Pseudoteaching with Demos

Pseudoteaching was a concept I have understood and been wary of for a long time.  However, only recently was I able to put a name to the phenomena thanks to a conversation I had with Frank Noschese.  This post is one of several being written about the notion of pseudoteaching today.  Please check out the other posts by visiting the pseudoteaching link page.

Before getting started, I should probably explain what I mean by a demo.  Obviously, “demo” is short for demonstration.  In science (and other content areas), there are a lot of phenomena we want students to witness.  Sometimes having students conduct the procedure to generate the observations is too dangerous, or maybe the procedure must be carried out “just so” or perhaps materials are too expensive to have groups of students carry out the procedures.  In any of these cases, having the teacher demonstrate the procedures to generate the observations is a nice way to still provide students with a concrete experiences.  For a bunch of example science demos, check out

So, how is teaching with demos pseudoteaching?  Well, let’s be clear.  There are effective uses of demos in teaching – especially science teaching, but oftentimes demos are not used to promote student thinking.  This post tries to both highlight how the use of demos often leads to pseudoteaching as well as how demos might be more effectively used in instruction.

Demos as Pseudoteaching

Demos are highly entertaining to witness.  I have been to many science education conferences and the “101 demos for your chemistry class” sessions are always packed.  The key attraction of demos is also perhaps their greatest weakness – they’re entertaining.  Students are captivated by demos, but they are captivated by the “whiz-bang” factor, not by a deep understanding of nature that might be used to explain the captivating event.  Too often the point of a demo is to entertain, not to teach.  Sometimes demos are clearly used for instruction, but the demo is simply explained – reflecting lecture-based instruction.

Go back and watch a few of the demos from  Notice how the phenomenon is explained to the viewer.  There is no attempt to actively engage the audience in attempting to formulate their own explanations.  There are no questions being asked.  While some might say, “this is a video, not a classroom”, I know that many demos are carried out in much the same way in science classrooms.  While the demonstration might pique students’ interest, too often this interest is used to simply explain to students what happened and why rather than having students attempt to create explanations.

Perhaps more problematic than the “simply explain” approach to demos is the previously mentioned use of demos for entertainment.  While we want kids to be interested in science, crossing education with simple entertainment is problematic.  By trying to make things entertaining (not the same as engaging), we risk sending kids the message that only things that are fun are worth doing.  Instead of using demos as a “whiz-bang” entertainment device, they should be used to engage students’ in deep thought about what they are observing.  The engagement factor of demos IS powerful, but too often, the “hey this is neat” is where the demo ends.  Some teachers even put on demo shows for the school.  This is great, but leaves me asking, why are you not bringing these things into the classroom, and why are you not leveraging student interest to generate deep levels of thinking and having students generate explanation and new questions?

Effective use of demos

Importantly, I am not advocating that teachers not use demos in their classroom.  Like with all things, there are appropriate uses.  As previously mentioned, sometimes pragmatic concerns such as safety or material availability prohibit letting students manipulate the demo directly.  Yet, the demo must be carefully used to generate student thinking and guide student thinking rather than simply explain or entertain students.

Start by asking questions to get students to make observation and make predictions.  When I taught chemistry, I spent a significant amount of time on polar and non-polar interactions.  During this unit I used a demo of mixing oil and water.  I held up two test tubes full of liquid (one is oil, the other is water).  I asked students, “What can you tell me about these liquids?”  The students gave me lots of ideas.  Then, I asked, “What do you think will happen when I add a drop of blue food coloring to the yellow liquid (oil)?” Students eagerly answered this question and were on the edge of their seats with anticipation as I added the drop and it sank to the bottom of the oil.

Once students observe this,  I asked them to talk with their partners to explain why the drop did not mix with the yellow substance.  After a few minutes I had them share some ideas.  Then, based on their ideas I asked them what will happen when I pour the other liquid into the test tube containing the yellow liquid and the blue food coloring.  Again, I asked the students to make predictions and attempt to support their predictions with logic, observations, or past experiences.   The students expectantly watched as I poured the water in to the oil and the water mixed with the food coloring to make a blue layer underneath the yellow layer.  I then had students talk with partners to explain the observation.

