Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Memo 3: Explanation and Argument

            This weeks readings focused on the role of active discourse and argumentation in the science classroom.  In ‘Engaging Students in the Scientific Practices of Explanation and Argumentation’, Reiser et al discuss the new Framework for K-12 Science Education, arguing that the standards have evolved to reflect the core practices of science and seek to engage students through active participation, resulting in students with a better understanding of the why and how of scientific methods and knowledge acquisition.  Reiser et al point to the creation and modification of explanations through argumentation as the key to achieving successful inquiry and modeling experiences, as it creates a framework for students to understand cause and effect in science.  Through classroom examples, Reiser et al show that defending their predictions enables students to question their initial assumptions, challenge each other’s explanations, and modify accordingly to construct a more elaborate and precise consensus explanation and understanding.  In this system, the students are able to derive conclusions independently without being told explicitly, thus the teacher acts more as a guide, providing scaffolding, facilitating meaningful discourse between students, enabling students to explain and argue, and creating a safe environment for productive struggle and failure.
            In their article on Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI), Sampson and Gleim promote the titular instructional model as an integrative approach to teaching inquiry-based science.  ADI is similar to the modeling cycle presented by Lehrer (student driven inquiry, experiment design, communication, modification, and presentation of concepts/knowledge), but the emphasis is placed on the construction and critique of arguments as the key steps to successful self-derived understanding of scientific principles.  Sampson and Gleim posit that argumentation creates the “need for students to take a critical look at the product, process, and context of the inquiry,” (468) resulting in more thorough comprehension of the system being studied while also teaching students about the fluid nature of all scientific knowledge- that it is not dogmatic and instead every existing principle is supported by explanation and evidence and can be questioned and tested.  In their classroom example, they show how discussion and peer review produce more confident and complete student conclusions and create a “community of learners who value evidence and critical thinking.” (470) Under ADI, the teacher holds a similar role as that discussed by Reiser et al, encouraging students to take ownership of the learning process so principles arise organically and creating a space for students to experiment and learn from their mistakes.  Interestingly, Sampson and Gleim consider this approach integrative because it ‘borrows’ reading, writing, and discussion from other subjects- skills that are invaluable to actual science but often overlooked in the classroom.                

            This argument presupposes a very scary thought- that language skills have somewhere along the line been isolated to English and History classrooms, when in reality inquiry and argument should characterize high-level learning in all subjects.  There is some recognition of this failure of science and math education to emphasize communication and argument, most notably in the recent push to create well-read and well-spoken doctors.  But what about well-spoken scientists?  What does it mean to be scientifically literate?  What level of literacy do we want our students to come away with?  Sampson and Gleim argue that fluency in scientific argument is key to the “development of a scientific literate population because many political and moral dilemmas posed by contemporary science require an understanding not only of the content but also the processes and practices of science.” (468) Thinking about especially impactful scientists in popular culture like Bill Nye or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, it seems important to discuss the value of scientific knowledge without literacy, or the capacity to convey and defend.  I believe in the power of language and argument, but understand that I am biased by being a communicative person.  Within the core processes described in Reiser et al’s Framework, what do y’all see as the key or lynchpin process?


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    1. I am similarly alarmed by the implications of science needing to 'borrow' reading and writing from other subjects like English or history. I think that science comes with its own communicative challenges, and that overcoming these by including them in our curricula might be a crucial step toward enhancing and deepening scientific literacy for the nation. If Nye and Tyson have done so much for this cause, and we would call them well-spoken scientists, then it makes sense that we ought to do more to make sure students (future scientists) can communicate complex ideas in popularized, everyday English. In our methods course, we recently were tasked with developing a challenge for some gifted Nashville high school students who attend a once-a-week school for math and science. This challenge came on the heels of their own generally unsuccessful attempts to explain their own scientific research to us, and I think it did them good to practice explaining while limited to the language of everyday English. It seems to me that educating students to speak (publicly and privately), explain, argue, and defend in common English and without the flourish of jargon, might do a substantial amount for the cause of advancing scientific literacy.


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