Bringing Students’ Questions Into the Learning Experience

How can we bring student questioning into the learning experience?

As a teacher, I love it when my students ask questions. In my opinion, every question serves a purpose and there can be no “stupid” questions, though I agree that the form of a question makes some questions more probing than others. (If you are interested in formulating strong questions, I encourage you to read my post on Motivating My Teaching Through Asking Questions.) But empowering students to ask questions is only a piece of the picture – it takes careful planning and finesse to use those questions as fodder for the learning experience.

Why Do Students Ask Questions?

I mean, why do any of us ask questions? Of course, as with anything, it depends on the student. Some students ask questions because they genuinely don’t understand the material. Some students ask questions because they understand, but seek clarification. Some students ask questions because they want to understand the underlying concepts and themes of the material. Some students ask questions simply because they want their voice to be heard. None of these are inherently “bad”; if anything, the kinds of questions our students ask provides further insight for teachers into who their students are. Is my student the kind of student that simply wants to understand? Is my student a naturally inquisitive mind? Is my student one that does things to produce a laugh? (as they do when they ask the question, “Is water wet?”)

Regardless of the rationale, having an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions is one of the most important qualities I hope to foster as a teacher. With questions comes a vulnerability in “not knowing” – fostering a community of learners where we can not only ask questions of the teacher, but of each other as well, promotes a sense of collaboration that parallels how science (and learning) gets done in the real world.

A Bit of Context…

My unit focuses on atomic theory, including the timeline of how atomic theorists came up with a model of the atom, subatomic particles, the structure of an atom, etc. (Please read my post HERE if you are curious about the specific content I cover as well as how to frame that content according to the big ideas in and about science.)

I framed the context of this unit around the phenomenon of using static electricity to bend a stream of water. Students were given a balloon and a cup with a hole in the bottom and asked: “How can you make the water move without touching anything together?” It didn’t take them long to start rubbing the balloon on their hair and shouting, “Mr. K, LOOK, I did it!” You can observe what they came up with below:

Bending Water with a Balloon

How do electrostatic attractions help us to bend water?That's the exact question my students began thinking about today in class! Students were challenged to, without touching any objects together, use a balloon and a cup with a hole in the bottom to make a stream of water move. This was the end result. 7th graders are BRILLIANT!Pedagogically speaking, this was the first day of our new unit on Atomic Theory! Anchoring a unit in a specific phenomenon is a great way to get students engaged and interested while also drawing out observations, asking questions about why the phenomenon happens, and drawing initial models/creating initial explanations for why this happens. Discussing what makes a "good" scientific model and how our learning will connect back to this phenomenon will (1) contextualize our learning experiences and (2) provide a great means of analyzing and revising students' initial models as the unit progresses!

Posted by Mr. Kostka Science on Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Incorporating Student Questions

It’s not just about getting students to ask really good questions – we have to use those questions in designing our learning experiences. That can involve multiple methods, including answering questions on-the-spot, delaying the gratification of a question they will be able to answer on their own later in the unit, or derailing from the planned learning experience to answer a question that probes deeper than you anticipated. In any of these cases, using student questioning to drive learning and to dig deeper promote scientific inquiry and exploration.

I started my unit by introducing the bending water phenomenon. Before we drew our initial models to describe the underlying science, I had them write down a bunch of observations and questions about what they saw and why they saw it. Pictured to the right is the list of questions (as well as what they believe makes a “good” model) from two of my classes. Before we drew our final models, I had them review the questions they asked on day 1 and, independently, star/highlight/underline the questions about the phenomenon they believe they can answer now. This led to an amazing discussion afterward where students were answering their own questions!

The Process: Before this class, I made a “gotta-have” list of topics and concepts that I wanted students to include in their final models. This gotta-have list included the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of rubbing the balloon? (Ans: so the balloon can pick up negative electrons and carry a charge.)
  2. What are the properties of water that cause this to happen? (Ans: since water is polar, it has one side that is positively charged (H) and one side that is negatively charged (O).)
  3. Why does the water bend toward the balloon? (Ans: because the balloon is negatively charged, it attracts the positive charges/positive side in the water molecule.)

As students highlighted/starred/underlined questions, I circulated around the room and took note of who starred the questions I anticipated answering. I made a mental note to call on those students, but also made a note to call on certain students who starred questions that I thought could lead us to developing more “aligned” questions. After these noticings, I called on certain students to tell me which question(s) they believed we could answer now as well as what they believe the answer is. As they explained, I listened. When they finished explaining, I did one of two things:

  1. I wrote down the exact question if it matched the “gotta-have” question I anticipated for them to include in their final discussions. I said, “This would be a great question to answer in your final explanations of this phenomenon!
  2. I dug deeper if the question didn’t match one of my “gotta-have” questions. I asked, “How does that relate to or explain the phenomenon we saw in class?” Asking that question helped to anchor their explanation back in explaining the phenomenon we saw.

For Future Lessons

Reflecting back on my inclusion of student questions, I realize now that I could have given students this sheet much earlier on in the unit. Asking students to go through every day and highlight/star/underline questions as we went through the unit would have empowered them to reflect on the power of asking really good questions and the power that comes along with learning the answers to those questions. Doing it this way kept their questions separate from the learning experiences that helped them to explain what was going on; rather than building the understanding of why this occurs, waiting until the end to use their questions kept the modeling activity separate from the learning process. In future units, I hope to use their questions in service of explaining the phenomenon on a day-by-day basis!

