Archived — Talking the Talk the Way Real Scientists Do

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Shirley Turner leads her science students through a series of communications activities to help them become more comfortable asking and answering questions about a subject in the vocabulary appropriate to study and inquiry.

Looking at exam papers, Turner noticed that questions requiring explanations were the most poorly done at the Grade 11 and 12 levels. These were a challenge both for students who did well at science as well as those who struggled. The gifted students had a tendency to want to go straight to the equation and plug in the numbers.

There is a sense in which mathematics is the language of physics but it is also true that students need to be able to ask and answer questions in ordinary language using scientific concepts and terminology. It is only when they can do this that they can collaborate together in class and in text exchanges on the Internet.

The learning experience begins with one-on-one communications using pair-share interactions. Turner assigns students to pairs but avoids matching up students who are already close. She presents students with any one of a number of challenges. These might include asking the students to do the following:

  • to convince the other of something;
  • to brainstorm;
  • to explain why some phenomena occur;
  • to compare and contrast;
  • to rank a number of items according to strength, size; or
  • to reflect on what they have learned and how the have learned it (metacognitive analysis).

The challenge is that the students have to use subject-appropriate vocabulary in their interaction, use proper English and speak in full sentences. While the conversations are going on, Turner walks around from pair to pair to see how students are doing and to facilitate when required.

These challenges can easily be adapted to other subjects. "All of these could be applied to a novel students are reading in English or a country being studied in geography."

Although drifting off topic is a concern, Turner says that students can usually manage to converse initially for five minutes and then for longer as they become familiar with the vocabulary and subject.

The progress students make communicating face to face carries over into their written work. Students further develop these skills as they interact with one another in the class on-line forum, participation in which is mandatory. "The amount of on-line interaction goes way up when the students do the pair-share activities first."

She also uses the chance of better performance as an enticement. "I know from statistics I have kept that students who are more active in the forum get about one grade level better," she explains. "That is a major motivator for students seeking to get into a particular university."