This is an example of how teachers can intentionally structure student roles to focus student thinking and discussion on meaningful aspects of scientific investigation. Over a series of lessons these students practiced taking “roles” and learned to understand them in two ways. Initially, they learned to play procedural roles, which provided a framework for getting their group work done. (It is important to note that these were generic roles and not tied to specific scientific practices.) However, in addition to structuring their group tasks in a productive manner, the procedural roles gave the students some experience in playing assigned roles and engaging in interdependent tasks. Later, the students were assigned one of three audience roles. On a rotating basis, students would listen to their peers present and ask questions in order to check predictions and theories, check summaries of results, and assess the relation between predictions, theories, and results. In this case, the students played scientific roles. The science-specific audience roles were further defined—and students’ efforts to enact them aided—by a public display identifying examples of appropriate role-specific questions.
In the case of Mr. Wilson’s class, we saw students playing these roles in the context of a presentation. Christina pushed Deana to add an explanation to her prediction (Role 1, checking predictions and theories). Later, as Caleb asserted that “all wood floats,” Elinor consulted the chart and found language to appropriately challenge his assertion, which she saw as implausible. With the support of a teacher who listens to their ideas and peers who understand how to play meaningful roles in scientific discussion, the students successfully work on clarifying, supporting, and refining their ideas.
Scripting roles and framing science in an explanatory framework are but two of many ways in which creative teachers can intentionally and explicitly teach and support students to enact and make meaning of scientific investigations. We’ve chosen to discuss these particular strategies because they’ve been studied more extensively than other approaches and suggest promising results. Other ways teachers may make particular talk moves explicit include posting “talk stems,” such as, “I agree with X when he says Y, because [cite evidence]” or “I’d like to ask X to explain his thinking [evidence, model, theory, etc.] in more detail because I didn’t completely understand it.” They may also use methods such as position-driven discussions, in which students take particular positions (e.g., competing explanations for an observed phenomenon) and make a case for their position and build on peers’ challenges to their position, all before a demonstration is run and an outcome determined. There are many ways to invite students to engage in scientific discourse as legitimate participants, even before they have become totally competent at scientific investigation.