Engaging Students in Constructing Explanations

February 22, 2021

In this episode, Nicole VanTassel and Erin Sadler discuss how to develop explanations with students. This allows you to transition from a “teaching as telling” approach to a more student centered learning experience. Then, the student will be able to develop their own explanations of science content.

Explanations in a Traditional Science Class

Traditional science classrooms use a teaching-as-telling approach. When using this approach, the teacher provides the explanation at the start of the lesson sequence. Then, students perform activities that confirm what they have already learned.

Examples of Teaching-as-Telling

Many traditional classroom activities could be considered teaching as telling. However, they are only considered teaching-as-telling if they occur at the start of the lesson sequence. These activities include:

  • Lecture
  • Reading Text
  • Videos

Using a Discovery-Based Approach

These activities may still be valuable in a student-centered learning environment. However, it is important to move them to the middle of the lesson sequence. Then allows students to explore before they are provided with an explanation.

Also, these activities shouldn't just confirm what students already know. It helps if they also provide students with a different contexts or additional information about what they discovered during the explore phase.

How does a student build explanations in the a student-driven science classroom?

It important to give students the opportunity to explore content before giving them an explanation. To learn more about a discovery-based approach to science education, check out this episode of our podcast.

Students exploring in a science classroom with a teacher.  Students explore before constructing explanations in student-centered science classroom.

Student Explanations – 5E Science Instruction

In this episode, Nicole and Erin discuss student explanations in terms of the 5E model. However, this approach still works even if you aren't using the 5E model. Regardless of the model you use, exploration should always be done before explanations.

To learn more about the 5E model, check out this episode.

Student Explanations Followed by Teacher Explanations

After students have been given the opportunity to explore the content, give them the opportunity to explain. Then, the teacher can explain to clarify their understanding of the content.

Benefits of Allowing Students to Explain First

There are two major reasons that you should give students time to explain before the teacher provides an explanation.

First, this allows the teacher see any misconceptions that they have developed. Also, the teacher able to hear how students explain the content. Then, the teacher can use this same terminology to provide additional information when they provide their own explanation .

The purpose of the teacher explanation is to clarify student understanding of the material.

Student Driven Explanations for Science - 
1) Student exploration
2) Student Explanation 
3) Teacher Explanation

Activities that help the student with their explanations of science content.

Here are a few suggestions for ways to help the student explain what they discovered during the exploration phase of the lesson sequence.

  • Provide students with question to answer during the exploration phase, Then, review answers student questions in a whole-group setting and facilitate the discussion.
  • Use the Crosscutting Concepts to structure student explanations.
  • Have students create models of what they learned during the exploration phase. The, review models and discuss misconception.
  • Create information argumentation sessions so that students can discuss differing explanations for phenomena.

More resources for creating a student centered classroom.


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