science-oriented practice. For example, when students debate the value of a given scientific observation, this is analogous to what scientists in the real world do regularly. Yet most students have very little experience talking and thinking with their peers in the manner in which they are expected to during investigations. In fact, typical classroom experiences suggest a different dynamic—one in which textbooks and teachers are consulted for answers, rather than peers and data. Argumentation among students is rarely a sanctioned activity and is often experienced as acrimonious.
To help students learn appropriate ways of interacting during science investigations, educators have developed methods for helping them acquire new social roles and collectively building norms for interaction in ways that emulate the interactions of scientists. Educators can establish such norms by intentionally mirroring the social interaction model of questioning, listening, reflecting, and responding that scientists use in their exchanges with each other, as well as by assigning roles based on basic elements of this interaction. This approach has its roots in the reciprocal teaching approach to reading comprehension, which makes the process of comprehension explicit for learners.3 In reciprocal teaching of reading comprehension, teachers model the important elements of comprehension, such as predicting, summarizing, and questioning. Students then begin to take on the individual elements of the task. The task is essentially distributed among students, who share responsibility for its completion.
In the following case study, we look closely at a fifth-grade classroom in which learners are taught and assigned particular roles to play during an investigation. These roles are designed to emulate a range of intellectual and social practices that would seem more or less natural to the seasoned scientist. Note that in this case study the word “theory” is used to refer to students’ explanations rather than to formal scientific theories, such as evolution or plate tectonics.