January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Writing for Conceptual Change

Posted: Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

by Joey Noelle Lehnhard and Beth Callaghan

In addition to developing scientific habits of mind and critical thinking skills, we know that writing can also be a powerful way to increase our students’ understanding of complex scientific concepts. The Common Core State Standards ask that starting in 6th grade students, “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.”(CCSS.WHST.6-8.1) In addition, NGSS Practice 7, “Engaging in Argument from Evidence,” asks that starting in 3rd grade, students:

  • “Compare and refine arguments based on an evaluation of the evidence presented.”
  • “Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in an explanation.”

The reasons for this are fully laid out in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education, upon which the NGSS are based. However, put simply, science uses reasoning to support and develop claims to explain phenomena and develop solutions to problems. Throughout the process, the limitations, strengths, and weaknesses of arguments are continually evaluated. For scientists, this process results in “good science.” For laypersons and students, this process results in being able to distinguish good science from bad and legitimate arguments from fallacious ones.

Effective science teachers can engage their students in scientific writing in many ways. One example, writing refutational text, is a strategy that aids in conceptual change (Tippett 2010) by addressing students’ misconceptions and supports students in arguing from evidence, while also teaching scientific writing conventions. It is particularly appropriate for middle and high school students. Within the refutational writing experience, students begin with a solid grounding in the science concepts before the writing takes place. They do science, read about it, and actively learn before the writing lesson occurs. For instance, in the beginning of the school year, many of us teach the scientific process or what scientists do. We emphasize the nonlinear nature of science by asking our students to revisit and revise their protocols, improve their designs, or even refine their questions through concrete experiences. This is enhanced by lectures or readings on how scientists collect data, make conclusions and design investigations. The refutational writing piece concludes the process.

The following is a sample step-by-step guide to a refutational writing instructional plan:

1. Students read an article that they will be able to refute based on their science experiences, knowledge, and research. Topics may include relevant issues-based topics such as climate change or common misconceptions like density or what causes seasons. Be sure not to show bias when assigning the initial reading. Let students begin with an open mind. Often, this initial reading is assigned as homework.

2. Instruct students to use a reading comprehension strategy as they read: annotation, Cornell notetaking, etc.

3. In partners or small groups, students discuss what they read. Ask them to share what surprised them about the article. Encourage them to be specific by asking them to say more about their thoughts, reiterate or rephrase a classmate’s idea, etc. This gives students opportunities to practice science discourse and enhance their understanding of the vocabulary by using academic language, learning from each other, and refining their own thoughts.

4. Provide an anchor refutational text like the example shown in Figure 1. Identify the parts of the text as a class, e.g., the claim, any evidence, reasoning, etc. Pull out sentence starters to use in their own writing and help them identify what they are refuting: the conclusion, the evidence, the omission of evidence, etc.

Figure 2. Sample anchor refutational text.

Figure 1. Sample anchor refutational text.

5. Give students a writing scaffold to organize their thinking. This should help them connect the science concepts they know to the reading. The scaffold should mirror the type of writing you want from them. We’ve found success using organizers like the one in Figure 2.

Figure 3. Writing scaffold to help organize student's thoughts.

Figure 2. Writing scaffold to help organize student’s thoughts.

6. Ask students to read aloud what they’ve written in the graphic organizer to a partner. We’ve used the quiet, smile, nod strategy to help students begin to actively listen and create a sense of safety for the reader. This can be helpful for all learners, even at the high school level. After both partners read, the two consult and help each other revise their organizers.

7. Give students time to transfer their thoughts into a more formal piece of writing. Often, this is simply a well-constructed paragraph.

8. Use the students’ refutational text to analyze the quality of their arguments. In small groups, have students read two of their texts (with names omitted) and discuss the strength of the two arguments. Afterwards, return students’ own writing and allow them to revise their work.
This process is lengthy and takes more than a single class period; however, including such rigorous writing experiences occasionally throughout the year helps students clarify and internalize the science concepts you are teaching while practicing a skill emphasized in both.

Writing samples produced by teachers in learner role during the Monterey Bay Aquarium's summer teacher institute.  Connecting with Marine Science for high school classroom teachers.

Writing samples produced by teachers in learner role during the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s summer teacher institute. Connecting with Marine Science for high school classroom teachers.

Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards
In the Common Core literacy in science standards, starting in seventh grade, students are expected to analyze counterclaims in their persuasive writing as well as analyze discipline-specific texts. Perhaps more importantly, developing these scientific habits of mind and critical thinking skills may help students internalize new content more readily in the future and become critical consumers of information in and out of school.

Joey and Beth are Senior Education Specialists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, former classroom teachers, and current CSTA members. Follow them on twitter @joeyelle and @BethACallaghan

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Bibliography

A Framework for K-12 Science Education – Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. 2012.

Tippett, C. D. (2010). Refutation text in science education: A review of two decades of research. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8(6), 951-970.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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