Tag Archives: Science Education

Sphere of Influence: The role of Science and Technology consultants

We’ve come a long way since this view of the science educator. Photo: iStock.

Science teaching is a demanding and rapidly changing profession. Our many dedicated Science and Technology teachers work hard to prepare meaningful lessons and develop activities to promote student understanding of the scientific method and the ever-changing natural world. They understand that they have a responsibility to not only “cover” the curriculum content, but also to involve and motivate their students in meaningful learning about the world, especially amid growing concern for our fragile environment and widespread public misunderstanding of the influence that people have on it. Though the principal is the school leader, it is the science consultants who help the teachers change their instructional practices and content required by the new curriculum in science and the new trends in science learning.

In the 1990s as a Science and Mathematics consultant myself, I was always concerned with how to keep up with the latest developments in the field. I met frequently with my fellow consultants. We mulled over the latest curriculum developments, worked together to produce lesson ideas and evaluation instruments and tried to help teachers with meaningful teaching resources.

So how do the consultants do it? How do they encourage and jump-start change in science teaching? And are they effective in making science teaching better? In a recent article, Whitworth et al (2017) reported on the activities of a large and varied number of science consultants in the USA as they went about their work helping and advising science teachers. The respondents were from a variety of US states and school district situations: urban, rural, suburban, school sizes and ethnic backgrounds. There was also a variety of responsibilities. These included science-only (about half) to multiple subject areas – mostly in STEM. The researchers found that consultants indeed do play an important role and “are closely tied to a district’s effectiveness in improving teaching and learning”. Professional development (PD) is one of the principal functions of science consultants – and they are good at it.

There is a large body of research conducted over the past 30 years about what are the common characteristics of effective PD for science teachers.

Here are 3 commonly agreed-on issues that PD should address:

  1. Teaching and learning the curriculum – how teachers teach and evaluate the curriculum and how students learn it.
  2. Teacher professionalism – their own knowledge base and interactions within their professional community.
  3. Teachers as adult learners – keeping up with developing trends in pedagogy and new bodies of knowledge about the natural world.

Additionally, these are the types of activities that PD programs should incorporate:

  1. Opportunities for active learning
  2. Collective participation: teachers from different schools, same school to work together.
  3. Content focus: going deeply into the knowledge base of the curriculum
  4. Multiple opportunities for practice – over a year or semester at least.

It is widely accepted that PD seldom works if it is only comprised of “one-off” information sessions on professional development days. Hewson et al (2007) warn that

“The various case studies demonstrate that without continuing support during the critical phases of planning, implementing and reflecting on instruction, teachers are unlikely to make major changes in their teaching particularly if these changes require reconsideration of their core beliefs about science, teaching, learning, instruction and/or assessment.” Hewson (2007).

Since teachers themselves must make the changes necessary in their practice, voluntary buy-in is key to successful implementation of change.

Consultants recognize this and know that their ongoing relations with their teachers are very important to their success. Describing the work of science consultants in Quebec, my colleague and I wrote

“Science consultants recognize the importance of forming relationships with their teachers. It is clear to them that positive personal relationships enhance their ability to influence what goes on in the science classroom. They recognize that every teacher goes through ups and downs and they need encouragement to see that their efforts are helping their students learn better. By working with teachers to solve classroom problems, to provide classroom resources, to support with teaching ideas, consultants build trust. This trust allows them into the teacher’s confidence and permits them to become part of the teachers’ school lives. As one consultant points out, ‘You can’t lead from the office. You have to be present in the schools.’ Consultants often meet with science teachers in their schools. Typically this occurs in the teachers’ science workroom or lab during free time – a lunch hour, before school or on a professional development day for example. Usually the topic for discussion is a problem or situation which the science team faces and for which they need input from the trusted expert.” (Elliott & Asghar, 2014)

Teaching science in our schools is complex and difficult. Teachers are always looking for ways to improve student learning, increase student success and make science meaningful. Science consultants are important allies in this endeavour.



Elliott, K., & Asghar, A. (2014). Transformational leadership in science education – A Quebec perspective. In I. M. Saleh & M. S. Khine (Eds.), Reframing transformational leadership: New school culture and effectiveness. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Hewson, P. W. (2007). Teacher professional development in science. In S. K. Abell & N.G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education. London: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, Publishers.


