Debating Real Scientific Questions Fosters Deeper Learning
This piece is by Hillary Mills, Academic Dean and Instructional Coach at MELS in NYC and was originally published on Education Week's Learning Deeply blog.
"Ms. Mills, do you really find what we say interesting?" It was an honest question from one of my 11th grade scientists. I paused, smiled, and answered with the strongest, most honest, "yes!" I care about what my students think. I wonder why they have such wild and crazy ideas, or why they latch onto certain information or a particular learning experience, or why they have a scientific misconception that is leading them to some serious confusion.
This genuine interest and inquiry into what my students think and why they think what they think is a foundational characteristic of a learning space where students learn deeply. Their voices, their ideas, and their thought processes have space to grow and are validated not with a "that's correct!" or "you got it" but with logical connections that lead to more questions and more learning. Because I see and hear my students' perspectives, they start to believe in themselves. They also see and hear each other and therefore push each other to deepen their learning and curiosity.
Deeper learning is most likely to happen when students are exploring a genuine question together. In the science classroom, I chose the topic and ensured that it aligned with state standards and other academic requirements. Nevertheless, I am there as a facilitator of the learning, which means I am truly learning with my students. I am interested in what they say and what they think because with each new idea or each question, I am learning too.
I circulate and sit with each small group as they break down a scientific diagram or as they are listening and learning from each other during an expert text share out, and I take notes too. I often see something new that I didn’t see before, or I hear a question that I didn’t think about before. By putting myself in the space of being a true learner, I am setting the expectation and the standard that every person in our learning community has the responsibility to be actively learning. These small interactions of honest collaboration between teacher and student and among all students help to build a strong foundation that validates student voice and student ideas. A sense of validation and recognition that there is space for their individual perspectives strengthens students’ courage and willingness to put their ideas out there, to ask the difficult questions, and to disagree with their classmates. Young scientists debate with each other because they are genuinely interested in the question they are exploring. They want to know more, they want to push their own thinking and they want to prove that they are on the right track.
The two-part video below shows my students learning deeply through a meaty and compelling scientific conversation that leads to making arguments supported by scientific evidence they’ve collected themselves.
Preparing for an Academic Conversation, Day 1: Analyzing a Scientific Document
Preparing for an Academic Conversation, Day 2: Constructing Arguments Using Science Notebooks
One of my seniors reminded me the other day that one of the reasons that we were able to have such rich conversations and really delve into some deeper learning together is that we established and practiced routines and structures that supported this way of thinking and learning. She was right. We have clear expectations of organization, of how to document ideas and learning, how to respond to each other, how to question, how to analyze documents, images, experiences and ideas. To establish these structures and systems, I explicitly taught them and used them over and over again. The structures evolved as my students comfort with them also evolved. This clear and purposeful foundation allowed my students to find success in a new way of thinking and learning together.
There were some serious failures along the way. Some systems never saw a second day. Sometimes the difficulty of a task brought frustration and the desire to give up instead of joy and curiosity. Professional scientists face failure and challenge frequently! What keeps us going is the fact that our work as scientists matters, and that as a fellow scientist I am interested in what they think and the questions they have throughout the process. Authentic questions and respectful engaged debate based on evidence lead us through the moments of frustration and confusion to academic success. In the end students generate a celebratory curiosity that empowers them to keep tackling real-world questions as they continue to learn.
If you would like to learn more about Hillary Mills’ work, she is one many teachers featured in EL Education’s brand new book Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction and the companion open-source video series, filmed and produced by David Grant.