Gun Control and the Parkland School Shooting

Normally I choose to refrain from commenting on political matters, as I find social media commentary to be incendiary when it cannot be discussed face-to-face. The lack of asking clarifying questions, the immediate assumptions…all foster a less-than-ideal scenario that lead to more divergent thinking. However, with the Parkland school shooting, I find it apropos for me to comment, as the fates of teachers and gun control are becoming what I previously believed to be incomprehensibly intertwined.

The Debate

In the spirit of science, I will post articles that explore both sides of the issues presented. My opinions are clear and deeply-held; however, I find value in exploring the complexities in each argument posed in support of as well as against controversial issues.

Linked HERE is an article from in 2016 that discusses the 2016 Presidential candidates and whether or not they believed schools should be gun-free zones.

Linked HERE is an article from in 2017 that explores various pros and cons to the topic of gun control and issues stemming from it, such as constitutional rights, mass shootings, and governmental control.

Linked HERE is an article from that explores the opinions and arguments of the public on the issue of whether or not teachers should possess guns.

Why does it fall to teachers?

Let me be absolutely clear: I do not believe teachers should be armed. For the longest time, teachers have been funding their own classrooms. We’ve bought our own pencils. We’ve bought our own modeling kits. We’ve bought our own ice packs, our own crayons, our own chalk, our own everything. When individuals push to say that government programs should arm teachers, that government programs should fund programs that promote teachers to injure or kill, they imply that the educational supplies teachers have been funding themselves for years aren’t as necessary as providing teachers the capability of taking the life of another human.

Think about that: Trump, the NRA, and communities of individuals are saying that magazines filled with bullets are more important in a classroom than magazines filled with science, art, and history. (That comment is not meant to be incendiary – I know many teachers who pay out-of-pocket for subscriptions to content-related magazines to provide supplementary reading material.)

Beyond the funding this would require, I cannot imagine signing on to a job to teach children that also mandates training to shoot another human being. A teacher’s job is to create – to create a safe and welcoming learning environment, to create lifelong learners, to create the next generation of thinkers and doers. A teacher’s job is not to injure or to murder. A teacher’s job is not to destroy.

I have one simple statement, and I feel it is an important one to make given the current climate: A teacher’s job is to teach. Teachers have so much to worry about already. Do my students like coming to class? Do my students learn what I hope they learn from the lessons I design? Would that one student who has been struggling benefit from coming to my room during their study hall? Do my lessons align to state standards? How do my classroom management techniques come across to my students? Are all my interactions with my students coming from a place of compassion and genuineness?

Worrying about murdering another human being, regardless of the circumstances in which that murder occurs, is not something I find appropriate to load onto the already-full plate of our teachers.

The Pedagogical Value of Dead Poet’s Society (1989)

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived” (Henry David Thoreau, as quoted by Neil Perry).

What does it mean to have lived? How do we measure the successes of our own lives? Who do we let define what it means for us to ‘live deliberately,’ in the words of Thoreau?

I ask these questions after watching Dead Poet’s Society (1989), a film starring the legendary Robin Williams. Williams plays the role of John Keating, an influential English teacher who indirectly inspires students to resurrect an illegal club (title of film) at their boarding school. The mission of this club is to help its members use poetry as a vessel to live with a greater sense of purpose and passion. As a future teacher, the pedagogical messages imbued in the film were nothing short of avant garde. As a human being, the themes of the film had me in tears.

I have linked the trailer of the film below. But in all honesty, taking the two hours and watching the film instead will afford you much more fodder for thought.

How does Dead Poet’s Society (1989) inform my teaching?

When juxtaposed with the Four Pillars of Education in Welton Academy’s pedagogical values (Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence), the teaching styles of John Keating (Williams) offer students authentic opportunities to think for themselves. Beyond challenging their current conceptions of what it means to learn, to think, and to impact change, Keating models for students what it means to bring the ‘self’ into education. Keating empower students to not simply analyze poetry, but to use it, to write, to create, to love, and to live. Keating’s portrayal of English goes beyond teaching students how to analyze poetry – his inclusion of their voice and insight drives the discussion of the broader importance of voice and of emotion in life.

John Keating reminds me of the importance of authenticity and purpose in education. Teaching science means nothing to my students if they feel their learning only belongs in science class. The Next Generation Science Standards remind us of this – that the bigger ideas about how knowledge is produced and communicated matter more than “Google”able facts. Inspired by John Keating, I am reminded of the importance of teaching the nature of science to my students beyond simply teaching the content they must often reproduce on traditional examinations.

How can my students use what they know to create, to inform, or to impact change unto the world around them? How might I structure learning experiences that bolster self-initiated learning? How can I scaffold inquiry-based educational experiences that demonstrate the importance of asking questions and challenging current conceptions of our world?

These are the questions I care about as a science educator.

How does Dead Poet’s Society (1989) impact myself as a human being?

