What is Scientific Discourse?


You’ve probably been hearing a lot lately about scientific discourse and argumentation in science.  Are you wondering what that means?  Are you wondering what that looks like in a classroom?  Me too!

I started with the Science & Engineering Practices and found that practice #7 is Engaging in Argument from Evidence. “Argumentation is a process for reaching agreements about explanations and design solutions. In science, reasoning and argument based on evidence are essential in identifying the best explanation for a natural phenomenon.  In engineering, reasoning and argument are needed to identify the best solution to a design problem.”   It’s important to note that in science, argumentation isn’t meant to be divisive or quarrelsome.  Argumentation is meant to support bringing forward differing ideas and use evidence to determine the best answer or solution.  It’s meant to be collaborative and collegial.

STEM Teaching Tools has several resources to support teachers in shifting the discourse culture in their classrooms.    How can I get my students to learn science by productively talking with each other?   helps to explain why this shift is important and offers this Talk Moves resource as support.  Is it important to distinguish between the explanation and argumentation practices in the classroom?  helps to establish the difference between explanation and argumentation, with reasons to support both types of conversation.

On average students are engaged in academic talk only 2-4% of their day!   One thing you can try is to invite a teaching partner into your classroom to track time spent in teacher-centered talk, student-to-teacher talk and student-to-student talk.  This data can help you understand the reality in your classroom and plan for any needed shifts.   For me the bottom line is that all students must talk about their experiences.  This forces students to think about and articulate their observations and questions.  This thinking and talking leads to important learning.  It is crucial that focused and productive talking are opportunities for all students.  Beyond initial conversations, students need to learn to listen to one another’s ideas and to build on each other’s ideas while deepening their own understanding.  One strategy for this kind of structured talk is this partner protocol.  If you are interested in trying out this, or any other discourse protocol and want some help – don’t hesitate to contact me.

Arguing from evidence…

As I was preparing for a day with our middle school science alignment team, I came across a two-part series in the NSTA journal Science Scope.  Scaffolding Students Towards Argumentation shares several short, but effective strategies on supporting students in their ability to collect evidence and use that evidence to support or refute a claim.  This is the foundation of Science & Engineering Practice #7 – Engage in Argument from Evidence.

I used a suggestion from the article to build an anchor experience for the middle school teachers who are part of our alignment team.

The presentation for teachers was very simple.  In addition to the two packages of Oreo cookies –  I provided a variety of measurement tools, paper plates, cups, plastic knives and string.  Participants worked alone or in groups to carry out an investigation, collect data and argue the validity of the company’s claim.

The extension came later.  I was invited to two different middle schools to observe and participate in a lesson study.  At each school, teachers were using the Oreo lesson as the basis for the lesson study.  I was fascinated – both by the various ways in which teachers set up the lesson and by the response from kids.  Having an opportunity to debrief different lesson study experiences, provided me an opportunity to help teachers unpack the bones of this lesson.  As is the case with so many good, shared lessons there are many applications for this one.  Here are the varied purposes I observed:

  • formatively assess students’ ability to design and carry out an investigation
  • challenge students to collect as many relevant data points as possible
  • support a mini-lesson on relevant vs irrelevant data
  • arithmetic practice
  • writing a claim-based argument
  • having a claim-based argument in class
  • practicing measurement and units of measure
  • writing a procedure
  • presenting group process / thinking with a poster

Each time we set up a lesson for students, we have the responsibility to determine which skills will be practiced and emphasized.  This was a good example of how identifying the purpose of the lesson helps to identify those skills which are most important for that lesson, and those students, at that time.  Ultimately, this lesson provided students a short and easy opportunity to practice designing their own investigation and arguing from evidence.

I challenge you to try the lesson, give it your own spin by emphasizing skills your students need to practice.  What did you learn?

Thinking about Scientific Explanations…

There are many teachers in my district considering scientific explanations and instructional implications this year.  One of my considerations as I support this work is how to prevent explanations from becoming formulaic in the same way the MSP conclusion has become formulaic.

