Lesson Plans: Critical Thinking and Writing Activities in the Science Classroom
Importance of Writing in the Science Classroom
Mastery of scientific concepts is inextricably linked with effective communication. Novel experiments and new discoveries made by scientists reach the wider community and gain greater visibility through written documents in the scientific journals. Good science writing skills include usage of appropriate scientific terminology, demonstration of clarity of thought and expression, logical reasoning, ability to describe the results of experimental findings qualitatively and quantitatively, formulation of ideas and drawing of conclusions supported by sufficient data and evidence. The writing needs to be in an objective, precise and logical manner.
- ScienceFix: RAFT Writing Prompts for Science
A good site to get ideas about science writing prompts for science writing for a definite purpose.
Common Writing Practices in the Science Classrooms
Normally, in the science classrooms, common writing experiences of the students include taking notes dictated by the teacher or written on the board, answering worksheets, tests or exam questions and writing formal lab reports or essays. However, these, though essential components of the educational system do not trigger thinking and alone cannot provide meaningful prospects for the students to improve or build the writing skills within the context of the science disciplines. Hence the onus lies on the science teachers to design written assignments which will stimulate creative and critical thinking, a crucial part of science education. The best practices will be to consistently integrate informal free-writing activities into the science classrooms while delivering the lessons. These writing assignments will yield enormous benefits for both the student and the teacher community.
10 Useful Ideas to Integrate Writing Into the Science Classroom
After doing some research and thinking in this line, I came up with the following ideas of amalgamating writing with the science teaching. Some of these are tried and tested in real classrooms and gave great student response.
1. ‘Open-ended question’: Begin or end the class with an open-ended question. Let the students know that ‘open-ended questions’ can have more than one possible answer, which will reflect their original thoughts and ideas and in most cases no answer is considered wrong. In this way, even the quiet and less confident students will get involved in active learning and make an effort to pen down their ideas. Examples:
- After a biology lesson on plant growth and development with the seventh graders, you could ask, “How would you explain photosynthesis to a class of fourth graders?”
- After introducing a new topic, such as periodic table you could pause and ask, “What do you think is the relevance of this topic in real life?”
- Before starting a new topic, you could ask them to write what they already know about the topic.
- You can think of questions starting with, “Why do you think……?” or “How do you think …………?” Key words such as describe, explain, compare, explore or predict can help create the context for an open-ended question. Open-ended questions, if relevant to the content of learning will stimulate productive thinking.
2. ‘Compare and contrast using Venn diagrams': Scientific proficiency often requires the skill to distinguish between different processes, concepts and to compare and contrast between various phenomena and organisms. You could ask your students to compare and contrast between two different processes using Venn diagrams. Encourage them to use coloured pens. Examples:
- Compare and contrast between concave and convex lenses using a Venn diagram.
- Write down the differences and similarities between alkali metals and halogens using a Venn diagram.
3. “Create science cartoon strips”: Have students develop creative thinking skills through this writing activity. Examples:
- After discussing the earlier models of atomic structure, you could ask, “Create a comic strip bringing out the conversation that might have took place between J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford.”
- Draw cartoon strips to show the step-by-step development of a frog from a tadpole.
- After teaching a chemistry lesson of elements, compounds and mixtures and discussing various methods of separation of mixtures you could ask, “Imagine that you are alone on an island surrounded by sea on all sides. You are thirsty and need water for drinking. You could only manage to find a kettle with a lid and spout, a matchbox with a few matchsticks, a knife, a piece of cloth, a copper wire and a plastic bottle. Draw cartoon strips to show how you will convert sea water into drinking water.”
- Science Cartoons Plus -- The Cartoons of S. Harris
The cartoons of S. Harris, covering a wide range of subjects, including science (biology, chemistry, physics, et al.), medicine, psychology, the environment (including a new book on global warming), sociology, religion, business and the economy, art.
4. “Analyze illustrations, graphs and diagrams’: Collect some relevant illustrations, graphs, diagrams, charts or tables from the internet, news magazines or any textbook and ask them to analyze in a few sentences. Provide some guided questions to maximize results. Examples: Analyze the following graph:
- What type of graph is shown?
- What does the graph represent?
- What is on the x-axis?
- What is on the y-axis?
- What are the units on the axes?
- What is the numerical range of the data?
- What kind of patterns/trends can you see in the data?
- How do the patterns you see in the graph relate to other things you know?
5. ‘Sort into groups’: As you begin or end the class, list some words on the board, that are relevant to the content and ask them to classify the words into two or more groups and mention the basis of their classification.