Of course, the movie has its limitations. This kind of teaching is not limited to the kinds of boarding schools that upper- and middle-class families can afford. The treatment of language as a device to “woo women” portrays exclusively heteronormative ideas of romance and relationship-building. The lack of diversity and the portrayal of women both raise important questions about the issues of representation in film and media. These portrayals are all important considerations to continue to pursue, address, and combat as we progress onward into the 21st century.

Even after applying this critical lens, the movie resonates strongly with themes of power, creativity, individuality, and expression. In discussing the big ideas of the film (and without giving much of anything away), the movie touches on the importance of living one’s truth to the fullest extent. It highlights the necessity of feeling a sense of control over one’s future. It illuminates how asking questions and challenging norms provides a sense of purpose and persona, as well as juxtaposes the dangers of conformity and bending to the will of others. It conveys the significance of living with integrity. The lessons I have learned from this film, as well as the charge to live more purposefully and fully, I will carry with me in every aspect of life.

Final Thoughts

So…what does it mean to have lived? How do we measure the successes of our own lives? Who do we let define what it means for us to ‘live deliberately,’ in the words of Thoreau?

For some of us, as evidenced in the film, it is our parents. For others, our friends. Our teachers. Our mentors. Our bosses. We let those around us dictate how we define success. We let those around us tell us not only what to think, but that our thoughts – the raw cries of life from within us, the signs that we are living and breathing and living – we let them tell us that our thoughts mean less than what they have to say. It is for reasons beyond our current comprehension that we might use our voice, or that we might have one at all, to impact change unto the world around us. The change that so many before us dreamed of (Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Maya AngelouWalt Whitman).

We must understand where we have been should we ever dream to reach beyond its grasp, and to grasp beyond its reach. It is in awe of the wisdom of those before me and the joy for all to come that I pursue my dream of becoming a teacher, of inspiring my students to find their passion, their creativity, that which makes them feel even beyond words. I hope I might one day inspire my students to live fully, to dream deeply, and to find that which pumps life into everything they do.

In that same vein, it is in recognition of the wisdom of those before us that we might sometimes yield to their words when written with artistry and intention. Therefore, I leave you with the words of Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953). I hope you find its inclusion purposeful, illuminating, and invigorating:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

What’s The Big Idea With “Big Ideas”?

Have you ever been so interested in something that you can’t help but research it further?

Think about it. From a biochemical reaction mechanism to why the Hindenburg caught fire, interesting and engaging phenomena occur all around us. These phenomena are not isolated occurrences, despite the specific contexts in which they occur. The same basic principles govern the world around us in predictable, observable, and explainable ways; these phenomena are simply the vessel for engaging us and making us wonder how and why they happen.

Those basic principles, the overarching themes within our disciplines of interest, operate to categorize and explain our understandings of the discipline as a field of study. In science, we call these overarching themes big ideas, as they span a wide range of concepts within the scientific discipline. Big ideas are the themes that push beyond scientific content – they are abstract understandings of the field as a whole, themes that persist as immutable ideas within the field of science even as scientific content changes. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) frames its major tenets around the concept of “big ideas”, or the notion that the forms through which knowledge is produced are more important than the rote memorization of knowledge itself.

What’s the Big Idea with “Big Ideas”?

Why do we care about big ideas in science education?

Great question, imaginary other half of the conversation! It’s one thing to understand the definition of a big idea as an overarching theme. It’s an entirely different ball game to develop an argument for why these ideas matter, especially in my current role as a student teacher. The argument for these types of NGSS-inspired educational practices is at the center of educational and political debate. As my cohort and I will be entering into the teaching profession (hopefully) very soon, we must inform ourselves of these new standards as well as demonstrate and defend their importance.

The NGSS Standards revolve around three major ideas in science; they are: Crosscutting Concepts, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Science and Engineering Practices. While traditional means of education involve content-focused curricula, NGSS pushes for broader concepts with more explanatory power that are informed by the content knowledge. NGSS frames its tenets around the big ideas of science according to conceptual understandings of the discipline (concept-focused) as well as the practices and understandings of the nature of science (discipline-focused). Big ideas, then, are the fodder for standards rooted in understanding, the themes of and about science that students can transfer to novel contexts.

This split into concept-based and disciplinary-based standards parallels many research into the implementation of big ideas, which conveys the necessity for science educators to make both concepts and nature of science explicit to students. This can be seen in articles such as Principles and big ideas of science education. While no list of big ideas can be all-encompassing, the authors of this article identify fourteen major ideas in science which are broken up into similar categories to NGSS; they are:

Ideas of science:

  1. All material in the Universe is made of very small particles.
  2. Objects can affect other objects at a distance.
  3. Changing the movement of an object requires a net force to be acting on it. 
  4. The total amount of energy in the Universe is always the same but energy can be transformed when things change or are made to happen.
  5. The composition of the Earth and its atmosphere and the processes occurring within them shape the Earth’s surface and its climate.
  6. The solar system is a very small part of one of millions of galaxies in the Universe. 
  7. Organisms are organized on a cellular basis.
  8. Organisms require a supply of energy and materials for which they are often dependent on or in competition with other organisms. 
  9. Genetic information is passed down from one generation of organisms to another. 
  10. The diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution.

Ideas about science:

  1. Science assumes that for every effect there is one or more causes.
  2. Scientific explanations, theories and models are those that best fit the facts known at a particular time. 
  3. The knowledge produced by science is used in some technologies to create products to serve human ends.
  4. Applications of science often have ethical, social, economic, and political implications.

