What is CER? CER stands for Claim, Evidence, Reasoning. It is essentially a framework that educators use to teach the scientific method. Simplified, it looks like:
Claim (answer to a question) + Evidence (student’s data) + Reasoning (scientific principle or rule)
When we ask students to support scientific claims using CER and we model thinking moves in the process, we help spark their own curiosity about the world around them. When teachers introduce KnowAtom’s hands-on engineering labs and science experiments, they are bringing real world phenomena into the classroom. And when students make a scientific claim and back it up, they are taking charge of their own learning process.
Learning about thinking moves was one of the most transformative steps in my 20-year teaching career. One of my favorite quotes is from an American writer, Elbert Hubbard, who said, “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.” Thinking moves provide a structured approach to better understanding how we think. For teachers, it’s also a well-tested strategy to help propel students towards learning connected to their own natural curiosity and cognitive abilities. When students take the reins in the classroom, studies overwhelmingly show that engagement levels rise, and learning outcomes do too.
Thinking Moves in the Classroom, CER, and NGSS
Whether you are an educator, parent, guardian, or principal – you can learn from teachers who incorporate thinking moves into their classrooms. Thinking moves help students develop a much deeper level of understanding of the topic at hand. Here’s a list of thinking moves developed by the authors of Making Things Visible (2011):
1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
2. Building explanations and interpretations
3. Reasoning with evidence
4. Making connections
5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
7. Wondering and asking questions
8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things
You’ve probably already noticed how well these go along with next generation science skills (NGSS). For those teaching science and engineering practices in the classroom – here’s how thinking moves align directly with STEM:
Scientific Claims and CER Examples in the Classroom
First, let’s talk about observing closely and describing what's there. The image below shows an example of what KnowAtom’s classroom readers look like. In this lesson, I’d start by asking my class to observe, look at the picture, and share what they see. Understanding is propelled by noticing parts and features.
When you ask a student to observe and take notes on a picture like this, here’s what you can hope to get back:
- I noticed that the bird seems to be eating something from the flower.
- The wings and the picture are blurry, so I think that they're moving really quickly.
- I wonder how that bird stays up in the air even though it has stopped to eat.
What great observations, inquisitive questions, and a perfect jumping-off point to start a conversation about what questions students have about the object in the photo, in this case, a hummingbird. When you ignite their curiosity at the beginning of the unit, you have them hooked! You are teaching them things about the world around them that they inquisitively want to know, and in doing so, you’re giving them more responsibility for the learning process.
Claims, Evidence, Reasoning and Student Engagement
The next thinking move is building explanations and interpretations. As a teacher or a caregiver, this is your job every day. One thing I have noticed is that my students could be intimidated when I asked them questions. They often got defensive. For example, if I asked a student, “Why are you using only three wheels?” they might respond with, “I don't know, because he told me to” or “I thought that's what we're supposed to do.”
It took some time repeating this inquiry-based teaching model to reassure my students that I am truly curious and want to know more about their thinking. Whether you're a teacher, a parent, or a principal, ask those questions – model your own curiosity and the idea that there’s more than one way to tackle a scientific problem.
I love to ask my students, “Is this what you expected?” It’s always such a great moment when I see my students stop and think, “I don’t know. Is this what I expected?” That’s activating high-level thinking. You can also prod advanced thinking with timely questions like, “What do you think would happen if there was less force?” As an observer in the classroom, walking around while students take the lead in small groups on hands-on projects, you can do a lot of formative assessment by listening and recognizing where gaps in a student’s understanding may lie.
For me, it makes teaching so much more fun when I have the time to step back, remove my own expectations, and simply ask questions to help students deepen their understanding. But as I said earlier, I had to teach my students first to expect me to question them.
Evidence and Thinking Moves
The next thinking move is reasoning with evidence. This was an exciting place to get to in my own classroom, but it took commitment to creating a safe place and the expectation that the answer wasn’t enough; you have to back it up with evidence. My students learned they were going to get the question, “Why?” over and over again, either from me or from a peer. “Why do you think that?”
One thing we see when using KnowAtom across grade levels is students building on the knowledge they’ve learned previously. As we model CER -- claim evidence reasoning – year after year, students have the chance to showcase the knowledge they are building. Here’s an example:
My students were working on solving a problem with a box that had a flap that opened and closed with the help of magnets. The question was, “what's going on with this flap that's supposed to be closing instead of opening? what might be the problem here?” They answered, “We think the magnets pushed the flap away because it might have a north and north facing each other. And when N and N are together, they repel. And they can turn around two of the magnets so there is an S and an N and then they will attract.”