Whitworth, B. A., Maeng, J. L., Wheeler, L. B. and Chiu, J. L. (2017), Investigating the role of a district science coordinator. J Res Sci Teach, 54: 914–936. doi:10.1002/tea.21391



Productive Failure in Science Learning

img_2352-768x576Has this ever happened to you? Some time ago I was putting together a bathroom cabinet kit following the Ikea instructions as carefully as I could. When I was close to completion, having struggled and cursed throughout the process, I realized that I had put one of the panels on backwards – requiring me to take apart and redo pretty much the entire process. Lo and behold, I found that this second attempt was much easier. My initial “failure” was, in fact, a great learning experience. I realized that now I really understood the process – that I had learned it much more deeply than if it had come to me more easily. This struggle, from initial failure to eventual success, was an important part of my learning and, as an added benefit, it helped me in future similar projects.

While schools pay lip service to the idea of failure as positive, students seem to be increasingly anxious about their school performance and afraid to “fail” at any level. In a recent post to Psychology Today, in discussing decreasing student resilience, Peter Gray (2015) argues that “Students are afraid to fail, they do not take risks, they need to be certain about things. Failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable”. How did we get here?

A Tale of Two Math Classes

We know that failure can lead to deeper understanding and more effective learning. In a study by M. Kapur in Instructional Science in 2010, two large grade 7 groups were given a complex mathematics problem involving speed and distance. One group was taught in a very structured traditional way directed by the teacher with all the supports necessary. The teacher worked them through and they solved the problem. The other group was given no instruction or support at all. Both had a few days to work. The unsupported group worked in teams and struggled through the week. They were mostly unsuccessful in their efforts. The teacher then helped them with the strategies they could not come up with themselves. What was interesting however was that in subsequent post-tests in which both groups were given other problems of varying degrees of difficulty to solve, the students in the initially unsupported groups performed significantly better than their well-supported peers – and this in problems of all degrees of difficulty. According to Kapur – and this part is important – students in the unstructured groups “develop structures—concepts, representations, and methods—for solving complex problems” while those given step-by-step procedures “may not understand why those concepts, representations, and methods are assembled or structured in the way that they are”.

Productive Failure

This “productive failure” method is very much in line with the constructivist approach in teaching science and technology. The implication of a constructivist-based pedagogy for science learning is that students need opportunities to think their own way through problems in order to be able to solve more. They need to explore relationships between variables, create models for scientific phenomena, and build technological objects fo
r example. They access prior knowledge, face cognitive dilemmas, cooperate with one another to struggle with real problems and construct their knowledge and understanding of the scientific world. They need to wrestle with different possible ways to come up with solutions both with each other and on their own. Following a set of detailed instructions from the teacher doesn’t necessarily give them this opportunity.

So what is a science teacher to do – faced with the task of completing a full curriculum in a limited time? Experienced teachers know that completely unguided activities are seldom productive and often leave their students frustrated and discouraged. In fact there is a lot of literature from cognitive psychologists which agrees. Kirschner (2006) for example disagrees with constructivist teaching methodology and claims that “Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.” However so many teachers I have worked with and observed have developed ways of providing opportunities for students to discover, construct and struggle with their learning and, at the appropriate time, provide the needed support to get their students on the right track.   Perhaps that’s the art of effective teaching!

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to observe a bridge construction project in Danielle Couture’s Secondary 4 Applied Science and Technology (AST) class at Heritage Regional Himg_2372-768x576igh School in Greenfield Park. Though the program calls for a rigorous design phase before the students embark on the hands-on construction, Danielle left this aspect until after the students had begun to manipulate their creation. She knew that her students were motivated by hands-on action-oriented activities and quickly got bored with theoretical discussions and lengthy pre-activity designs. That’s why they chose AST in the first place. Her approach was to have them get to work as quickly as possible. She had a brief full-class discussion with them about the problem at hand and had them begin work in their groups of two or three by drawing a rough sketch of what they intended to build. She knew that their designs would likely change frequently as they encountered unforeseen obstacles during the building process. She reasoned that a detailed drawing after the construction would be a much more accurate reflection of the reality of their project and still give them the engineering design experience required by the program. The discussions between students were often quite intense as they tried to solve the many problems that arose. Usually these discussions were about the design because they would not be working as originally expected. Students would take on different roles. Some emerged as the leaders, pushing their partners to agree with their vision and directing the construction work. Some passively accepted what the others suggested and did what they were told. This overcoming of the obstacles or “failures” they encountered continuously was an essential part of their development of a much deeper understanding of the engineering aspect of the program.   Danielle gave her students the opportunity to struggle and fail in order to redirect their thinking, deepen their understanding and ultimately experience success in a more significant way.


Gray, P. (2015). Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges. Psychology Today, September, 2015.

