September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Should We Teach Our Students to Argue?

Posted: Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

by Grahme Smith

We all love to get the correct answer. It feels great to be “right.”  As soon as we learn how to point, we are cheered for being able to identify the correct color of our toys, and to accurately count the number of peas on our plate. For toddlers, there are correct answers. They learn that adults know the answers and praise children for saying the “right” thing. This idea often is reinforced in school through testing and teacher directed learning. Students learn that the teacher or the textbook or the Internet has the right answer, and that the job of students is simply to find and regurgitate information. In Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse, Jonathan Osborne notes that “deep within our educational fabric, education is still seen simplistically as a process of transmission where knowledge is presented as a set of unequivocal and uncontested facts, transferred from expert to novice.” However, the goal of education is to help students learn to think rationally and independently, to problem solve, and to make informed decisions. Osborne explains that the goal of science is not just to understand the things we’ve already learned but also “to produce new knowledge of the natural world.” If we’re sending the message to students that their role is simply to regurgitate preexisting information, how will they ever develop into independent thinkers and science innovators?

Many in the educational community feel that taking a constructivist approach is the best method to support students in formulating their own ideas and in fostering independent thought. The hope is that when students generate their own understanding, they have more ownership of the concepts and gain a deeper understanding of the material. The argument against constructivism is that it can perpetuate misconceptions and it does not push forward our collective thinking.  For example, if a student constructs their own understanding of why there are phases of the moon, they might mistakenly think that the Earth’s shadow causes the moon’s phases. On the other hand, if a student is simply told the cause of the moon’s phases, they will likely not internalize nor have ownership over the information, and it will be quickly forgotten.

Osborne’s answer to this conundrum is to have students do what actual scientists do; argue. “Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas.” From informal discussions in laboratories to formal peer reviews, new ideas are validated and broken down based on feedback and scrutiny from colleagues. “Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.”  He cites a study indicating the most learning gains come when students participate in activities that are interactive and require collaborative discourse and collaboration.  This discourse forces students to defend their ideas and helps them develop an understanding of how we know what we know about science instead of just an understanding what we know. With this methodology students are encouraged to construct their own ideas, then defend and justify their thinking against another student’s ideas and the literature. This ensures that students are learning accurate information, gives space for students to learn from each other, and helps to collectively move group thought forward.

My questions for the CSTA community this month are how can we channel the energy and enthusiasm students put into being “right” into having a critical discourse with their peers? Can we de-program students into believing that it is ok to be wrong and that understanding why they’re wrong is more important than simply being right? Can we have students argue in class without causing chaos? Have you been able to do this in your classroom or informal learning center? As a professional science educator, do you engage in this type of discourse with your colleagues? Please share your thoughts about the importance or effectiveness of argumentation in enhancing student’s conceptual understanding and scientific reasoning and let us know how you have supported this with students and peers.

All quotes are from Arguing to Learn in Science: the Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse written by Jonathan Osborne and published in Science in April, 2010. Click here to read the abstract:

Grahme Smith is manager at the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences and CSTA’s informal science director.


Written by Grahme Smith

Grahme Smith is manager at the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences and CSTA’s informal science director (2011-2013.

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.