Most exciting to me was their next ask, “Can we use some magnets? We're pretty sure we know what will happen, but we want to check our thinking?” Well, my answer was of course, “Yes, yes and yes!” It wasn't enough for the students that from their reading and from prior investigations they were pretty sure they knew how magnets worked. Instead, they wanted to collect their own evidence. It provides a much deeper understanding to be able to say with great confidence, “We can absolutely defend our response now.” It’s an exciting moment when students feel empowered to take that extra risk.
Building Scientific Vocabulary with CER
Making connections makes student learning more meaningful. I often use something called a frame model in my class to deepen students understanding of scientific vocabulary. In my day, when a student was challenged by a vocabulary word, we would look it up in a dictionary and copy down the definition. Not too much high-level thinking happening there. With KnowAtom, students don’t just look up the word; they’re asked to interact with it. For example:
The definition of translucent is some light will pass through. Next, draw a picture. What exactly does translucent mean to you?
This activity gives us as educators a much deeper understanding of the student’s level of understanding. You can see they've got the word sunlight and a whole bunch of arrows. They identify a curtain as a good example, showing only some of those arrows passing through. What a great moment for the teacher to say, "tell me about it – why did you use the curtain as an example? what does it show?"
It’s important for teachers to remember to not make any assumptions. Instead, ask students to explain. In this case, the student explained that a curtain was something he could identify as an item in his house where some light went through, but not all of it. He also turned and pointed to the material bins we use to store materials we use for experiments to show how he could prove it worked.
Diversity of Thought and CER
Our next thinking move is considering different viewpoints and perspectives. This is a great one for all of us to learn and practice. The earlier we can start helping students understand the importance of asking questions and also understanding that other people have things to say, the better. You may have one answer to a question, but somebody else may have a different or deeper answer. They may have experienced something that will give you a different perspective when they share it with you.
One of the great tools that we use in the KnowAtom curriculum is discourse frames to help students use positive and appropriate language to either disagree with someone or ask somebody to explain themselves. Many students don’t have this language when they come to us, so modeling it throughout the KnowAtom curriculum is helping teach these students 21st-century career skills that they will use throughout their lives.
I might say, “I don't understand what you mean by (blank). Could you give an example of what you mean by (blank)?” I know for me as a learner, I need examples to help gain a higher level of understanding of a new concept. That seems so simple to us as an adult, but it may not occur to a student to ask in that way. Giving them a language to be able to question their peers and question adults is so important.
Capturing the Bigger Picture, Questioning, and Going Below the Surface
When modeling the next thinking move, capturing the heart, and forming conclusions, you are helping students look at the big picture. Here's an example from one of my student groups, who were working on the question, "do plants need soil to grow?" Their conclusion, "as long as we give them water and sunlight, we're okay," was unsupported. After ten days, the height of the plant in the soil was 20 centimeters and the plant in the cotton was 5 centimeters. They learned soil was better because it has nutrients that the plants need. In their early research, they found that plants need water, sun, nutrients, and air to grow. At first, they were upset that their hypothesis was not supported, but with a little pushback, they identified a larger lesson, "we should've paid more attention to our research." For them to understand that was a great learning opportunity.
The next thinking move is wondering and asking questions. This was something that I would model a lot at the beginning of a new unit. Then, in teams, the students would explore the science reader and discuss what makes them curious. I set up the expectation early on that we were going to ask lots and lots of questions and answer them together. I left time for wonder and for group discussion. Then, when I brought everyone back together and said, "Well, what do you think? What does everybody think we're going to talk about?" there was a lot of excitement and great connections being made.
Finally, the last thinking move is uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things. One way I do this with the KnowAtom curriculum is by encouraging students to work together in groups and for groups to collaborate as well. When experimenting, if groups are working collaboratively rather than in competition, asking a question like, "I'm curious about how Jeirys' group got their water so pure, let's find out what materials they used for their filter," leads students onto new paths of discovery. It teaches students to question, verify, ask for help, collaborate, and share their results – as well as scientific concepts. We also learn that there are different ways to answer a question and different results that can be discovered.
For instance, in one engineering activity, some marbles were supposed to stay on the roller coaster track. One group said, "This prototype works, but I wonder if it could be more efficient with some changes. Maybe we could make it weigh less somehow." This thinking is so great because they weren't ready to stop at, "Well, it works." Instead, they wondered, "Could it be more efficient?" And that's such a powerful kind of thinking.
Those are the thinking moves that you can incorporate into your classroom this year. By modeling each one, from making connections to asking questions and connecting them to the scientific process, you'll help improve student engagement and encourage more complex learning. With CER – Claim, Evidence, Reasoning – as a guide to work through hands-on classroom work, you'll give students more opportunities to wonder, to build connections to past knowledge, and to learn to question and collaborate with peers.