Of course, this is not the end of the teaching episode as I also brought out toothpicks and magnets and encouraged students to make connections between the two systems, but what I have described above is to illustrate how teachers might use the engagement of a demo to help students think deeply about how they might explain the phenomena.


Just because students are interested, or entertained by demos does not make them worthwhile activities.  Furthermore, simply explaining the demo to students does little to help them become critical/creative thinkers.  To avoid these kinds of pseudoteaching, try using questions to get kids generating and defending predictions and explanations.

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16 Responses to Pseudoteaching with Demos

  1. MsGajda says:

    Great post! By extension, an effectively executed demo is far more effective than a student cookbook lab activity. By doing a demo as a class, as teachers we model essential analysis skills which so often students are lacking or would not do if left on their own.

    Thank you also for describing your demo for polar and non-polar interactions. I just finished teaching polarity to my biology students. I used a demo involving water and oil, but I like how you start with the two liquids separate before combining.

    Thanks again for the great post!


  2. I bring a show called the “Piper Physics Patrol” around to area schools and what you mention in this post is something that’s been nagging me for a while. The feedback I get tends to praise the interactions I have with the students, often commenting on the humor I bring to the show. I tend to have an audience of about 100 for the shows and often it’s scheduled to offer a break for the students but I’d like to learn about ways to make it more of an authentic learning experience.

    Take the nail bed, for example. There’s no question it’s entertaining but I wonder about whether the lead up where we talk about force distribution could be enhanced. Now we talk about the differences between seat belts and air bags but usually the kids know the nail bed is coming and sometimes we just cave and get to it. Once the cinder block has been smashed by one of the local teachers (while I’m laying on the nail bed), the students go crazy and just want to know if there are holes with blood on my shirt. Are they getting the notion of force distribution? Maybe, but, like I say, it’s been nagging me.

    Thanks for the great post!


  3. This might not make much sense, but here’s my take:

    I’ve always seen demos as similar to read-alouds, lectures of direct instruction of problem-solving. Students need the thinking modeled for them, not to attain the concept, but to see how the process works.

    I read aloud with students and ask questions, make observations, etc. I do the same thing with demos. Sometimes I make it explicit, “I wonder what would happen if . . .” and sometimes I use guided inquiry and sometimes I ask them to observe and compare (“Write down what you see, share it with a partner, compare your observation)

    To me, it’s all within the category of direct instruction and honestly I see it as a valuable tool for students with very little experience in science. As long as it is accompanied with a gradual release of responsibility and a ton of chances for their own inquiry (building experiments, asking questions, testing hypotheses, analyzing their own data) I don’t see it as pseudoteaching.


  4. Pingback: [PT] Pseudoteaching FAQ « Quantum Progress

  5. Matthew Bannerman says:

    Thanks for this, Jerrid. I’ve spent quite a little time this morning reading through this and the other articles on the page you linked.


  6. Joss Ives says:

    Jerrid, your effective use of demos section is great. It touches on some key points: students need to predict the outcome so that they are actively engaged, and students need to explain in their own words (discussion, writing) what they saw. Sciencegeekgirl does a good job of summing up the research that shows that students may actually misremember what they saw to make what happened in the demo fit with with their incorrect mental model of the concept the demo was supposed to demonstrate.

    I remember seeing it mentioned elsewhere in the brand new pseudoteaching cannon, but the hunter and the monkey demo is my best example of a pseudoteaching demo. I have tried to use it in to my Mechanics courses three times and every single time I am left wondering if they got any insight from the demo. Actually I am not usually wondering because I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

    If you need a “your prediction will be wrong” demo, it does that well. But I have yet to find a way to step back from this demo and frame what they saw in a way that I think will give them better understanding of the mechanics principles involved. Pseudoteaching at work.


  7. Jerrid,

    A belated thanks for writing this post, especially on the short notice I gave you. I also want to mention that student prediction in demos is important, but students should have the framework necessary to make a reasoned prediction rather than just a shot-in-the-dark guess. It’s OK if students’ framework is wrong or incomplete — that allows the demo to drive forward the need to refine the framework.


    • Joss Ives says:

      Excellent point Frank about the needing to have the framework necessary to make a reasoned prediction.


