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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective K-8 Science Teachers: Starting with "Why"

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Feb 19, 2017

In order to be highly effective, teachers must form pedagogical habits that automatically create a culture of higher order thinking. This is a point of confusion for many, because the entire nature of inquiry is that it isn’t automatic. To be clear, teachers should not automate their lessons, their assessments, their instructional supports, their coaching style or any aspect of individual lessons. Rather, they should automate their expectations for dialogue and thinking. For example making it a habit to start with “why,” setting accurate expectations about effort and deliberate practice, giving immediate helpful feedback as a coach rather than an expert are all examples of the go-to approach teachers must possess if they’re to successfully coach students to be scientists and engineers.


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 Starting with “why” means challenging students to seek meaning and purpose in everything they do, starting with the science or engineering activity in front of them.

The first habit focuses on starting with “why.” Why is a hallmark of purpose-driven instruction, and challenges students to seek meaning and purpose in all their classroom activities. This may sound like something you already do, but there is a difference between how many teachers and districts approach this and how truly successful STEM teachers do it.

For instance, you might ask students “What was the Alaskan husky team doing dragging the sled across x, y, z?" The answer is simple: bringing diphtheria antitoxin to Nome (in the original case) or trying to win a race (ever since). This question, therefore, is about fact recall, not about inquiry. It does not encourage higher order thinking skills at all.

Instead, we can ask much deeper questions, such as: Why is there an Iditarod? What would be different if they didn't use the huskies, but used horses instead? Or if they tried to use donkeys or some other animal? Why are the dogs unique? How might this form of transportation be useful to people who get much more snow than we get where we live? Or if they don't have roads like we have? Hopefully these questions help illustrate that you can challenge the students to seek meaning and purpose even from the very start of a unit. It all has to do with how you, the teacher, launch into it.

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Next the teacher asks “what,” making room for students to take action on the purpose and meaning they have developed by asking why.

Then you must create space for students to go from purpose and meaning to actually taking action. Typically, in the case of a science and engineering classroom, we're talking about students stepping into the purposeful role of scientist or engineer. Think about that as a problem or question that the students can then answer, which should connect the scientific or engineering process with the knowledge they gained in their reading and that relates to the context of the unit as a whole. By taking that knowledge and actually acting as scientists and engineers, they create concept to concept, concept to self, and concept to world connections. This doesn’t happen by “doing” science or engineering through some prefabricated activity, but by actually being scientists and engineers through developing their own approach to answering questions and solving problems.

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Now the student develops a plan of action to help them see their “why” and “what” through, relying on detailed steps that help them answer the questions they have posed.

In order to actually get into the role of scientist and engineer, students must detail a plan of action, which they then carry out. You can see in the image above that the why is the purpose of the what, and the what is the purpose of the how. This is very different than what we often see in less effective classrooms, which use prefabricated materials to pull students through a specific set of activities. This, unfortunately, is the same thing as telling students facts, or why something is important. Students just don’t care.

You can tell a student something a million times, but until they really connect with it themselves, it won’t mean anything to them. In the what stage, for instance, we often see teachers listing the expectations that students will listen, remember, summarize or otherwise participate in some way. While participation can have a very, very broad definition, you need to be very specific if you want to be effective. Those specifics are, furthermore, on the student and not on the teacher. Understanding that the student is the one who must design and carry out their experiments or design process can cause confusion, but we will continue to flesh out this idea throughout the rest of this eBook.

Now, what should happen with the how stage is students creating a plan of action with a partner or individually, carrying it out, working through checkpoints and engaging in coaching with their teacher.

Instead, what often happens is teachers get into the mode of demonstrating, telling and giving facts to students. “Here’s what you need to do” or “What did I just say to do?” are phrases that give away the fact that the classroom has slipped into the traditional model. This is mediocre teaching, because it removes responsibility from the student and delivers it back into the teacher’s hands. 

If you want to be highly effective, you need to put responsibility on students. That's where the next generation model of inquiry comes in, where the teacher acts as coach rather than the content expert delivering knowledge. It's a much more skillful part than handing out worksheets, texts and templates, but if you want to create true scientists and engineers capable of higher order thinking, it is very necessary.

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At each stage, a high level of opportunity for ineffective practices exists. In the why category, teachers can ask students to explain “why” something is the way it is rather than ask deeper questions. “What” can easily turn into listening, parroting and regurgitating, while “how” can transform from a student’s plan of action to a pre-planned series of steps over which students have no agency.

The key takeaway here is that purposeful instruction is something you can do tomorrow without any additional resources or changes to teaching. If you can redefine the meanings of why, what and how and connect them to one another, you’ll be on your way. Do it not through the gatekeeper approach, but through questioning students and helping them to actually step into the roles of scientists and engineers. You should create the opportunity for students to plan and question, and then you as teacher question their plan to help them improve it. After that, all you have to do is give students the freedom and the trust to carry it out. You have to believe in them.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards

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