Notice how the big ideas are not memorizable facts or events, but rather ideas that need to be unpacked over a period of time. We use phenomena, guiding questions, and inquiry-based lessons to communicate those big ideas because big ideas require context, evidence, and explanations.

My Unit’s Big Idea

How can scientific models be used to depict observable and unobservable phenomena?

The content of my unit is centered on atomic theory, which discusses how the model of the atom has changed over time. This unit focuses on the following major topics:

  • Atomic Models and Theorists (Democritus, Dalton, Thomson, Rutherford, Chadwick, Modern Atomic Model)
  • Subatomic Particles (proton, neutron, electron)
  • Structure of the Atom (nucleus, electron cloud)
  • Atomic Number
  • Atomic Mass
  • Isotopes
  • Energy Levels
  • Drawing Bohr Diagrams

These factoids are all connected by a greater overarching theme – that scientific models are representations of theories and phenomena, both observable and unobservable, that can change according to the scientific understandings of the time. This big idea incorporates the nature of science as a tentative field subject to change as scientists encounter new evidence and derive new explanations. Utilizing this as my big idea pushes the content beyond a laundry list of facts to memorize; through the lens of how scientific models are crafted and communicated, students are prepared to create, communicate, and critique scientific representations.

I have been toying with the idea of using the following phenomena to communicate these big ideas. Feel free to comment with your own experiences of teaching a unit on atomic (or scientific) modeling, as well as any suggestions for phenomena beyond these!

  • Static Electricity – demonstrates that matter contains charged particles (protons, electrons) that interact to induce a charge in neutral objects.
  • Atomic Bomb – highlights that matter is made up of atoms that consist of a nucleus, as well as that scientific discovery has broader ethical and political implications.
  • Isotope Hydrology – evidences that isotopes of different elements can be used to track geologic processes, such as the melting of glaciers.
  • Radiocarbon Dating – evidences that isotopes of different elements can be used to “date” biological, carbon-containing compounds.

What Might Middle School Students Find Interesting About NGSS?

Is it dangerous to eat an orange on a hot air balloon?

What a strange question. I mean, why would I even ask that? Let me contextualize it a bit more. Please watch the following video before you continue reading.

Now that you’ve watched the video, I’ll ask my question again: Is it dangerous to eat an orange on a hot air balloon? Think for a bit about it before you continue reading.

Explanation of Demo

To understand why this happens, we need to think about the properties of these two substances. Latex is a hydrocarbon polymer, meaning it consists of long chains of atoms containing only Carbon and Hydrogen atoms. Oranges have an essential oil in them called limonene, which is also a hydrocarbon. Cool, but why does any of that matter?

To answer that, let me ask another question that you might be more familiar with: Why does salt dissolve in water? If you’ve ever studied our oceans, you are most likely familiar with the fact that oceans are HUGE bodies of salt water. But the salt that we sprinkle on our steak dinners looks like a bunch of crystals, not like the water we swim in. So…how does that happen?

Our answer to that question lies in the properties of matter, or what makes salt (and water) the way they are. Salt is made up of ions, or charged atoms, that attract opposite charges. Our table salt is made up of particles that have repeating positive and negative ions (Na+ and Cl–) that attract each other like the poles of a magnet.

Image result for salt ion

Notice how the water (blue and red) has positive and negative components. We call substances that have these positive and negatives polar, or charged, substances. Notice how the salt (grey and yellow) also has the exact same combination of positive and negative substances. The salt (NaCl) breaks apart into its positive and negative ions – when this happens, we say the salt has dissolved (or separated) in the water. Salt dissolves in water because the positive parts of water attract the negative charges in the salt, and the negative parts of water attract the positive charges in the salt, again, just like magnets.

Unfortunately, that can’t help us explain why the balloon pops. BUT it does tell us that a charged (or polar) substance like water can dissolve other charged substances (like salts). You may have heard the expression “like dissolves like” before, and if you haven’t, then it will be really important to understanding why the balloon pops.

The latex in rubber isn’t charged – quite the opposite, it is actually uncharged. When something doesn’t have a charge, we call it nonpolar (“not charged”). The oil in the orange peel and the latex in the balloon are both nonpolar substances (remember — they are both “hydrocarbons”!) Since “like dissolves like”, we know that the oil from the orange can dissolve the latex in the balloon. When the oil dissolves the latex, the balloon weakens and pops!


Answering My Initial Question

Okay, so we know the following so far:

  1. Latex is a hydrocarbon. Limonene (the oil in an orange peel) is also a hydrocarbon.
  2. Hydrocarbons are nonpolar, meaning they do not have a charge.
  3. Salt is a charged substance, and so is water.
  4. Like substances dissolve like — so salt dissolves in water, and latex dissolves in limonene.

Our next question becomes — what is a hot air balloon made of?

Hot air balloons have to be A LOT stronger than the balloons we use at parties, or else they wouldn’t be able to lift people in the air and would be WAY too easy to pop! Instead of latex, hot air balloons are made of nylon, which is a much stronger material. Nylon is a polymer (just like latex), but it has atoms in addition to carbon and hydrogen that make it polar (charged). Thinking about the oils in our orange again, we know that is nonpolar (not charged), so the oils in our orange peel will NOT damage the nylon in our balloon. And thankfully, something like water (that is polar) is too weak to dissolve nylon – or else a small rain shower would be incredibly dangerous!

