Two Terrific Tools for Teaching Science Successfully

Hopefully you’ve been following our series on science in the classroom. We’ve covered Shattering Common Science Myths, and The Challenge of Teaching Science Correctly. In this guest post (the first ever guest post at my blog!) my sister Lisa will take a look at some helpful approaches to science.

So, you’ve managed to face up to your misconceptions of science. You’ve acknowledged that you need accurate information in order to teach kids correctly.

Good for you!

Now the question is, how can we actually help kids learn about science in a way that doesn’t lead to their own wrong conclusions?

How can we lead them to challenge their misconceptions and move towards an accurate view of the natural world?

I’m so glad you asked! Two of our best tools are language and experiments.

The Language of Science

The terms are so familiar and frequently invoked that the student has lost all sense of the fact that he or she does not really know what they mean.” – Arnold B. Arons

When studying science, we take the same words that we use in daily life and give them a greatly modified and specific scientific meaning. This new meaning is only vaguely connected to their normal usage. Examples of such words would include force, weight, mass, acceleration, and energy.

Unfortunately, teachers sometimes assume that the students already know the scientific meaning of the term because they know its everyday meaning!

The truth is, the students do not know about the shift in meaning unless we point it out explicitly many times. We must remind them that the words remain the same, but they have taken on a new scientific meaning.

A fellow teacher once told me, “I had an experience with third graders who were very confused by the definition of energy. I came to the conclusion that no one had used the term ‘energy’ around them to refer to anything besides the movement of children, i.e., ‘You kids have a lot of energy!’”

This kind of misunderstanding is quite common, and can be difficult to overcome.

I suggest this approach: rather than introducing a new concept with the word or term first, lead students to the idea first – either through experimentation (if possible), explanation, and/or dialogue – and then give it a name.

This follows a wise saying, “Idea first and name afterwards.” The idea is more significant than the name.

Making Sure They Understand

When you do introduce a term, make sure you state the definition clearly and in words the children can understand. Ask them to tell you what it means in their own words. Write it down on a dry erase board or paper so they can see the definition.

Make sure they understand the meaning of the words used in the definition. Ask them to tell you the meaning of the term after some time has elapsed (like later that day, or a week or two later). Keep reviewing terms and definitions so that they take hold.

Choose Experiments Wisely

Sometimes we are tempted to do the most dramatic experiments and demonstrations in the name of fun or getting kids interested in science. But even if we give a truthful explanation for the idea we are illustrating, the students may abandon our words for the sake of their own form of logic if their minds are not ready for it.

Let me use a common gravity experiment as an example.

If you are talking about gravity, you might drop a rock and a feather at the same time to observe the fascinating difference in the way they fall to the ground. Because the feather takes longer to reach the ground, the casual observer (the students and maybe some adults too) might conclude that lighter or smaller objects fall at a slower rate than heavy ones.

It doesn’t matter if you carefully explain that the reason the feather takes longer to reach the ground is because of air resistance. The image of the rock hitting the ground almost instantly while the feather wistfully takes its time will engrave itself in the child’s mind.

[Note – in the original Geography Charts & Experiments, the feather experiment was the first gravity experiment done. And, centripital force was presented before gravity, when really it is much more easily understood after gravity has been discussed – Lori]

Because the air around us doesn’t alter the outcomes of most of our daily experiences, “air resistance” is a complex concept whose explanation is far less powerful than the image of the rock and the feather.

Slow and Steady Wins the Science Race

The best way to approach air resistance is not to approach it at all – that is, not until the fundamental principles of gravity are already ingrained in the students’ minds, and until they are ready to understand the sophisticated concept of air resistance.

Start with experiments that teach the gravity in the simplest way before showing them the more complicated situation. Drop different objects together that are not as affected by air resistance – such as coins, balls, pens, rocks, books, toys – so that they will form the correct conclusion that all objects, regardless of weight and size, fall at the same rate.

Once that concept is well established and you are prepared to study air resistance, then you can bring out the confusing example of the feather and the rock.

At that time, you must thoroughly explore the concept of air resistance – and perhaps do other experiments about air and air resistance. Explain the concept of a vacuum (the absence of air) and tell them that in a vacuum, all objects do fall at the same rate.

Show them a video of an Apollo 15 astronaut dropping a hammer and a feather on the Moon, where there is no air resistance! This kind of visual demonstration will go a long way to insuring that they understand gravity and air resistance correctly. (Just search YouTube to find one).

We can apply the same principles to every science concept and experiment we do:

  • Put the idea ahead of the word
  • Use words correctly
  • Define words clearly
  • Choose appropriate science experiments
  • Introduce concepts in the correct order
  • Wait until one concept is thoroughly understood before moving on to the next one

With this approach, we can ensure that children get the most out of science!

Note from Lori: Lisa’s post was pretty long, so I have broken it into two parts. I’ll post part two next week. The information was so good, I didn’t want to take anything out!