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Promoting Discourse in Science Class

“...Students cannot fully understand scientific and engineering ideas without engaging in the practices of inquiry and the discourses by which such ideas are developed and refined.” 

National Research Council
A Framework for K-12 Science Education:
Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas

That statement by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies sums up the value placed on student talk and scientific argumentation in the Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS) and other science standards based on the Framework. But it also represents a change in the structure of a science lesson where a teacher disseminates information and students provide the one correct answer to a teacher’s question. It requires that students be active participants in their learning—that they share and support their ideas even if the ideas are not that “one correct answer.”
“Teachers are working hard to develop strategies to help students say, ‘I can do this,’” Hoover Herrera explains. Herrera, a customer success and curriculum marketing manager for Carolina Biological Supply Company, is a master math teacher and national training specialist who has turned his expertise to help teachers recognize, promote, and assess discourse in the science classroom.
“All students come into school knowing things, and discourse draws on their funds of knowledge,” he says. “But because of immediate gratification— everything they do is fast—we need to try to get students to slow down and think . . . Science is thinking. We need to guide them through discourse to make their thinking visible to others.”
Group of diverse high school students studying in class
Discourse Vs. Scientific Discourse
Discourse is the verbal exchange of ideas, or simply, talking. Scientific discourse involves argumentation based on evidence to persuade colleagues—or classmates—that ideas are valid. The NGSS calls for science learning to be mediated by productive argumentation supported by evidence, collaboration, and analysis. (NSTA 2015)
“Skill and persistence are required to help students grasp the difference between scientific argument, which rests on plausibility and evidence and has the goal of shared understanding, and everyday argument, which relies on power and persuasiveness and assumes that the goal is winning,” the NRC says in Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8. (NRC 2007, 187–188)
Today’s standards focus on a three-dimensional approach—science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—that engages students in sensemaking through hands-on investigations and exchanging ideas, or discourse.
“Instead of providing them with a right or wrong answer, we’re trying to get them to make those connections for themselves,” Emily C. Miller, an NGSS writing team member, explains as part of a National Science Teaching Association video on supporting talk in the classroom. “We’re saying, ‘What are your ideas?’ and then we’re seeing all of them as valuable, and we’re helping those kids understand that [their] ideas are actually really wonderful and make a lot of sense.” (NSTA 2015) This can be a significant shift from the classroom culture where the teacher initiates the questions, a student responds (or breathes a sigh of relief when another classmate responds), and the teacher evaluates the response.
“We need to shift thinking from answer-getting,” Herrera explains. “When a student responds, it doesn’t matter if the answer is incorrect, incomplete, or correct. It’s now about the evidence. With the question, ‘What did you observe?’ there’s not a right or wrong answer. I tell teachers to develop a poker face that doesn’t give away what they’re thinking. Whether the answer is right or wrong, the teacher is going to ask why—to ask for the evidence to understand the student’s thinking.”

Scientists and engineers...

  • Use argumentation to listen to, compare, and evaluate competing ideas and methods based on merits
  • Engage in argumentation when investigating a phenomenon, testing a design solution, resolving questions about measurements, building data models, and using evidence to evaluate claims

(NGSS Lead States 2013, 397)

Orchestrating Productive Scientific Argumentation
Teachers, who often find themselves mediating student conflict, may hesitate to promote argumentation. To engage all students in productive discourse, the teacher should create a class community where sharing ideas and actively listening is the norm and integrate discourse strategies in a variety of subjects to help students distinguish similarities and differences between the scientific argumentation that leads to making sense of phenomena and other types of argumentation.
When considering an essential question of a unit or an investigation, Herrera recommends a change in philosophy. Instead of asking, “How can I teach my kids to get the answer to this question?” ask, “How can I use this question to teach the science?” The teacher can start a teacher-to-student discussion to make sure all students are involved but then serve as a bridge between students and promote active listening.
Develop questions, Herrera says, that encourage students to take risks and build knowledge. “We want everyone to talk. All students, whether they are strugglers or advanced learners, need to be involved in discourse,” he explains. “Start with the struggling learners but give them a question that’s challenging enough to give them an opportunity to think but not so hard as to deter them from participating. If students feel confident and safe, they’ll also want to participate more.”
The teacher can lead group discussions to elicit prior knowledge but recognize that prior knowledge can be an asset or a hinderance. As an asset, it demonstrates knowledge and understanding of the disciplinary core ideas. But prior knowledge can hinder sensemaking if it is incomplete or based on misconceptions. “The teacher needs to discover the root of the misconception and lead students to that aha moment when they figure out the correct answer,” Herrera says. “Keep probing through discourse: ‘Why do you think that …?’”
Among his discourse-promoting strategies, Herrera suggests that teachers encourage students to ask each other questions—“the holy grail of student discourse”— or provide incomplete data so students need to figure out the missing information. When available, use an interactive whiteboard to have students write or draw their thoughts, leading to a whole-group discussion of who agrees, disagrees, and why. “These are strategies that can be used with any grade level and really in any subject,” he says.
In addition, use a curriculum or investigation kits that specifically incorporate discourse opportunities as fundamental strategies to support teachers in prompting and engaging students in discussions of investigative phenomena, data, and results. Herrera advises using a program that goes beyond just encouraging discussions by explicitly calling out to teachers when, where, and how to engage students in discussions.