To answer our initial question: you are 100% safe to peel that orange in your hot air balloon!

Connection to NGSS and NYSSLS

Of course, as a future science teacher, we must remain informed about the standards our instruction must follow. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) contain standards for learning across K-12 scientific disciplines; as I will be teaching in a 7th grade chemistry classroom starting next Monday, I will focus on the middle school physical science standards (MS-PS). These standards guide 21st-century learning that involve students in more inquiry-based methods of teaching.

My original question and the accompanying demo revolve around MS-PS1-2 in the New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards (NYSSLS), which states the following:

Students who demonstrate understanding can…analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred (p. 28).

Specifically, my topic revolves around the physical property of solubility, or the ability of a substance to dissolve another. Interestingly in this demo, a chemical reaction did not occur – solubility depends on the physical property of the substances. By the end of this lesson/unit, students should be able to tell that solubility is a physical property and, no matter how exciting a popped balloon may be, dissolving the balloon’s latex is not a chemical reaction.

Motivating My Teaching Through Asking Questions

Why do sparklers produce sparks?

How can we make a sparkler produce more sparks?

What is the purpose of the match?

Asking questions motivates inquiry – we are naturally curious when we cannot readily explain a phenomenon. We may know that something happens (e.g. that a sparkler produces sparks), but we may not understand why that happens on a deeper level. This kind of “not knowing” is naturally motivating, as there is power in learning something that was once a mystery to us. And that is how I intend to construct knowledge in my science classroom.

Asking Questions

Why ask questions at all? I don’t need to be the one to tell you that questions have different purposes. We ask questions when we don’t understand. We ask questions to elicit a response from others. We ask questions when we want to learn more. We even ask questions when we don’t believe others’ perspectives, opinions, or claims. But all questions stem from the same basic ideal – a desire to understand. To know.

Michael “Vsauce” Stevens puts together an amazing TEDx talk on Why do we ask questions. He is a master at framing interesting and engaging questions. At 3:20, he highlights the core of his video:

“The point is to bring people in with a great question, make them curious, and then once they’re there, accidentally teach them a whole bunch of things about the universe.”

A bit later on, he asks a question that many educators struggle with in their classrooms:

“How do I get people to care about these questions? Especially people who think that learning is boring?” (4:47)

Perhaps my favorite quotation comes from his description of the joys of teaching:

“to see the expression on someone’s face when they suddenly understand and are fascinated by something in the same way that you are is a phenomenal feeling. I’ve learned two things from this. First of all, people love a good explanation. They hunt them down. Even people who say they hate learning and hate books, and all that stuff, pfft, they love explanations. Second of all, if you look closely enough and you take the time, anything can be interesting to anyone because everything is related in some way to something they care about” (6:56).

Seriously, take the time to watch this video. I promise you it’ll be worth it.

What Kinds of Questions Should We Ask in a Science Classroom?

Science has an incredible amount of explanatory power. STEM fields in general do. As the STEM fields are led by observable phenomena, it is incredibly easy to find footholds in the physical world that students can grasp on to. Every time I reflect on this, I am reminded of the reason I fell in love with chemistry – physical and chemical properties offer immense explanatory power for the world around us. In finding and fostering connections between different phenomena guided by the basic physical and/or observable principles, we are better equipped to understand, observe, predict, explain, and question the world around us.

The amazing thing about the header to this section is: I can’t answer that question. There is no way I can claim something is a “good” or “bad” question. We can critique the form of questions (such as one-word answer questions vs. open-ended questions), but there is inherent value in every single question that someone might ask.

If you disagree with my latter point, I offer a charge. The next time a student, a friend, a parent, anyone asks you a question, ask yourself (or them, when appropriate) why. For what purpose? What are they trying to accomplish with their question? Stepping back to reflect on the questions we receive is a powerful experience – the role of “answerer” positions us as the keepers of knowledge, of action, of experience. Taking the time to think about the rationale behind others’ questions as well as taking the time to ask engaging, meaningful, and relatable questions of our students offers a powerfully motivating experience for them and for us.

An Added Bonus

As an added bonus from this week, my friend Emily and I attempted the steel wool fire wire reaction demo. It. Was. AWESOME! This brings me to an important caveat of asking questions – let students experience the answer for themselves. (Obviously we can’t accomplish that in a classroom with this demo, but when possible, give students the tools to find out for themselves.) People remember what they have accomplished from firsthand experience, not the secondhand explanations of the instructor.

(And, because I’m me, I had to overlay a completely relevant song over our video.)


Ambitious Science Teaching: Creating a “Gotta Have” Checklist

For this post, my “Gotta Have” checklist is as follows:

  • How a “Gotta Have” checklist ties key concepts of a unit together.
  • The role of a student in constructing a “Gotta Have” checklist.
  • How a “Gotta Have” checklist can drive a unit (with example).

What is a “Gotta Have” Checklist?

