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The Best Student Centered Classroom Starts with Authentic Questions

Sep 29, 2021 by Judy Higgins

One of the most important things we can teach our students, no matter what grade level or topic you teach, is how to ask good questions. When I think about this important topic, I can't help but consider how my teaching style has changed over the past 20 years. Today, when I think about how to support student centered learning in my classroom, I want to make sure that I am modeling good questions. That's because modeling is an important way to teach students how to ask good questions themselves. I am going to share with you what a good question looks like and how to teach your students ways to identify and use them effectively.

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student-centered classroom starts with the teacher. We've learned that we can improve student engagement and achieve better outcomes by giving up some of the control we have as teachers. Students who are given an active role in the classroom have more opportunities to think critically about the concepts and how they relate to the world around them. Rather than asking students to read and memorize, we need to be asking them to collaborate with their peers, discover new ideas, and make strong connections. With student centered learning, giving students a voice in the classroom helps improve student engagement, but students need to develop the skills to take the lead. Learning how to ask authentic questions of their peers, their teachers, and their sources – is a great way to start.


Student centered instruction and asking good questions

Good questions are good questions regardless of who you're interacting with or what subject you're teaching. If you're not a KnowAtom teacher, if you're a teacher who teaches another subject, a parent, or a principal, all of these things will apply to your students as well! Let's look first at where we can expect students to ask good questions when implementing a student-centered approach during a lesson.

KnowAtom's science curriculum starts off with a nonfiction reading component every time. That's where a lot of the questioning will happen in a student centered teaching model. From there, we move on to Socratic dialogue, where students discuss the questions, wonders, or connections they made from the reading. Questioning plays a big part in this section of the lesson and if we can improve our students' questioning skills, we can improve our classroom dialogue.

Students then move into planning, and we ask them to think like scientists or engineers. That entails a lot of questions about what's going to happen in the hands-on investigation portion of the unit. Then, the students carry out their investigation, experiment, or engineering activity. Lots and lots of questions are happening as part of this section as well. Finally, students share their conclusions in a debrief. One of the things that I enjoy most with student centered learning is listening to students question each other about their data and their outcomes.


The purpose of questioning in student centered learning

What's the purpose of questions? The main purpose of encouraging students to ask good questions is to engage them in taking a position on a concept or big idea from the reading. When you think about it, that's a really risky proposition. Perhaps that's why when I first started teaching, I asked questions like "What is a hurricane?" rather than "How are hurricanes related to the water cycle?"

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Topics: science and engineering practices, Next Generation Science Standards, higher order thinking, STEAM, Expert, STEAM Curriculum, Next Generation Science

Learning Styles Are More About Teaching Styles: Teaching All Learners

Sep 21, 2021 by Judy Higgins

One thing I've learned over the past 20 years of teaching is that learning styles are really more about teaching styles. There are many different types of learning styles and it's important to make sure that we are teaching all learners and giving students the tools they need to succeed in the classroom. One example of how to accomplish this challenge in your own classroom is by improving access to the assigned reading for all students. To help, I am going to share the tools and strategies I use to engage all students in the nonfiction reading component of the KnowAtom science curriculum.

KnowAtom's next generation science standards (NGSS)-designed curriculum uses a similar routine for each lesson so that students begin to know what to expect. For each lesson within every unit, we start out reading. Students then take part in a Socratic dialogue using what they've learned from the reading. Next, we plan for a hands-on experiment, investigation, or engineering prototype. To wrap up the investigation, teams share their conclusions and debrief. As you can see, the nonfiction reading provides the launching point for each lesson.

No matter what level a student is reading at, whether they are an English language learner or whether they are predominantly a visual vs. an auditory learner, it's important that they can access the information in the reader upfront. To help students with different types of learning styles access the nonfiction text, teachers must understand how students learn differently. One popular model is the VARK learning styles theory. VARK identifies four different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing. While most students have a combination of these different types of learning styles, some students learn predominantly from only one.

Connecting new phenomena to past experience

When beginning a new lesson, teachers should consider what knowledge and experiences students bring with them to the class. By establishing a common background when introducing new phenomena, teachers help level the playing field for students who are at different places along their learning journey.

For example, if we're investigating friction and the impact that a dog sled might have moving over snow, that context would be really difficult for a student who hasn't experienced snow to think about. "I don't understand because I don't know what it's like to walk on snow. I don't know the properties of snow. I haven't experienced that," the student is thinking. With the KnowAtom curriculum, the text before every unit helps give every student a common background and some insight into the phenomena they're about to explore.

For students with reading/writing predominance in their VARK learning style, reading the text before the hands-on experiment helps them understand the new concept when it is introduced. But that's not the only type of learning style you have in your classroom. Visual learners are better supported by the visuals in the nonfiction reader, including photos, charts, and graphs with explanatory text. Auditory learners may learn best from classroom discussions about the reading and can be supported by tools like sentence starter frames and annotating the text, so they come to the class discussion with the right questions to ask. Finally, kinesthetic learners learn from doing – and the tactile experience of completing an engineering project related to the new concept will help them better understand the lesson.

Another way students with all different types of learning styles can relate to the nonfiction text in the KnowAtom student readers is by connecting the new information to current knowledge – what they've learned before. Students start to think about, "Oh, I remember learning a little bit about that last year," or "I experienced something like this when I was cooking at home and the water started to boil." When working in pairs, small groups, or as a class – teachers can help students connect new phenomena with current knowledge by asking questions about what they've learned from the text and what it reminds them of.

KnowAtom's introductory text helps students start to think about what they will be exploring in the hands-on activity. It introduces or reinforces the vocabulary needed for the Socratic discourse, so students feel more comfortable joining in the classroom discussion. When using KnowAtom's NGSS-designed curriculum, we challenge our students to act like scientists and engineers, interacting with their peers in a professional setting. This helps level the playing field even further because all students are accessing the same vocabulary when discussing the new phenomenon and understand the rules of engagement when taking part in the classroom discussion.


Tools to strengthen reading fundamentals for all types of learning styles

One of the first things I do to help improve access to the reading material for all students is using prereading tools. The majority of my students are English learners, so they are often not reading at grade level yet. One tool I use to help them access the text is focusing on pictures. Asking students to find meaning in the images in KnowAtom's student readers and using a picture thinking graphic organizer helps them identify the images' object, action, and property. Students build critical thinking and active reading skills as they wonder what they will be reading about through the images and connect it to their current knowledge. This can be done together as a class, or in small student groups, or individually.

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Topics: Next Generation Science Standards, higher order thinking, Socratic dialogue, Expert, Middle School Science Curriculum, Phenomena-led teaching, Next Generation Science, Implementing New Science Standards, NGSS-Designed Curriculum, Remote Learning, Picture Thinking

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