Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where might this conversation go?

Pregame Preparation

To me, a big part of facilitating good science discussions involves getting students to let me "in"– in on what they are thinking.

My pre-game warm up for this includes trying to answer the following questions:
  • How will people react? What will they say?
  • What specific ideas might come up at first? What questions will arise?
  • What lines of reasoning might someone take? How might others respond? Are there counter arguments or supporting examples?
  • Will people change their minds? Why or why not?
  • What new ideas or questions will emerge later in the discussion that didn't at first?
I spend a lot of time trying to get in my students head before the game even begins, and I write all of my ideas down.

Post Game Review

After the discussion, I go back and review my notes. For the rainbow activity, Benedikt and I were able to anticipate a lot of the ideas, questions, and arguments that actually came up. But I also heard lots of ideas and question we didn't anticipate. Here are just a few

  • What would happen if we compressed a rainbow down, gradually making it smaller and smaller so the colors get closer? Would the colors look different? Would it look white if we compressed it all the way?
  • If rainbows are made by tiny rain droplets, why do wet get one big rainbow? Shouldn't we get a zillion little rainbows?
  • White light comes from the sun, and this light is being emitted from atoms. Since the sun only has certain atoms, do we only get certain frequencies of light? Does that mean we don't have all the colors?
  • A suggestion for what "in" means. A color is in the rainbow only if you can show someone else where it is by pointing to its location.
  • Is color even "a thing" that can be "in" something? How can something be "in" a rainbow?
  • Computer monitors as a "light" palette for testing out how to make different colors? Is that the same as mixing rainbow colors?
Practice makes perfect

The more I do this, the better I get at anticipating how conversations will go. The better I get at anticipating how conversations will go, the better listener I become. The better listener I become, the better guide I can be for my students.

Next week, I'm getting more practice. I'll be trying the "Are all the colors in the rainbow?" question in my science teaching course. I'll let you know how it goes. It comes on the heels of a reading called, "Making thinking visible: Talk and Argumentation in the Classroom"


  1. After this session (which just so happened to fall RIGHT before I started my unit on light as a wave in my honors physics class) I was so excited to try this with my students. I have been struggling, as a new teacher, with ways to START my units so that my students don't feel they are jumping head first into something new. I tried this earlier today with 2 sections of my honors physics classes and had varying results. As always, there is a debbie downer in my first period class, which brought the whole environment down. However, the questions and ideas generated by the discussion were priceless and definitely got them excited to learn the answer at least. I told them they'd have to figure it out as we went along through the unit, since it's not a simple answer and depends (obviously) how you interpret each word in the question.

    My 3rd period class had a VERY different reaction. This question intimidated them at first since this class does not like to talk to each other. (It is an odd phenomenon: 6 boys & 6 girls who COMPLETELY section themselves off by gender in every activity where they have the choice) Once one student started to have fun with the question, all of them started to come up with hypothetical situations and interesting, complex ideas much like those proposed by the teachers in our workshop group. I was very excited to see some of them take to this question like nothing else before. I heard one student even say "We should start ALL our units like this!! Like - What is a wave? and we have to make it up ourselves and guess and then learn as we go." A bunch of my student agreed. This was so exciting for me. I plan on using this as a model for each new unit I start. I am concerned with finding questions as good as this one though. I'd love to find out if anyone knows of a resource containing open-ended, discussion generating questions like this one. I'd be so grateful to you.

    I kept track of everything they brainstormed and wrote it all on the board, which I later organized into a typed document. I am going to combine both periods' information into one document and use it as reference as we go through the unit. This will allow them to constantly be reminded (and hopefully motivated) as we learn new material.

    Overall - AWESOME idea. I can't wait to try it again and to try out the method with other topics. THANKS!

  2. Rebecca, congratulations on what seems to have been a very successful implementation of the rainbow discussion! Thanks for sharing this experience with us all.

    You wrote that you have collected all the ideas your students came up with, and that you are planning to use this collection on your "way" through the unit. Would you like to share your materials in a new post on this blog, and append that post in comments as you go along in the unit? I (and I'm sure the other contributors to this blog as well) would be very interested in reading more about your implementation in your classes!

  3. Rebecca, that's so exciting, both for you and your students.

    I'm so glad you got a chance to write down all their ideas and questions. And I agree with Benedikt: you should totally make a post about it, and share the typed document of student ideas. I'm especially interested because you said that your students came up with a lot of same ideas we did. In my experience, that happens a lot. Children, students, and older adults have eerily similar ideas about lots of science things.

    Congratulations again! I hope this blog will become a resource for good questions. I think the more we practice paying attention to our own inquiry questions about the world, the better we become at generating and identifying questions for our students. But I will be on the lookout for good resources elsewhere and share them here.