A “Gotta Have” checklist is a tool that informs students what key ideas/concepts they believe are important in explaining a phenomenon. The concept of a checklist seems counterintuitive to the kinds of teaching and learning that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) preaches – after all, the way we use checklists in our daily lives seems very prescriptive. To-do lists, agendas, shopping lists, all seem to inspire direct action and tick off boxes without much thought.

So how are “Gotta Have” checklists any different?

Well, first, these kinds of checklists involve much deeper thought than remembering to “buy milk at the grocery store”. “Gotta Have” checklists may start as these direct actions, but they should never end as these statements. Why might these checklists start as “direct action” in the first place? Mostly because they should be predominantly student directed. We as teachers should facilitate a discussion of the kinds of ideas/concepts that students should include in their explanations, which more often than not include observations and vocabulary that readily come to mind. Students’ ideas of “we should talk about energy” are a great place to start – but, as an example, simply including the word energy in their explanation does no good to explain how or why energy is important to the phenomenon in question. We must push our students to consider how the energy changes in a phenomenon or why energy is important to consider. In emphasizing these deeper level understandings, students can more readily use their ideas of energy rather than spit out a definition they memorized a few days ago.

I said before that “Gotta Have” checklists incorporate and connect ideas – predominantly the ones that are covered throughout the series of lessons in an educator’s unit. Ideas push for an understanding rather than memorization, which is the primary reason why I believe educators should emphasize this kind of thinking. While I dislike feeling “preachy”, it is essential for my professional identity as an educator to push my students toward critical thinking and analysis rather than passively accepting the information I share with them. Science is about critical thinking. Science is about analysis. When our lessons value these skills, we not only teach our students about the pillars of science, we teach our students how to do science.

Goal: Weaving ideas into a coherent story of science rather than as isolated facts is essential to the “Gotta Have” checklist. Writing our “gotta haves” as ideas (“how” statements) helps us to accomplish this goal.

How a “Gotta Have” checklist ties key concepts of a unit together? Check.

The role of a student in constructing a “Gotta Have” checklist? Check.

A “Gotta Have” Checklist for an Intro Unit on Chemical Changes

Again, “Gotta Have” checklists emphasize ideas that help us explain how and why phenomena occur, not simply that they do. This helps to drive a unit because it explains the phenomena in specific steps over the course of the unit. If a chemical reaction is the focal point of your unit, then showing students that phenomena and developing that vocabulary and those ideas over time emphasizes the story of the chemical reaction! Plus, this kind of thinking is inherently motivating for students, as it employs the knowledge to explain a greater event rather than simply knowing it.

An Example “Gotta Have” Checklist for steel wool fire wire (or, as I like to call it, a sparkler on steroids):

  • How the iron (Fe) and oxygen (O2) change their outer electron shells to form a new compound (Fe2O3).
  • How spreading the steel wool out and spinning the system affect the rate of reaction.
  • How sparks can tell us about the change in overall energy of the system from the reactants to the products.
  • How the reactants and products we use/form tell us something about the change in overall entropy (or “randomness”) of the system.

How a “Gotta Have” checklist can drive a unit (with example)? Check.

Extrapolating the Explanation

There are a few models I use to extract good explanations from my students. The two major ones I use indicate the same basic information at their core, but in different ways. Exposing students to both provides two models for powerful scientific explanations, and it helps them understand why the models incorporate the scaffolds they do – because scientific explanations value specific implementations of knowledge, supported by evidence, to make appropriate claims.

  1. The What-How-Why Model (Thompson et al., 2009) emphasizes explanations that define the phenomenon in terms of the “why”, as it gets at the point of a full causal story. However, I find value in making all three explicit to students, as it provides a scaffold for their explanations beyond simply stating “explain why”. First, students explain the what, or the specific action they wish to describe (i.e. the phenomenon). Second, students discuss how something happens, i.e. through addressing how that phenomenon is accomplished in terms of observable or measurable. E.g. An explanation for the second item in my “Gotta Have” checklist might look like this: The reaction rate increased (what). This happened because the steel wool was spread out, which gives it more contact with oxygen in the air (how). This action increases the surface area of the reactants, which allows for more particle collisions in a given amount of time; according to Kinetic Molecular Theory, this increases the chances that particles will hit each other with the correct orientation and amount of energy to create a chemical reaction (why).
  2. Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (NSTA) more explicitly emphasizes a three-step process toward explaining phenomena. A scientific claim is the ultimate point students are trying to make about the phenomenon. Evidence is the specific event (or events) that occur in the phenomenon that substantiate why students think the way they do. Reasoning is the explicit statement that highlights why the phenomenon occurs. E.g. An explanation for the second item in my “Gotta Have” checklist might look like this: Claim: Spinning the steel wool makes the reaction go faster. Evidence: The steel wool burned slowly when left on its own, but spinning it made the reaction spark more often and stronger. Reasoning: Spinning the steel wool increases the concentration of oxygen in the sample because it increases the amount of oxygen molecules that come into contact with the steel. According to Kinetic Molecular Theory, this increases the chances that particles will hit each other with the correct orientation and amount of energy to create a chemical reaction.

Additional Thoughts

Of course, there might be some additional topics you cover that you would like students to gain from your unit. In my case, I would also like my students to identify the type of reaction (a redox synthesis reaction) and balance the chemical reaction (4 Fe + 3 O2 –> 2 Fe2O3). However, not everything you discuss in your unit needs to make it into the “Gotta Have” checklist, especially if it tests memorization/vocabulary rather than a concept/idea.

