content”. I go about this by doing what I call a “content light” lab. This is on a topic I am certain my students have good knowledge on. This allows them to better focus on following the steps of the scientific method without being distracted by complex procedures the experiment’s outcomes.

For example, I would not teach the scientific method with a chemical reactions lab. Mixing acids and bases is great fun, but it would not lead to a focus on the scientific method. Students would likely be distracted by the complex procedures and or the novelty of the experience.

Content Light Labs

For a content light lab, we take notes on one step of the scientific method and then we immediately apply it in short steps. One of my go to’s for this is a lab on gravity. My students already have background knowledge (Second Key), the testing procedure is simple, and it is fast. All of this works together to allow students to focus on the scientific method.

Example

1a. Define background knowledge: what you already know about a topic
1b. What do you know about gravity? Jot down this info as a class below the definition

2a. Define hypothesis: Using what you know to to explain what you think will happen in a testable and repeatable way
(This takes longer as you have to explain testable and repeatable)
2b. If I drop ‘Object A’ and ‘Object B’ at the same height, then “Object A/B’ will fall to the ground at a faster/slower/same rate.
(Feel free to adjust how you require students to form their hypotheses. But I do recommend always writing them in the same format. This makes it easier for students to focus on the science, not the writing.)

3a. Define procedure: steps to perform the experiment
3b. Grab two objects (not a single piece of paper) and drop them from the same height, then record the results.

4a. Define test: Doing the experiment
4b. Perform the procedure

5a. And so on…

The most challenging part here is step 4b. This is where the lesson is most likely to crash and burn. The way you can avoid this is with the third key, structure and routine. I will write about this more in a future post, but in brief here is my advice.

Have students perform step 4b in unison by following your direction.
Ex: “Ok, grab the two objects you decided to test. Everybody ready? Ok, good. Now hold them up, make sure they are the same height. Now, when I say go, drop them. Ready? 3, 2, 1 Go!”

The Second Key: Content Knowledge
The Third Key: Structure and Routine

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!

Teaching The Scientific Method: Asking A Question

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/Knowledge
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Design Experiment
  5. Test and Retest
  6. Analyze Data
  7. Draw Conclusions
  8. Communicate Results

Ask a question

It starts with a question, but a question is always preceded by an observation. This means that we must teach our students how to observe. Even though observations are simple, do not assume your students will understand it because you think it is easy. You will have students make unscientific observations. As a way to circumvent this, give your students a simple definition with simple rules to follow. Then give them both examples and non-examples.

Observation: Learning something with your sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing.

Rules: Not an opinion. Not an inference.

Non-Example Example
“The ants want to climb the tree.” (inference) “The ants are climbing the tree.”
“The flower is beautiful.” (opinion) “The flower has a green stem and purple petals.”

Even with a simple, child friendly definition with simple rules to follow, you will still have students making inferences and creating opinions instead of observations. The only way to fix this is to explicitly model and explain how you make observations and then to give students lots of practice and feedback as individuals or groups.

One way to make their practice more effective can be to have students change an opinion or inference into an observation. For this, you will need to model and explain it first. Again, even if it seems simple to you, it isn’t for your students. If your students thought it was simple, they would do it and get it right.

With that being said, making observations are still simple enough for your students to learn relatively quickly provided they receive explicit modeling and practice with feedback.

Think about every single step you automatically take as you go through the scientific method. You will find that the scientific method is a simplification of the scientific process. Explain and model the little steps, not just the ones your scientific method poster lists on the wall.

To Recap, give your students…

  1. A child friendly definition
  2. Simple rules
  3. Both non-examples and examples
  4. A model on how to make observations
  5. Practice with feedback