When picturing a STEM classroom, what comes to mind? Is it a teacher at the front of the room, scribbling complicated equations onto a blackboard while students hurriedly take notes? Or is it a laboratory with students hunched over various beakers and test tubes, too focused on their work to speak?
In reality, STEM classrooms – like any classroom – should be ones in which frequent conversations are held about the things students are learning. Conversations are vital to students’ learning. They help to acquire, develop, and challenge ideas, as well as facilitate sense-making and transfer of learning.
However, we know that it is often challenging to facilitate these sorts of productive conversations. Because students in a math or science class may not be expecting to have to talk about the material, they may be caught off guard. Yet we have some ways to help guide classroom conversation in order to improve STEM teaching.
Ask a Question
So often in STEM classrooms, students are asked to solve a problem that has one correct answer. However, by asking an open-ended question to the class, you can provoke a discussion that may come up with several sides or solutions to the inquiry you pose.
If you’re stuck, try an either/or question, such as “Would you rather use true experimental design or quasi experimental design for this research project?” Make sure that you have students explain their thinking.
Think Small. . .
Divide students into groups and ask them to have conversations among themselves. By putting students into smaller groups, you’ll ensure that each student has more opportunities to speak and thus really grasp the concepts that you’re teaching.
Additionally, this gives shy students a chance to feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. They may be intimidated by the prospect of speaking in front of the entire class.
. . . Then Think Big
Listen to what students are saying in order to collect formative assessment information; basically, figure out which topics students have really grasped and which they’re still struggling with. This way, you can modify your teaching right then and there in order to make sure students are getting as much out of class as possible.
Speak Their Language
Allowing students the chance to speak gives teachers valuable insight into how to connect young people’s everyday language with language common in the scientific community.
Once you are more familiar with students’ vernacular, you’ll be able to use that vernacular in your teaching and facilitation of discussion. This makes it easier for students to both understand and talk about the subject matter.
Try and lead discussions as to how the topic at hand relates to students’ lives outside the classroom and in their community. Research published in Cultural Studies of Science Education conveyed that: “Students were able to develop science-linked identities by realizing that science could be meaningfully related to circumstances of their own lives, which they could then investigate.”
When students are able to see how the subjects they are learning in their science and math classes relate to their everyday lives, they will have more opportunities to make connections and, therefore, more to offer during class discussions.
It is incredibly important that all students should have access to productive discussions in their STEM classroom that allow them to sharpen both their critical reasoning and their analytical abilities.
When students are able to process their thinking through conversation, they become better thinkers. And better thinkers are ultimately better STEM students.