For the sake of being explicit, I will say scientific vocabulary is important, of course – but not all memorized words have to make it into the checklist.



Thompson, J., Braaten, M., Windschitl, M., Sjoberg, B., Jones, M., & Martinez, K. (2009). Collaborative Inquiry into Students’ Evidence-based Explanations: How Groups of Science Teachers Can Improve Teaching and Learning. The Science Teacher, November, 48-52.

“A Teacher Shouldn’t Smile [In Their Classroom] Until Christmas”

“A teacher shouldn’t smile [in their classroom] until Christmas.”

I recently heard that quotation in a conversation with a teacher. This teacher was referencing a popular ideology in the world of education – that teachers should be strict at the beginning of the year so students do not “walk all over” their teachers. They claim that being strict sets boundaries, that a lack of emotion in the classroom conveys an air of anonymity that renders the teacher’s personality an enigma.

How I interpret this quotation

To me, this quotation says that teachers, especially new/pre-service teachers, should be strict at the beginning of their careers until they have successfully “managed” the behavior of their students. Starting off strict draws clear expectations for a “no-nonsense” kind of classroom. The problem with that, however, is that we (both our students and we teachers) are not “no-nonsense” kinds of people. (Well, personally, I am not. I love fooling around in my teaching placement.)

Teachers are fun, lively, and engaging. We value the personalities our students bring into the classroom, and our teacher personality is just as important. Showing only our strict side robs our students of who we are as people and who we can be as teachers.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

I think there is obvious value in modeling respectful, “timely serious” behaviors. For example, when students are working in groups, they are interacting directly with their peers; therefore, the dynamics of their interactions can and should be different than when they are listening to the teacher. When the teacher is speaking, as the person in charge, students should understand that their side conversations cease and their attention should be on the teacher.

Having a serious disposition demonstrates that you deserve respect. Teachers need a serious side that conveys to students when and under what conditions it is necessary for them to stop goofing around and listen to the teacher.


We are not devoid of personality. That’s just the nature of our profession. Having a “teacher voice” that encapsulates a more serious attention is necessary, but it should not be our dominant personality. We must negotiate the line between when we want our students to be funny and lively (hopefully the majority of the time) and when our instruction necessitates our students to be quiet and put on their “listening ears”.

This video by Kyle Thain has some insightful points about the value in smiling, especially for our students’ and our own sanity:

Incorporating Scientific Misconceptions Through YouTube Videos

In Regents Chemistry, we are currently learning about the difference between heat versus temperature. (In case you need a refresher: heat is the total amount of energy in a system, whereas temperature is the average kinetic energy (or energy of particle motion) in a system.)

Why Address “Mis” Conceptions in Science At All?

Our students come into science class with varying degrees of background knowledge. Some students have thought about why the steam in their morning shower rises to the ceiling in their bathrooms. Some students can explain that dispersion in a warm liquid occurs faster than dispersion in a cold liquid because the particles have a higher kinetic energy (are moving faster) in the warmer liquid. Some students have never heard of the Kelvin unit of measuring temperature. And each of those amounts of prior knowledge is 100% okay!

Along with prior knowledge comes misconceptions, or knowledge that students believe to be true that are actually incorrect based on current scientific conventions. One misconception that I have encountered in this unit is the statement that “heat rises”. This statement is untrue; heat increases the motion of particles and makes them less dense. Less dense particles rise above particles that have a greater density – this explains why warmer air rises above cooler air. But to say that “heat” itself rises is incorrect.

Addressing these kinds of misconceptions helps students to gain a deeper understanding of content in uniquely engaging ways. Starting with students’ prior knowledge pulls them into the lesson, as their thoughts are guiding the class discussions (which can be an engaging and empowering experience for a student). Specifically in addressing a misconception, students lead the lesson discussion while students and we [teachers] deconstruct the misconception to correct any incomplete or misinformation it might contain.

If you are interested in learning about general misconceptions about temperature and heat flow, there are two videos posted below by the YouTube channel Veritasium.

When To Use These Videos in Science Classrooms

These videos serve an excellent resource for students to feel validated in their opinions, misconceptions, and prior knowledge. There is camaraderie in knowing that their misinformation is a widely dispersed way of thinking about these topics, and as novice scientists, this can provide a validating means of engagement for students to learn about how to correct their misconceptions. Plus, it’s good practice to show videos in class because it provides multimodal access into the lesson content beyond simply lecturing about heat and temperature.

