Supporting Predictions and Academic Risk-Taking
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(1 of 4)
Author: PP

I teach fifth grade, and my students find it difficult to make conjectures and struggle to connect existing ideas in front of their peers. In small "safe" groups we have wonderful rich conversations. I have even eavesdropped on some personal conversations and was pleasantly surprised with scientific discussions I overheard. They are extremely self-consciences at this age. Do you have any suggestions on how to elicit predictions and host whole class discussions without creating an uncomfortable situation?

(2 of 4)
Author: Harlen, Wynne

Dear PP --
You have raised an important question about children’s feelings in the context of revealing their ideas. This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to recently as it seems so crucial to learning through inquiry and to constructivist teaching and learning. I’ve come up with some suggestions but the main one, it seems to me, is to acknowledge the way the children may be feeling about this and to give some encouragement to sharing their experiences and views through modeling.

You could, for example, tell them how you used to think about something and why this was the case. (e.g., you might have through that magnets had some sort of glue in them that came out when near iron and steel – tell them why this was and that although it seems funny now, it was sensible at the time). You can also explain that by sharing their experience they can help each other and you can reinforce this by acknowledging that they feel awkward about ideas that might not be ‘right’ but that they can’t find out if others have the same of different ideas until they share them.

Of course its essential that all ideas are accepted as worthwhile, and none dismissed as ‘silly’. If this is already happening in small groups, you are at least half way there. You might move from the small group discussion to the whole class in a structured way – such as asking each group to prepare to report and explain their experience and ideas to the whole class, so that individuals are not exposed. Some of the other ideas are

  • Find out about the children’s attitudes and feelings through discussion and conversation, but, importantly, listening to them
  • Show real interest in what they feel as well as what they think
  • Use knowledge of their attitudes and feelings to set realistic expectations; not expecting more co-operation or responsibility than is appropriate to their maturity
  • Provide a classroom organisation which supports responsibility and enables them to achieve their best (i.e., gives them some choice in what they do and so some commitment to it)
  • Encourage effort and socially desirable behaviours, not just achievement
  • Set an example by being patient, sympathetic, encouraging and fair
  • Foster curiosity and the persistence and creativity to satisfy it. I hope some of this is useful if only in reinforcing what seems to me to be good practice in your classroom.


(3 of 4)
Author: KS

Dear Dr. Harlen,

In "Why this way of Working?" you mention that limits in the development of skills affect children's development of ideas. Do you find that there are gender issues that also affect this development of ideas? Specifically, do you see males or females being more predisposed toward earlier success with developing skills in observation, prediction or using fair testing? Also, what role, if any, does peer pressure play in children's inquiry learning and developing ideas?

Another question has to do with the constraints of trying to engage in inquiry based science curriculum. What do you see as the largest stumbling blocks that we may want to look for as we seek to facilitate inquiry learning in our classrooms?

Thank you,

(4 of 4)
Author: Harlen, Wynne

You ask about gender differences in respect of process skills development. I haven’t found any research evidence of this but of course it is not easy to separate the process from the content on which the skills are used. We don’t have ‘content-free’ processes and the content does influence the extent to which students apply their skills.

It may appear that girls are less willing to participate in direct handling and participation in investigations if the investigations are about things that traditionally are seen as ‘masculine’. So it’s important to have a balance of topics and activities of interest to both boys and girls. Even then there is often a tendency for the boys to ‘elbow out’ the girls in practical work, so it may be necessary (particularly with middle school students where peer pressure becomes important) to have single-gender groups for some practical work. It’s also important to ensure that boys don’t dominate discussions, so sometimes the teacher has to be a ‘chairperson’ to ensure that all voices are heard – and listened to.

Your other questin is a most intriguing one. Perhaps you’ll surprised at my answer, but the largest stumbling block for me is taking the science into too much detail and being too anxious for students to get ‘the right answer’. The teacher’s role certainly includes helping students to consider different ideas and explanations from the ones they have thought of but these should not go beyond what students can comprehend in terms of their experience.

For each student there is gap between present ideas and those which we aim to help him or her achieve. The question or how to bridge this gap is one to which there is no universal answer. If there were, education would be more an exact science than a form of art; we would be able to build a child's learning rather as building a house, knowing just how one brick should be placed on another. As we, know, it is not like that. With students' learning the 'bricks' are not ready formed; they need time to take shape and until that has happened there can be no further building. There are times when students' ideas need time before there can be further development. This is the time to stop and it is as important to recognise this as it is to stimulate thinking at other times.

So how do we recognise when it is time to stop? Students' general reactions will indicate this in science, as in other subject areas. When they become easily distracted after a period of working with full attention on something; when they lose interest and adopt a mechanical rather than a thinking approach to their work. These can be signs that the child is no longer in charge of the learning and things may have got ahead of him or her. In science the signs are also to be found in what may seem to be stubborn persistence in ideas despite evidence which conflicts, or in using words as labels without real understanding of what they mean.

For all of us there are times when looking at things a different way is exciting and seems to bring several things into place. There are also times when we can't see that any idea different from our own makes sense and we need more time or more examples if we are going to change our view. So the time to stop trying to help students advance their ideas is when they do not see other ideas as being as useful as their present ones. The time to stop is also before falling to the temptation of pressing different ideas with the force of authority, giving the impression that 'this is how things are'. If students feel obliged to accept ideas different from theirs because they are clearly 'right' and their own are 'wrong' then they will quite soon lose confidence in their ability to think things out and come to a useful conclusion.

Often teachers are tempted to go further than students can understand because the students ask questions. When the teacher knows that the students will not be able to understand the answer it is best not to give it. Instead the question can be turned into a more thorough investigation of the situation. Thanks for your participation.



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