      • I totally agree, and there is lots of research to show that asking kids to make wild guesses doesn’t help with learning, but this is an interesting contrast to the WCYDWT series by Dan Meyer, where it seems ok. Is it because we aren’t usually trying to confront a misconception in WCYDWT?


        • Joss Ives says:

          I see Dan Meyer’s WCYDWT activities as often being in the spirit of Dan Schwartz’ invention activities. The students are asked to use their own understanding of the world to come up with (or invent) solutions to the problem in front of them. The purpose is to focus the students on the underlying structure of the concepts about to be taught. After they have done this inventing they are then primed to learn from a direct explanation of the expert solution to the problem or the expert representation of the concept.

          I’m not really doing WCYDWT or invention activities justice in my brief little description, but you can see some sciencegeekgirl posts on invention activities (here and here) or some CWSEI resources (here and here)

          **message from Jerrid Kruse: Joss, Sorry this comment did not show up right away. For some reason my comment filter (which is set pretty low) didn’t auto approve you.


  8. Pingback: The Science Learnification Weekly (Feb 27, ’11) « Science Learnification

  9. Amanda Lloyd says:

    Hello again, Jerrid. Well, you’ve added another “ed-speak” term to my vocabulary. As you know from my previous comment on modeling, I’m a “teacher in training” and I’ve been assigned to follow your blog by Dr. Strange in EDM-310 at the University of South Alabama. I’m glad you posted links and gave examples to lend a better understanding of “pseudoteaching.” It’s something I will now be more aware of in my own classroom.
    I think back to science experiments “performed” by teachers in high school. Yes, I remember being captivated by the “whiz-bang” factor. But, as you’ve rightly pointed out, the demonstration itself did not leave me with a deeper understanding. It’s true…I remember them mostly for their entertainment value.
    I absolutely believe that my teachers intended to enhance instruction with demonstrations. To their credit, it did make the subject matter more interesting. It also motivated me as a learner to dig a little deeper for my own understanding. Maybe, therein lies some value.
    Pseudoteaching to me, when compared to Burk and Noschese’s definition, sounds like old-fashioned “trial and error.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think the best teachers “try” without fear of “error” and evolve their techniques to reach an engaging outcome for everyone in the classroom, “pseudoteacher” included. I’m with you…ask questions, encourage questions! Thanks for the post!


  10. Matthew Poirier says:

    Hello Jerrid! My name is Matthew Poirier and I am an EDM310 student at the University of South Alabama. I really appreciate how you stated that we as teachers or teachers-to-be must remember that entertaining is not synonymous to educational. You summed it up perfectly when you said that entertaining does not mean engaging. I’m currently an English major, and many times I’ve mulled over in my head scenarios in which I am teaching a certain english-based topic to a classroom full of students. Too often have a stressed the importance that my lectures should be fun, whereas the real importance is to make my lessons engaging, so that my students can draw something from it, not only entertainment but also knowledge of some kind. Thank you for your post; it really helped my straighten some of my priorities out for the better!

    Matthew Poirier


  11. K. Nelson says:

    Hi Jerrid, my name is Kenny and I am from Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class. I certainly appreciate the approach you have discussed here. I love to learn and would love to have open discussions in many of my classes; this is obviously not the case, with the exception of EDM310. I’m a history major and usually I get a bunch of facts thrown at me for a few hours and I am expected to memorize it. I definitely want much more than that; to engage in a discussion to help me form ideas and opinions on history topics. I feel like teachers have been programmed to lecture without interruption. You can probably relate to me when I say I do not want to sit in silence while a teacher talks for two hours. Anyhow, your post has definitely got me thinking and without a fraction of doubt, I will use this method in my classes. I commend your efforts to expand this idea and set an example for the future teaching crew. If you would like you can visit my EDM310 blog at My Blog and you can Twitter me @Methetfield. Thanks again, Kenny.


  12. This is something I have thought for quite some time. I think some teachers view interested students as learning students, which is not necessarily true. I think it is important with all subjects, but especially science to be able to demonstrate the content in an effort to make it more “real” to the students, but furthermore it is also important to have students think critically about what they are observing. I find it helpful to use scaffolding and ask a lot of “why” questions, and even challenging student answers whether they are correct or not in an effort to have them justify their response and form an even deeper understanding.


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