We can expect that students will need instruction in how to work on science problems collectively. National data suggest that opportunities for meaningful social interaction are limited across U.S. student groups. These may be particularly infrequent for nonmainstream students, students in urban schools, English-language learners, and students with disabilities (Gilbert and Yerrick, 2001; Palincsar and Magnusson, 2005; Rodriguez and Berryman, 2002).
When educators succeed in creating a community of learners, in which students see their goal as one of contributing to a community understanding of scientific problems, students can reap cognitive, social, and affective benefits. For example, student learning from hands-on investigation is dramatically improved when they also present their ideas and arguments about investigations to their peers (Crawford, Krajcik, and Marx, 1999; Krajcik et al., 1998). Debating with peers can help make scientific tasks more meaningful, lead to more productive and conceptually rich classroom dialogue, and improve conceptual mastery (Brown and Campione, 1990, 1996; Herrenkohl and Guerra, 1998; Herrenkohl et al., 1999; Lehrer and Schauble, in press).
The benefits of rich social interactions apply to the range of students that populate K-8 classrooms. The program of research at the Cheche Konnen Center has demonstrated that urban English-language learners can effectively engage in high-level scientific reasoning and problem solving if taught in ways that respect their interests and modes of social interaction (e.g., Ballenger, 1997; Hudicourt-Barnes, 2003; Warren et al., 2001). For example, Hudicourt-Barnes used her knowledge of the traditional Haitian form of talk called bay odyans (chatting) to foster arguments or diskisyon (discussion) in science classrooms for Haitian students. She worked with other members of the Cheche Konnen Center to help poor bilingual students build on their interest in talking and in exploring phenomena in the world by using their indigenous form of argument (and their interests, e.g., in African drums) as a link to more conventional scientific investigations of the physics of sound, the reproductive cycle of snails, and the causes of mold. The message that culturally diverse students can participate in meaningful science discussion is echoed by Lemke (1990).
Communication and argumentation about scientific ideas involves characteristic uses of language defined by the discipline: “controlled experiments,” “trends in data,” “correlation versus causation.” Scientific discourse also requires use of special patterns of language, which enable individuals to identify and ask empirical questions, describe the epistemic status of an idea (hypothesis, claim, supported theory), critique an idea apart from its author