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Productive Discussions in Science

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What does a productive science discussion look like? Learn about the principles of doing science talks in an inquiry-based classroom where students are encouraged to find the answers for themselves.

What are Science Talks?

Science is about exploring the natural world, but that means science is also about answering questions that we have about that world. One of the reasons that science can be dull to some students is the fact that the questions we're answering in science class aren't always the questions that students are wondering. Children are naturally curious. So when you open up the classroom to their actual questions, it's amazing how much interest can surface.

A science talk is a discussion in a science classroom where students attempt to come up with an answer to a posed question, based on discussion and reasoning. These can be questions that the teacher comes up with, but some of the best science talks are where relevant questions are posed by students.

Science talks and discussions are a major part of what's called an inquiry-based classroom. This is a classroom where students try to figure out science questions, and do experiments and activities to see science in action for themselves. Instead of being told everything, they are able to figure it out and explore in the same way scientists do.

While clearly it's impossible for children to re-create hundreds of years of scientific discovery, with some guidance they can still figure out a lot on their own. If experiments are one side of the coin that is an inquiry-based classroom, science talks are the other.

Inquiry-based classrooms also do a lot of experiments
Inquiry-based classrooms also do a lot of experiments

How to Facilitate a Productive Discussion

So how do you run a science talk? What makes a talk productive and useful? In an ideal and productive science discussion, students will pose the ideas on what the answer to a question might be.

For example, they may be trying to figure out what causes the different phases of the moon. It's possible that a student in the class will know exactly what causes them. In that case, it is wise to ask them to allow the discussion to continue a little further before interjecting.

For those who don't have a full picture of what causes them, the discussion can be quite interesting. In figuring this out, students can pose their ideas, draw on a white board, or act out the positions of the sun, moon, and earth. They can try to remember how often the earth spins on its axis, how often the moon orbits the earth, how often the earth orbits the sun, and try to see how everything fits together.

They can even test things out using flashlights and shadows. If you leave students to figure it out for themselves, you may find yourself in all kinds of interesting and heated discussions. This might be a resolved question in science, but to them it's a process of discovery.

Science talks can involve activities
Science talks can involve activities

How To Handle Tangents and Resist Answering the Question

It's very easy for students in a science discussion to get off topic, or go on tangents that aren't useful. Sometimes dead-end tangents are important learning experiences in themselves, and you shouldn't rush to correct them. But there are also limitations of time which means sometimes you have to. Nevertheless, it's possible to do it in a way that doesn't shut down the conversation.

For example, you can pose problems with what they suggest, or point out that a student in the class said something interesting that was overlooked, or suggest activities that might help them figure it out. There are subtle ways to help without telling them the answer directly.

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