I think that the MSP Conclusion (and other written responses) became formulaic as teachers tried to understand the components, and a standardized scoring system.  I know that in the early days of the MSP, I looked for patterns in the prompts and scoring guides to help my students be more effective at this type of writing.  What I was missing however, was teaching the critical thinking skills necessary to make sense of the science.  Students didn’t need to do the sense making if they learned strategies to break down a data table, and write four sentences.  With the NGSS, I want to learn from the past and use the standards to support student thinking and sense-making in different ways.

Taking Science to School  and  Ready, Set, Science advocate four major goals in K-8 science education that have implications for scientific explanations:

  1. know and use scientific ideas
  2. generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations
  3. understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge
  4. participate productively in scientific practices and discourse

Looking to the Science & Engineering Practices, practice 6 details “Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions”.  At each grade level, the bullets for the practice describe a broad, critical thinking skill.  For example at K-2:

  • use information from observations to construct an evidence-based account for phenomena
  • generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem

and at Middle School:

  • construct an explanation that includes relationships between variables
  • apply scientific ideas and evidence to construct or use an explanation
  • apply scientific reasoning to show why the data is adequate for the explanation

Moving into the Next Generation Science Standards, provides us with many opportunities to shift our instructional practices and re-evaluate our beliefs about science education.  Reading the few items above, opens the possibilities around scientific explanations.  They are about critical thinking and sense making more than writing a paragraph.  I encourage teachers to look beyond a single way for students to show what they know and explore the possibilities.   Students should be able to write a cohesive explanation that is grade level appropriate and connects evidence with scientific reasoning.  They should also be able to discuss these ideas with their peers, they should be able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence, they should be able to critique their explanation…the list goes on.  Explore the myriad ways for students to practice this Science & Engineering practice and lets work together to keep it from becoming a formula.


  • Taking Science to School. Duschl, Schweingruber, and Shouse, 2007
  • Ready, Set, Science. Michaels, Shouse and Schweingruber, 2008
  • Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science. McNeill and Kracjik, 2012
  • Science & Engineering Practices, Next Generation Science Standards, 2013

The Scientific Method…or not

Spend any time with me, mention the scientific method and you’ll see me cart out the metaphorical soap box.  I think we’ve become hindered by the artificial steps outlined within THE Scientific Method.  It suggests a very linear process, through very specific steps and typically ends with students arriving at the same answer simultaneously.  I think we should do away with the scientific method.  Take down your posters!  Change your worksheets!

In Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in Science (2015), authors Richard Konicek-Moran and Page Keeley say, “Science is not a step-by-step recipe for discovery; nor is it a methodical, systematic way of investigating the natural world that is rigidly followed in all areas of science.” (p. 41)  Students should be able to ask questions that can be tested, they should be able to design and carry out those tests, they should be able to analyze the resulting data , arriving at some conclusions and they should be able to communicate what they have learned.

Loosening the structure on students exploration of big ideas, opens more opportunities for them to do the thinking and the sense-making.  It creates cognitive dissonance and the need to collect more information, run more trials.  It opens up experiences in which kids seemingly fail…and then find a way through that failure into understanding.

I don’t think science in our classrooms needs to be neat and tidy.  In fact, I worry that when it is too neat and tidy, students are merely memorizing what they think we want them to parrot back.  Once the parrot back occurs, the memorized idea disappears.

In order for our students to really learn the big ideas in science in way that the learning stays with them, they are going to need to get messy.  The need to step outside the rigid, methodical structure and really think, really explore.  And at the end of the day, they need to really do the sense-making and demonstrate their understanding.

Let’s let go of the archaic scientific method.  Instead, let’s become knowledgeable about the Science and Engineering practices embedded in each of the performance expectations of the NGSS.  Through these practices let’s encourage students to do the thinking,exploration and sense-making.

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