Thursday, April 7, 2011


I'm part of a project this year that works with new(ish) teachers on teaching science.  One of the science teaching practices we're learning about and trying out is a "Science Talk."  A Science Talk is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  You ask your class a question -- a question that doesn't really have a right answer, that perhaps can be interpreted in different ways -- and then, with relatively little guidance from you, your students talk about the question.

In our group, teachers videotape their Science Talks, then bring their videos, with typed transcripts of the conversation, to be studied.  We look at tiny portions of the transcript at a time, and we dig into the meaning of students' words.  In the midst of talk that can often, in the rush of a classroom, seem unimportant, we find evidence of students' understanding, ideas, connections, experiences, theories, and creativity. We discover concepts we want to return to, we wonder what students meant by a certain phrase, and we are constantly amazed by the depth of their thinking.

Two things most strike me about this work.  The first is that this idea, of throwing out an open-ended question, then asking students to explore it together, is not a revolutionary pedagogical practice.  This is not a new idea; teachers have been doing this for centuries.  However, it is not something we, who teach in this context at this time, do on a regular basis.  In fact, the idea is kind of daunting for many teachers.  A question without a right answer?  A conversation the teacher doesn't control?  Many of us have little experience with this kind of teaching, and it makes us nervous.

I also realize that I used to have more conversations like this in my classroom than I do now.  When I began teaching ten years ago, we had class conversations about the definition of a triangle, whether balls can move by themselves, how to design a fair experiment, why people have wars, what is the "middle number," whether you need a mother and a father, and where a life cycle begins.  I don't think my classroom was unusual in spending time on these questions.  These were some of my very favorite teaching moments -- really, they are why I teach. 

In the past few years, I have felt less freedom to spend time on such conversations.  A constant watchword of our profession now is data.  Where are the data?  What do the data tell us?  The important data in second grade are: what level are the kids reading at?  How many words can they read per minute?  How many sight words can they read?  How many sight words can they spell?  How many math facts can they solve in a minute?  How many of the students can write an organized explanation of how they get ready for school in the morning?

(I should say that these things are, of course, important, some more than others, and I am not against teaching them.  They just aren't that exciting.)

I've inherited (as have the teachers before me) two years of pretty low readers.  ("Low readers," I should write, in quotes.)  So the "data" aren't very good.  Maybe it's because of this, or maybe it would be this way even if they were "high readers" -- we need to spend more time on math and reading instruction.  Instruction that helps the data get better, of course.  Not necessarily instruction that helps them explore ideas, dig deeply into content, or talk about their thinking.

Because these kinds of conversations are so much rarer in classrooms today, it is really important to give the practice a name ("Science Talks"), practice it a bunch in our classes, and analyze the "data" that emerge from our students' voices.  This creates a space for more student talk, for less teacher talk, for more conversation in our classrooms.  By naming it, we legitimize it as a teaching practice, and by digging into our students' words and seeing how much richness we can find there, we offer it as an antidote to timed tests, multiple choice questions, and canned essay topics.

Did I say listening to students' ideas wasn't a revolutionary pedagogical practice? Maybe it is after all.