Differentiation Strategy

Differentiation Tip
For high-level thinking, challenge students to come up with examples of plants that could be considered predators, and what adaptations they would need to have. You may wish to follow up with a discussion and video clip on carnivorous plants, such as the Venus flytrap.
African father helping to his son to study during online education at home man explaining the material while boy making notes in notebook
Assessing Understanding
Science standards based on the Framework encourage teachers to consider the degree to which the three dimensions contribute to sensemaking, leading Achieve to draft a framework to help evaluate the cognitive complexity of assessment tasks. (Achieve, Inc. 2019) Students not only need to know science concepts but also must apply their understanding (NGSS Lead States 2013, 382), and teachers, the Framework says, “. . . need to learn how to use student-developed models, classroom discourse, and other formative assessment approaches to gauge student thinking and design further instruction based on it.” (NRC 2012, 256)
So Herrera poses this question to teachers: “What evidence will convince you that they [students] reached the goal of understanding?”
Written and physical evidence oftentimes present the obvious indicators of learning. But verbal evidence, Herrera says, where students need to put their thinking into words, can be the most challenging as students struggle to express their ideas and teachers endeavor to determine the level of sensemaking that students are demonstrating.
In Ready, Set, Science! Putting Research to Work in K–8 Classrooms, the NRC offers the following six talk moves to encourage discourse and help students verbalize their reasoning. (NRC 2008, 91)
  • Revoice what a student said.
  • Ask students to restate a classmate’s reasoning.
  • Ask students to apply their own reasoning to a classmate’s reasoning.
  • Prompt students for further participation.
  • Ask students to explicate their reasoning.
  •  Use wait time.
These talk moves and strategies give students practice developing and articulating their thoughts, providing the evidence teachers need to assess the levels of sensemaking. But as teachers guide students to take thinking to a higher level, the intended outcome of scientific discourse needs to be at the forefront of the interactions: students are presenting ideas and evidence not to win an argument or to provide the one correct answer but rather to respectfully encourage one another in discovery as they work as scientists and engineers to figure out a phenomenon.
Achieve, Inc. 2019. A Framework to Evaluate Cognitive Complexity in Science Assessments. Accessed November 11, 2019:
National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. 2008. Ready, Set, Science! Putting Research to Work in K–8 Classrooms. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Committee on Conceptual Framework for New K–12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Science Teaching Association. 2015. “NGSS: Supporting Talk.” YouTube February 23, 2016. Accessed October 16, 2019: watch?v=l0-u0gMa-pU
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
About Carolina
Carolina Biological Supply Company is a leading supplier of science teaching materials. Headquartered in Burlington, North Carolina, it serves customers worldwide, including teachers, professors, homeschool educators, and professionals in health- and science-related fields. Carolina is the exclusive developer and distributor of the Building Blocks of Science® 3D curriculum and the new BBS3D@Home digital component for grades K–5 as well as the Carolina Kits 3D® and Carolina Kits 3D® Flex programs that engage grades 9–12 students in the practices that support scientific argumentation.
About Smithsonian Science Education Center
The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) aims to transform and improve the teaching and learning of science for K–12 students by fully addressing science standards. It developed the grades K–5 Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™ (SSftC) phenomena- and problem-based modules and the grades 6–8 Science and Technology Concepts™ Middle School (STCMS) practicebased units to engage students in three-dimensional, hands-on learning that incorporates science and engineering practices.
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