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.

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!