To promote our goals for students, decisions must be made as to which content, activities, and strategies will most effectively guide students toward the desired end. When making these decisions teachers should consider how people learn as well as what their goals are for students. Generally, content and activities should be appropriate to students’ level of development, as well as directed toward confronting common student misconceptions. As I elaborate below, I use the science classroom to frame my thoughts, importantly the main ideas apply to any content area.
In the laboratory students should become investigators. By allowing students to come up with questions and methods to investigate those questions they are learning how to think critically about problems and approach new problems in systematic ways (goals 1, 3, 7, 8). A way to approach inquiry-based activities in the laboratory is through the Science Writing Heuristic (SWH) method of laboratory investigation (Rudd and Greenebowe, 2001). This method separates claims and evidence explicitly so students begin to see the relationship that is needed between their ideas and evidence for their ideas (goal 1). Non-lab materials may include extended-answer worksheets or investigations through literature, but simple fill-in-the-blank type activities are more associated with rote memorization and are detrimental to development of critical thinking.
In order to keep students’ curiosity level high, laboratory activities should not be verification/cookbook labs. Hands-on labs are not sufficient and a minds-on approach is needed to fully engage students in their learning (Clough and Clark, 1994). Guided-inquiry labs can be used initially to help students in the process of becoming creative with respect to science, but eventually students should be able to fully design their own lab investigation using questions students raise themselves (goals 1, 2, 3, 8, 10). By encourage students to investigate their own questions, teachers can be assured of subject relevance to the individual (Penick, 1983).
Teachers can provide further relevance and motivation for students by connecting content with community or societal issues. Local news may be a starting point for investigation in the class. If a problem with scientific implications is reported locally, then a discussion can be started. When possible, students should be encouraged to come up with ideas for investigation and possible solutions (goals 5, 1, 9, 2).
To achieve a deep understanding of content (goal 2), activities and materials need to guide student thinking by confronting their preconceptions, and give students evidence that their current view may be invalid. Only by having students analyze evidence that contradicts their current misconceptions can a teacher hope to truly change student ideas (goals 1, 2, 8). Once students have been introduced to the accurate conceptions, activities should be done that further test for understanding, and challenge students to use their new ideas in a problem-solving situation.
In order for content and activities to be beneficial, activities and content need to be chosen while considering the student zone of proximal development. If tasks are too hard or too abstract, students can become frustrated and opt out of learning. Students need to be challenged at a level in which they are capable of succeeding. With every success students gain more confidence. Activities should also be scaffolded so that some parts are simpler than others, so that students can build their confidence in their understanding, so that when they reach abstractions, they are willing to try (goal 6). If tasks are too easy, students become bored with the material and classroom management and off-task behavior will become a problem.
Activities can be done in groups to encourage students to interact with each other; as well as help one another (goal 9). The class can decide for themselves how to investigate a problem and work together to solve problems. Perhaps students work in pairs but each pair varies something different to get a larger data sample in the same amount of time. Students may need some guiding in this respect early in the year, but hopefully students are capable of making their own decisions as a class with time (goals 6, 3, 8). This strategy can also provide pressure from peers for students to stay on task, as the class is responsible for solving problems, not individuals. By working as a large group or small groups, students also learn to cooperate and respect other ideas, and how to communicate more effectively with each other (goals 4, 6, 9, 10).
Goal setting must be modeled by teachers and practiced by students. Setting attainable and worthwhile goals is a difficult task. Students should reflect on learning and write how they have met their goals or why they have not met the goals (goals 7, 8). Teachers must also be constantly evaluating student progress toward a better understanding of the nature of science so that further decisions regarding content can be made.