It allows students’ prior ideas to surface, which in turn helps the teacher assess their understanding.
Discourse formats such as extended-group discussion might play a part in helping students improve their ability to build scientific arguments and reason logically.
Allowing students to talk about their thinking gives them more opportunities to reflect on, participate in, and build on scientific thinking.
It may make students more aware of discrepancies between their own thinking and that of others (including the scientific community).
It provides a context in which students can develop mature scientific reasoning.
It may provide motivation by enabling students to become affiliated with their peers’ claims and positions.
Many educators reading the classroom case studies in this book might doubt whether this kind of productive talk can really take place in science classrooms. They might think, “It looks easy for them, but the students in our district couldn’t do this.” Or, “Maybe my students would like this, but I don’t know if I can bring it off successfully. What if no one talks? What if I can’t understand what they’re trying to say? What if they make fun of each other?”
These are reasonable concerns. Instruction that supports productive scientific discussion is difficult to enact, even for seasoned veterans. The kinds of discussions described in the case studies are largely improvisational, and students’ contributions can be unpredictable. The improvisational and unpredictable nature of these discussions can be intimidating for teachers, school administrators, science specialists, and teacher educators who share responsibility for creating safe, orderly, and productive science learning environments. In addition, some educators are uncomfortable encouraging or condoning any kind of argument in the classroom. That’s understandable, given how much time is spent in schools mediating conflict and persuading students of the value of civil exchange.
Teachers need support, skill, and persistence to help students grasp the difference between respectful scientific argument and the kind of confrontational, competitive argument they may be used to. The success of the former is dependent on students having the shared understanding that the goal of the argument is to reach a point of mutual understanding or consensus. The latter relies on the assumption that the goal of an argument is winning. Students of any age, from