…but they can’t recall the information.

Hello! Welcome to the 16th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

This is first of a two-part series on how the process of scientific thinking can be used to engage students in active learning.

Teaching and learning science is not straightforward. It is especially difficult for teachers and students in middle school. Students’ intuition and life experiences are challenged while learning science. A student in middle school has experienced that a ball rolling on the ground will eventually come to a stop. But when she learns Newton’s laws of motion this observation is challenged. Newton’s law states that a body in motion will continue to remain in motion. But these conflicts in a student’s mind can be used to leverage deeper learning.

To do this it is essential that we challenge their understanding and get them to think actively during the learning process.

Mr. Singh was introducing the concepts of floating and sinking to the students of Grade 6. He started by demonstrating floating and sinking. He first put a leaf in a water-filled container, and then he put a coin in it. He asked students to see how a leaf floats in water and a coin sinks in water. He then went on to put 4-5 more coins on the leaf carefully. The leaf with the coins did not sink. It was an exciting experience for the students. They had all known that coins (metals) would sink in water.

He went on to explain that whether an object would float or sink in water depends on the densities of the object and the liquid.

He shared the formula for density as mass divided by the volume of an object.

For practice, he gave students numericals to measure the density of objects of different masses and volumes.

Later in the week, he did a quick check for understanding on this topic.

He showed a slide with pictures of a basketball, a needle, and a piece of wood with a density of 0.5 g/cm³, 1.5 g/cm³ and 0.3 g/cm³ respectively. He asked, "Given that the density of water is 1 g/cm³, which objects will sink and which one will float in water?"

About 90% of the students gave the correct answer that only the needle will sink and the rest will float.

Mr. Singh had checked all the boxes. He had an activity as a hook to draw students into the topic. He clearly stated the relevant concept in the topic, and he also allowed students to practise some parts of it to solidify their understanding. The check for understanding also showed that the students had understood. Everything was great!

Two weeks later, he conducted a surprise test to check their understanding and recollection. He prepared the following worksheet for each student.

Each student filled out the worksheet on their own. Mr. Singh saw the results and he was disappointed. He didn’t understand why student recollection was so low.

Mr. Singh structured the session to cover all the aspects and details students needed to know about the concept of floating and sinking. He taught step by step and showed demonstrations, but learning appears to be lacking. Why is that so? What are we missing in the approach?

Students’ engagement with thinking while learning was missing. Even though Mr. Singh explained everything clearly, the students’ thinking was not actively involved in learning. They saw what Mr. Singh did, and heard what he had to say. Students were not thinking or making connections while the class was on.

And so:

Students lack an in-depth understanding of the concept.

Due to the lack of deep understanding, students are unable to apply their learning to novel situations.

Students have their own beliefs and intuitions about how the world and things around them work, such as believing that the amount of liquid affects the ability of an object to float or sink in it. To ensure learning, it is important to make them question their thinking and intuition. When they are passively fed with facts and knowledge, students incorporate information that fits into their model of understanding and disregard the new ideas that do not align with their model. To change their beliefs or to build on the pre existing model, students’ minds need to actively think about their model of understanding and connect it to new experiences or information.

So, how could Mr. Singh have engaged the students more deeply in the content?

The first thing was the activity that he did at the beginning of class with the leaf and coins was powerful in engaging students. The students saw something that went against their intuition or understanding of the world. This is a powerful lever to engage with students.

He could have asked students to make sense of their observations. Why does the coin by itself sink, but when put on a leaf sink? Does the volume of the coin change? Does the mass of the coin change? No.

Then ask, What is changing? What effect does the leaf have on the coin sinking or floating? Why does the leaf also not sink along with the coin?

Once the students start thinking about the mass and volume of the coin and leaf, Mr. Singh can get them to make estimations of the mass and volume of one coin, the leaf, leaf and coin, leaf and two coins, and so on.

Finally, Mr. Singh can keep adding more and more coins till the leaf+coins unit finally sinks (it takes a lot more coins that you would predict). Post this, he can go back to the table with the mass and volumes and ask students, What changed as the coins were being added? Then also give students some information that the density of an object is the ratio of its mass and volume.

In this way, Mr. Singh can get the students to see for themselves that once the density of the leaf+coins unit goes above a certain number, the unit sinks. Before that it floats.

The big difference between Mr. Singh’s approach and the one described above is that in the latter, the students are always thinking. They are trying to resolve conflicts between their observations and the pre-existing model of understanding. This kind of active thinking leads to deeper understanding of concepts and hence, the recall is for much longer.

Planning for a class where students actively engage and think is not straightforward. It is nuanced and may also be time consuming. In the next edition, we will talk about some of these challenges and how we may be able to overcome them.

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Edition: 1.16