Most importantly, however, is that videos should be used only when the science is TOO DANGEROUS or TOO COSTLY (time, resources, materials management, etc.) to feasibly have your students do as a class. Particularly in the case of the “Misconceptions About Temperature” video, the content of this video can be easily demonstrated and discussed in the classroom setting. An example procedure for this is as follows:

  1. Students feel the surface of their desks. They “feel” relatively room temperature.
  2. Students feel the metal of their chairs. They “feel” much colder.
  3. Have a discussion – which one do students think is colder? Tally responses for “chair is warmer”, “desk is warmer”, and “they are the same temperature”.
  4. Students take the temperature of the backs of “school chairs” (the ones with metal bars holding the chair together) as well as the surfaces of wooden desks. This can be accomplished using an infrared thermometer.
  5. Students compare their temperatures – they should be equal, if not relatively the same, from sitting in the same classroom temperature for a while.
  6. Have a discussion that addresses the misconceptions of students who thought the metal was colder – why did it feel colder? Have students provide possible explanations.
  7. The teacher should explain the difference between “heat” and “temperature” – metal is a conductor of heat, which means it absorbs heat from the body at a much faster rate than the desk. We perceive this faster rate of heat loss from our hands as a “colder surface” even though they are the same temperature.
  8. (Optional): Have students consider why they use a bath mat when they step out of the shower. Why do the tiles “feel” colder, even though they have been sitting in the same bathroom temperature as everything else (including the bath mat)?


But Wait…There’s More!

The creator of this YouTube channel (Derek Muller) has some insightful points about the “how to”s of teaching science; if you are curious, check this video out!

The Wikipedia Wiki Game: A Model for NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas

As a high school student, my friends would play a game known as the Wikipedia Wiki Game. This game came up in a conversation I had recently, and in the lenses I have adapted at the Warner School, I now view this game in a completely different light. If unpacked, this game represents the fundamentals of the Disciplinary Core Ideas that the Next Generation Science Standards identifies in their three main theoretical frameworks for science learning.

What is the Wikipedia Wiki Game?

This game challenges players to get from an initial Wikipedia page, called the “Start Article”, to the same final page, known as the “Win Article”. The charge is different for different types of games; for example, the challenge is often to complete this investigation in “the fewest amount of clicks” or “the shortest amount of time”.

Pictured to the right is an example of the challenge. In this image, the challenge is to get from the Wikipedia page on the “Giant Panda” to the Wikipedia page on “Thailand” in the fewest amount of clicks. Players must click on the hyperlinks embedded in the Wikipedia page to get from the Start Article to the Win Article. In this example, players must start with the article on the Giant Panda and, through clicking on the linked pages, must ultimately arrive at the Thailand Wikipedia page, aka the Win Article.

I completed this challenge by starting on the Giant Panda page, then clicking on the hyperlink embedded in the national symbol text, then to the list of national symbols, then to the list of national flags, and finally clicking on the hyperlink under the flag of Thailand.

How Does The Wiki Game Connect to NGSS?

Playing games that invite students to draw connections between ideas is important because it highlights the interconnectedness of knowledge. It demonstrates that there are central themes, “core ideas”, that serve as the fundamentals on which more specific ideas build their foundation.

In terms of the Wiki Game, players benefit from “zooming out” in terms of the specificity of the articles they select. This is because, in zooming out the scope of one’s ideas, players find less specific, “umbrella” ideas that can relate the start and win articles. For example, I chose to select “national symbol” from the giant panda page because it provided a more encompassing concept/idea of both the start and win articles (as the giant panda is an internationally recognized national symbol of China, and Thailand is itself a nation).

In NGSS, a similar idea takes effect. DCIs, also known as disciplinary core ideas, are defined as “the key ideas in science that have broad importance within or across multiple science or engineering disciplines. These core ideas build on each other as students progress through grade levels” (NGSS, 2017). According to this framework, science educators should emphasize these central themes of science explicitly to students – this will help students draw connections between prior knowledge and incoming knowledge through the practices of assimilation (new ideas into existing schemes) as well as accommodation (revamping schemes to incorporate incoming information). These practices elicit constructivist pedagogy in ways that bolster student-centered learning, as students are the ones charged with drawing out the connections between individual lessons through utilizing these core ideas.

Why Might We Play The Wiki Game in a Classroom?

The Wiki Game offers a direct model for NGSS core ideas through drawing the “arrows”, the connections, between seemingly unrelated ideas/concepts.

In explicitly discussing the process that students use to reach the win article, they state things like, “It helps to pick a broad topic” or “I started by clicking a link that both pages had in common”. This gets students talking about drawing connections between specific ideas through common ground (i.e. core themes) between the two. In exploring these connections, students utilize broad connections between concepts as a problem-solving technique that allows them to piece together a “puzzle” of how seemingly unrelated concepts can (and do) connect to each other.

Once establishing these connections as an effective problem-solving practice, educators can highlight that the same should be done for disciplinary content areas. In drawing links between electrons and redox reactions, for example, I would cite PS1 (Matter and Its Interactions) as a disciplinary core idea that relates the two. In explaining redox reactions, students must first understand that electrons are subatomic particles that can rearrange to create ions from atoms. In highlighting this connection, students understand that electrons are the cause for a redox reaction, rather than having the concept of “electrons as subatomic particles” and “redox reactions as a different type of chemical reaction” as two isolated facts. This type of education bolsters learning for understanding rather than learning for memorization, which is ultimately what the NGSS standards strive to achieve.

Putting the Wiki Game Into Practice

Try it out for yourself! Start with the Wikipedia page on the Four-leaf clover. Your challenge is to arrive at the Wikipedia page on Bob Marley. (I got there in 2 clicks – can you?)

As you play, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are common themes between the clover and the singer?
  • How can I elicit those themes through clicking on embedded links?
  • Why might I click on one embedded link over another? What purpose does it serve?