Whether you are currently using KnowAtom or not, all teachers know the importance of a great discussion. I'd like to share with you some of the teaching strategies I've learned over the past 20 years to help prepare your students for meaningful scientific discussion. If you're not a science teacher, many of the cooperative learning and growth mindset strategies I am going to discuss will work with your students as well.
What is a growth mindset? The education concept was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and shared in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She writes, "In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits…. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort." In contrast, "In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning…." says Dweck.
Teachers who use the KnowAtom curriculum understand first-hand how implementing cooperative learning strategies, including Socratic dialogue, in the classroom improves student engagement and strengthens learning outcomes. I've also seen how as I give the reins more to my students, letting them take the lead in classroom discussions and small group projects, they can accomplish amazing things together. Seeing this first-hand has definitely strengthened my belief in a growth mindset!
Preparing for student-led discussions
Giving students the tools they need to prepare for a great discussion is something that we really need to remember to do because students don't always know how to do it on their own. With this support, we can create students who are confident in their ability to discuss their ideas. With Dweck's growth mindset in mind, we can prepare students to engage in cooperative learning strategies that strengthen their critical thinking skills and set them up to become lifelong learners.
When using the KnowAtom curriculum, there are simple steps to every lesson that we do together as a class. We always start with nonfiction reading. Then we move into a Socratic dialogue where the students discuss their thoughts and get ready for what they will be planning next. The goal of a great classroom discussion is to create a bridge between what the students have read and the lab they will soon be preparing for. They are better prepared when we get to the cooperative learning groups' hands-on science investigation because of this step-by-step process.
The most important part of a good Socratic discussion is that the teacher is not the only one asking the questions. The students ask each other questions. They challenge each other to defend their thinking, and in the process, learn to use evidence to support their arguments. It's important to remember that cooperative learning doesn't happen overnight. When I started teaching with KnowAtom, my students were really excited about what they read. When it came time for the formal discussion, I assumed they would be very eager to discuss the information. I was wrong – we just sat there. The students either looked at me with panic or looked at their lab books. I was the only one asking questions. So, I had to go back and think about, how am I going to help my students feel prepared and comfortable to discuss these lessons?
Developing cooperative learning routines
The first thing we do together is develop routines. First, students gather the resources they need. Next, we review pre-lesson questions to get the students thinking about what they are going to read about. For the reading portion, we develop different cooperative learning strategies, including reading individually, as a class, or with a partner. We also use read-aloud videos and reading strategies to help all students access the nonfiction text. Finally, we use picture thinking graphic organizers to help students focus on the pictures from the text.
We also use another tool in our cooperative learning routine, the concept map, to identify what students want to bring to the discussion. The graphic organizer helps them gather all the information they have and put it into one place – from the reading, the pictures, and the pre-lesson questions. This helps students think about, do I have some exciting information to share, a question to ask, or a connection to explain? Using the picture thinking routine, the students pick out three big ideas to discuss. I give them about six minutes before the classroom discussion to organize all their thoughts and questions. The students quickly realize, oh, I do have something to say.
Creating an inclusive classroom with cooperative learning groups
One of the important things in implementing cooperative learning strategies is working together to create an inclusive classroom where students are comfortable taking risks. My goal for each class is to try to have 100% participation in the Socratic discussion. Students know beforehand that this is the expectation. I tell my students at the beginning, "You can read your thoughts right off the paper." That is a real comfort for some of them to have that security blanket.
Another important tool to prepare for student discourse is to have something that engages students who are not talking during discussions because they are in the outer circle. One way to implement this is using an inner circle and an outer circle discussion model. Students in the inner circle discuss the topic and students in the outer circle are not talking, but they are observing and giving feedback to their partner in the inner circle. Later on in the discussion, we switch speakers so that everyone has an opportunity to talk. Cooperative learning examples like this one help students learn how to be good listeners. Listening is just as important as talking in a discussion. They also have the opportunity to learn from their peers.
Learning how to give good peer feedback creates a safe classroom culture and encourages students to take risks when participating in cooperative learning. It's also an important career skill that students will use throughout their life. Peer feedback also encourages students to stay on task, ensuring students in the outer circle are engaged in the conversation. They're actively listening to write down notes to help their partner improve and bring their own ideas into the second part of the discussion when they are taking the lead.
It's a powerful learning tool for a student to see their partner succeed by responding to questions from the group with the evidence they have collected. Those are great skills for students to learn from each other, not from me. This is an example of a classroom discussion tool, where the outer circle is actively filling it out as they listen to the discussion. Then we have a post-discourse tool, giving students time to reflect on the discussion. This really promotes reflection and in-depth learning, as the students privately reflect, "Did I help make the discussion successful?" It's a wonderful thing when a student can write down, "Yes, I invited somebody else into the discussion," or "I added on to another student's thinking," or "I was able to help someone answer a challenging question."
It also helps the student to ask themselves, "Was I prepared?" And to challenge themselves, "Next time I'd like to be a little bit more confident and ready to defend the claims I make." As students evaluate their own risk-taking and set goals for the next discussion, it helps to have a routine in place so that students know they'll have the opportunity to practice the cooperative learning skills they are developing. This reflection promotes strong community building and inclusion.
Building confidence with cooperative learning strategies
Even with these tools and scaffolds, your students are going to take some time to really gain confidence with all types of cooperative learning strategies, but it will happen. One of the most important things I found is creating routines, so students know that a discussion will always happen after the reading. We were always going to have this time to think and prepare for our discussion, which helped reduce their anxiety about joining in.
I would slowly remove myself as the leader, releasing responsibility to my students as they became more and more experienced. That meant sometimes I would have to bear that uncomfortable silence and trust that my students could do this. I don't have to jump in on this cooperative learning activity. My job as the discussion coach becomes, if I am hearing a misconception that wasn't being corrected, I could come in and not necessarily call it out directly, but maybe say, "does anybody else have any thoughts about what the student said?" Or "let's take a look at the diagram on page eight." I'm not letting those things go, but I'm also not taking over the discussion. I'm giving students the opportunity to correct their peers. Peer feedback is such a strong commodity that you have in your classroom.
It's really important that the students see cooperative learning activities like science discussions as something that they can own. I can still remember the excitement I felt in the beginning as I became a less and less important part of the discussions my students were leading. The students weren't turning to look at me every time they were confused by a question. Instead, I'd given them the language to say to each other, "I'm confused. What do you mean by that? Can you give me an example?" All of these tools are going to help your students take the lead when you implement cooperative learning strategies.
Here's an example of an instructional frame that helps students understand the steps of getting ready for scientific discourse. If you are in a virtual teaching situation, this can be sent home to help caregivers or parents and students identify what they're supposed to do next. You can find these instructional frames and the actual tools for good scientific discourse on KnowAtom's interactive website. Whether you're a KnowAtom user or teaching something else besides science, you can use the discourse frames to help students feel more prepared for cooperative learning activities.