- Randomly write the names of 15-20 elements on the board and ask, “Classify these elements into two groups and mention the basis of your classification.”
- Randomly write the names of some organisms and ask, “Classify these organisms into three groups and mention the basis of your classification.”
6. ‘Explain the relationship between key terms’: After completing a lesson, you could write some keywords related to the recently taught topic on the board. Ask them to explain the relationship between the words or meaningfully connect the keywords in a few sentences. Examples:
- Give a list of keywords: atom, cation, anion, electron, oxidation, reduction. Ask them to briefly explain the connection between all these words using the knowledge they have acquired during the lesson.
7. ‘During lab sessions’: Before a lab demonstration, ask, “predict what will happen when ………………” questions. During a lab demonstration, make them write detailed observations in their own words and after the experiment, let them draw inferences from the observed data. During the lab session, you could ask,
- “What would you expect to see if …………. is replaced by ………….?
- “What would you expect to see if …………. is heated?
- Design questions by changing the conditions of the experiment or by changing different variables.
8. ‘During multi-media lessons’: When you plan your lessons to show some relevant video clips or slide presentation to your students, get them involved in brief writing activities so that they concentrate and make an effort to absorb what they see. For example: After the lesson on radioactivity, you would like to show them YouTube videos on Chernobyl disaster and Nagasaki/Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion. Ask questions such as,
- “What are the significant differences between the two disasters?”
- “How can we avoid such disasters in future?”
- You could also ask them to simply write the summary of the videos and identify the ‘big idea’ in a few sentences.
9. ‘Using science news articles’: Providing opportunities to read science news article associated with the topic being taught in the classroom will help students connect to the real world issues. Have students write a short evaluation of the article, provide them some guided questions so that they can focus on specific aspects of the article. Discuss authentic research findings and biased findings based on preliminary research. Tell your students that as readers, we have the right to critique and question a scientific article if we think that the results were not supported by sufficient, reliable data. For example, you could ask:
- “Do you think the evidence provided in the article are sufficient? Why?”
- “Who do you think will be benefitted the most by this scientific breakthrough?”
- “Write two things you found most interesting about the article”
- “Being a critic, judge whether the scientific results mentioned in the article is truly important for mankind and such expensive research should be continued?”
- Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American
Latest news and features on science issues that matter including earth, environment, and space. Get your science news from the most trusted source!
- Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology
Breaking science news and articles on global warming, extrasolar planets, stem cells, bird flu, autism, nanotechnology, dinosaurs, evolution -- the latest discoveries in astronomy, anthropology, biology, chemistry, climate & environment, computer
10. ‘Concept-mapping’: Ask your students to read a short paragraph from the textbook or any handout provided and have them break down the information into parts and organize graphically or pictorially using minimum text. Encourage them to use various visual aids, such as tables, flowcharts, cycles, graphs, venn diagrams, spider web, etc. Example:
- Depict the process of extraction of aluminium in a flowchart
- Refined Concept Maps for Science Education
How to interpret a concept map for science education: a research paper
Benefits for the Students and the Teachers
Benefits for the students: Ongoing in-class writing assignments have manifold benefits for the students of different learning styles. The advanced students are hooked as they find the assignments challenging whereas the withdrawn ones gain confidence as they get frequent opportunities to write their own ideas without the fear of making a mistake or losing marks. Relevant writing about what they learn or read in the classroom:
- Compels students to clarify doubts during the writing process
- Allows students to make connections with prior learning
- Encourages students to formulate their own ideas
- Enhances understanding of the science concepts
- Stimulates the higher-order thinking skills
- Strengthens their science writing skills
- Expands their science knowledge
- Helps better retention
Benefits for the science teachers: Brief, well-designed free writing exercises incorporated within the lesson period will be of immense help to the science teachers. Instead of directly judging the student by his/her written work, the teachers can guide them towards improved writing through planned assignments and give individual/collective feedback. The science teachers:
- Will get a window into the students’ understanding of the content taught through their written work
- Will get an opportunity to design ‘student centered’ activity and encourage active learning in the classroom
- Will find the correction load manageable as weekly the notebooks can be collected and the feedback given
- Will get a clear glimpse of the students’ strengths and weaknesses and guide them accordingly over a period of time
- Can use these as essential formative assessments in the continuous and comprehensive evaluation system
- Can tailor these writing activities according to his/her class size and level
- Will be able to emphasize the importance of writing within the context of science
- Will feel rewarded being able to challenge the advanced, enthusiastic learners as well as draw out the quiet students at the same time