Center for Curriculum Materials in Science

AAAS Project 2061, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, University of Michigan

CCMS Knowledge Sharing Institute

2006 Knowledge Sharing Institute

Featured Research Presentations

Supporting Students' Construction of Scientific Explanations through Curricular Scaffolds and Teacher Instructional Practices

Katherine L. McNeill (University of Michigan)

Ultimately the goal of classroom science is to help all students become scientifically literate (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996). This type of literacy requires that students participate in scientific inquiry practices such as the construction of arguments or scientific explanations (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000). Although scientific explanations are important, they are frequently omitted from classroom practice (Kuhn, 1993; Newton, Driver & Osborne 1999) and students have difficulty justifying their claims (Sadler, 2004). In this talk, I present the results from my dissertation study that examines how the language of written curricular scaffolds (context-specific vs. generic), teacher instructional practices, and the interaction between the two, support student learning of scientific explanations.

Classrooms are complex systems where many factors influence student learning including tools, teachers, and peers (Lampert, 2002). Tabak (2004) discusses the idea of distributed scaffolding where a collection of curriculum materials, instructional strategies, and activity structures work collectively to support learners. Specifically, I am interested in two different types of supports, written curricular scaffolds and teacher instructional practices. There is currently a debate in the literature about the relative importance of context specific or domain specific knowledge compared to more general cognitive skills in engaging students in inquiry tasks (Stevens, Wineburg, Herrenkohl, & Bell, 2005). In order to write a strong scientific explanation, students need to understand the content of the particular task as well as be able to justify their claims using evidence and reasoning. I am interested in whether incorporating written context-specific scaffolds or generic scaffolds in curriculum materials better support students in the construction of scientific explanations. Recent research (Reiser et al., 2001) also argues that teachers play a key role in structuring and guiding students’ learning. Teachers need to support students in making sense of these scientific practices (Driver et al., 1994).

This study focused on an 8-week middle school chemistry curriculum, How can I make new stuff from old stuff?. I worked with six teachers who enacted the curriculum materials with 578 students during the 2004-2005 school year. Each teacher taught classes that received the context-specific scaffold treatment and classes that received the generic scaffold treatment. To measure student achievement, I analyzed student explanations constructed during the unit as well as on identical pre- and posttest measures. To investigate the teacher instructional practices, I developed case studies based on my analysis of videotape from each teacher across three lessons and curriculum questionnaires that the teachers completed.

My findings suggest the curricular scaffolds and teacher instructional practices were synergistic (Tabak, 2004) in that the supports interacted and the effect of the written curricular scaffolds depended on the teacher’s enactment of the curriculum. I found that the teachers varied in which instructional practices they engaged in as well as the quality of their use of those practices. For three of the six teachers who provided their students with generic support through their instructional practices, the context-specific written scaffolds were more effective in supporting student learning of scientific explanation. Scaffolded tools may not necessarily have the same effect in all classrooms. Rather both the way teachers use those tools and students prior knowledge and experiences are important in considering the success of the tools in promoting student learning.

Do Students Buy In? A Study of Student Goal and Role Adoption by Students in Project-Based Curricula

Virginia M. Pitts (Northwestern University)

In project-based curricula, students develop content understanding through the investigation of authentic problems. In participating in these curricula, learners are expected to take on a particular goal and play a particular role (as part of the overall project scenario). The goal involves solving a problem (such as predicting temperature on a newly-discovered planet or ridding the Great Lakes of the Sea Lamprey) or answering a driving question. The role embodies an expected way of interacting, and is sometimes explicit (scientific researcher, special task force member) and sometimes implicit (inquirer, knowledge creator). An underlying design assumption behind these curricula is that the goal and role will motivate the learning of content, and that learning the content in pursuit of the goal leads to better content understanding. However, research to-date has not explored the extent to which the goal and role actually motivate student participation in practice.

This dissertation research addresses that gap, through examining the ways in which an overall scenario goal and role influence students' experiences of day-to-day activity in project-based curricula. Specifically, this research begins to explore the research questions of (1) To what extent do students adopt the project role and goal as they participate in project activities?, (2) What are the individual and contextual factors that influence the nature of role and goal adoption, and what is the process through which such role and goal adoption occurs?, and (3) What are the ways in which role and goal adoption influence the nature of participation and engagement?

This mixed-methods study focused on two 7th-grade science classrooms, where students were participating in the What Will Survive life sciences curricula. Data collection methods included student interviews, classroom observation, and use of frequent “mini-surveys” to explore students' experiences of the curriculum over time. The analysis combined qualitative analysis of the interview data with quantitative analysis of the self-report survey data.

The findings indicate that the potential is there for the scenario to influence student motivation, participation, and engagement, and that such potential was partially realized for this particular implementation. These findings also indicate that the scenario may have been especially influential on days where the task was not particularly engaging on its own. Furthermore, these findings indicate that the influence of an overall project scenario on student motivation is mediated by students' understandings of the scenario (including its perceived plausibility), their scenario-related attitudes and beliefs, their perception of the alignment of project activities with the overall project scenario, and the relative salience of other sources of motivation.

Ultimately, this research is intended to contribute to our understanding of motivation and engagement in project-based learning environments, our “toolset” for analyzing such motivation and engagement, and our knowledge of how to design project-based learning environments to maximize motivation and engagement.

Text: AAAS Project 2061, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, University of Michigan
Text: Center for Curriculum Materials in Science