Middle School Series • Energy and phase change

Nov 17, 2016

In this series, we visit the classroom of a middle school teacher. She is leading her students through a unit on the energy story behind phase change. We share her story with you—who her students are, how she plans, and how her instruction unfolds in a responsive and intentional way over the course of three weeks.
Opening interview with teacher
Our middle school teacher, Anna, describes her school and students. She frames her goals for instruction in terms of how she wants students to develop ideas over time, and learn to participate in science practices. Middle school is a time of transition and identity-building for young learners, and teaching routines have to support that journey.

Planning a unit of instruction
Two words to describe Anna’s planning—intentional and systematic. She uses the first set of core practices to modify her existing curriculum and design a sequence of learning experiences for her students. These experiences all build towards an understanding of a complex, puzzling anchoring event.

Eliciting students' initial ideas
Here the teacher uses the second of the four core teaching practices. She elicits students’ ideas. In this case its about the distillation of a soft drink into pure water (or so it appears). Her students can be heard drawing upon outside-of-school experiences, things they’ve seen in the media, everyday language, prior instructed ideas, and more. This teaching also activates prior knowledge, so that students collectively can hear what previous knowledge they have might be valuable to draw upon as this unit unfolds. In addition to all this, Anna begins students on the science practice of modeling. She uses are strategy called a whole class consensus model to make more of students’ thinking visible.

Adapting instruction
The teacher talks with us the next day about what she heard from students. The whole class model she had them contribute to tells her a great deal about where her students are currently strong and where they have weaknesses in their thinking.

Eliciting and 'working on students' ideas"
Anna now “goes to work on students’ ideas.” How does a teacher do this? In this case, Anna shows students a list of their own hypotheses (drawn from their models and initial explanations from the previous day). She asks them to take a stand on which sounds most reasonable, given their observations and what they know of science already. This sparks conversations that get students to compare and contrast hypotheses. It also generates talk about evidence. Anna has organizational routines too, that are worth paying attention to.

Supporting ongoing changes in student thinking
Here the teacher begins the third set of core practices—supporting on-going changes in student thinking. She has students reason along with her about an investigation she does (it is only the third week of school, and this activity involves open flame, in upcoming investigations students do the work in groups). This investigation is about thermal conductivity. Anna has adapted her sequence of learning activities, because she knows that her students are “speaking the language” of energy yet, as they wrestle with explanations of how the distillation works. She wants the class to come up with a definition for heat, rather than memorize something from a textbook that they are really making sense of. The teacher can also be seen here engaging students in routines that organize their work and routines for participating in science talk.

Science theater
Because the concept of heat and how it can be transferred is so important, Anna keeps developing this idea with students. One of her students comes up with the analogy that heat is like dominos, that it can get passed from one place to another. Anna engages students in “Science Theater,” a way of representing an unobservable phenomenon by using students themselves in motion. A couple of students later take ownership of directing the action. Anna is patient with the initial craziness, it pays off in the end.

How a summary table is constructed by students
Want to see how a Summary Table is explained to students and how you can get them to participate in intellectual work? This is the video for you.

Examples of supporting sense-making
This video is a montage of several days of work in which Anna has her students engage in more investigations. These are additional examples of the teaching practices of “Supporting on-going changes in student thinking.” She starts off one of the days with some direct instruction. Lots of attempts at sense-making talk here. By “sense-making talk” we do not mean that the teachers talks sense into the students, or that through some magical routine the teacher can infuse meaningful understanding in the mind of the student. Sense-making talk is an on-going set of exchanges intended to get students to question their own reasoning and compare their thinking to that of others. Understanding, as you can see in this video, is fragile, it can be temporary or it can be linked to a particular context. Understanding take time.

Using students' outside-of-school experiences
The famous Starbuck’s cup experiment! Here Anna uses an experience that one of her students had to anchor an important lesson on condensation. Where did the water on the outside of a cold drink come from? This video features the use of evidence by Anna and by students as they debate two questions. Is there water in the air? And did the water on the Starbuck’s cup come form inside or outside the cup? Because of her students’ thinking on the first day of this lesson, she develops a new variation of the activity on the second day. Lots of sense-making conversation here.

Pressing for evidence-based models and explanations
Here Anna presses her students to revise the whole class consensus model, given what they now know.

This is the fourth set of teaching practices. Here Anna presses her students to revise the whole class consensus model, given what they now know. She also has students do individual models and include on these where they drew evidence from for various features of the model. This is a variation of the argumentation part of the core practice. Anna has, in fact been using argumentative language with students over the past few days, asking them to refer to evidence and to compare the credibility of ideas (see the Starbuck’s cup video as an example). Near the end of the unit, Anna realizes that her students do not know “what counts” as evidence or what counts as a good explanation. She brings them to the back of her room, to her “idea space” and has an interactive but explicit conversation with them about these two ideas. She co-constructs criteria for both with her students.

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