Kapur, M. (2010). Productive failure in mathematical problem solving. Instructional Science, 38 (6), 523-550.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

von Glasersfeld, E. (1996). Radical constructivism : a way of knowing and learning. London: Falmer.

Effective Science Teaching: A Tale of Two Teachers

scienceOver many years of teaching science myself and working with science teachers, I have come across many great teachers who guided their students to be successful learners and often inspired them to become scientists themselves. One thing has become clear to me – every one of these teachers developed their own pedagogy – their personal way of making their students science learners.

“Mr. Allen is a good teacher, but he doesn’t know much”

When I was a science consultant in the 1990s, I often visited John Allen, a Chemistry teacher at Riverdale High School. He was very effective at getting his students to learn successfully and enjoy Chemistry. He embraced cooperative learning, becoming popular in science classrooms at the time, and had his classes organized in structured learning groups for almost all of his classroom activities. When a student would approach him with a question, his first response was always to suggest they go back to their group and figure it out for themselves. He recounted to me that one day he was walking down the hall behind a couple of his students and overheard one say to the other, “Mr. Allen is a good teacher, but he doesn’t know much”! He smiled to himself, feeling confident in his belief that the teacher should be a facilitator and not the source of all knowledge and that students should play a major part in constructing their own knowledge and understanding.

The right amount of challenge and hands-on action

Sharon Lamb at Lindsay Place High School believed that real learning comes from building your own understanding from active classroom experimenting – and believed it was important for students to develop their own methods to conduct an experiment. She realized that this can be messy and time-consuming but that it is an effective way of ensuring deep understanding. I agree. I have always found that if students struggle with their understanding, and persist through it, they are more likely to really get it.

One activity I observed in her class was “the constant velocity car” “The company calls this a constant velocity vehicle”, said Sharon as she held up a small toy car for the class to see. “I want you to find out if this is honest advertising.” After questioning their understanding of speed of an object in motion and how to calculate it, Sharon pointed to a table with meter sticks, stop watches, masking tape and toy cars. She challenged them to figure out a way of not only measuring the speed of the car, but also finding out of the speed is constant over a certain distance. Soon, in groups of two or three, they were in the school hallway measuring set distances for their cars to travel and marking different lengths with masking tape. In hushed tones (most of the time) they discussed and argued with each other, conscious of not disturbing the other classes. “How can we get it to go straight?” “Will the battery hold up?” “How far should the car go?” “How do we calculate the speed?” “How do we make sure it’s constant?” were some of the questions overheard among the animated conversations going on.

Students measured distances, timed their trials and calculated speeds. They ran back and forth from group to group comparing their methods with the others and asked Sharon how to deal with obstacles as they arose. She encouraged them, but at the same time challenged their thinking. “That’s cool how you’re testing for speed using a 2-metre track. How are you going to record the time for the different distances?” she asked two girls. The mood of the groups varied from excitement to frustration to satisfaction and pride as they progressed through this activity. With Sharon’s guidance and a collective sharing of understanding among the students, they all came up with some form of conclusion about the honesty of the company’s claim.

Photo: The Constant Velocity Car
The Constant Velocity Car – photo by K.Elliott

As a two-day Applied Science and Technology activity, Sharon used it to reinforce and give personal meaning to the calculation of constant velocity. She gave them control over the procedure, all the while keeping a close eye on them to nudge them in the right direction when frustration set in or when she saw them going in an unproductive direction. All students were thoroughly engrossed in it. It had just the right amount of challenge and hands-on action.


In my blog posts, for instance, this one, I have been making a case for inquiry-based science education as the most effective way for students to learn science and technology. Visiting different classrooms and talking to many teachers, however, it is clear that there are many ways to approach the teaching of science – and that the different approaches are the result of the many situations that teachers face on a day-to-day basis. Some of the factors that influence their pedagogy are

  • demographics and special needs (who are the students?)
  • curriculum requirements and number of concepts to tackle
  • philosophical bent (I think students learn best when…)
  • exam requirements (teachers want students to succeed)
  • administrative considerations (scheduling, number of periods…)
  • how teachers were taught themselves.

Mixing the research findings supporting inquiry-based pedagogy with the reality of today’s classrooms and a teacher’s own path through their professional learning – that is the challenge of science teachers everywhere.

Science Misconceptions – How Should Teachers Deal With Them?

arrowsWe’ve all heard or expressed the common teacher refrain or some variation of “I taught it to them so many times and in so many different ways and yet they still got it wrong on the exam!” It’s frustrating and hard to comprehend how something which may have been thoroughly and skillfully taught, and by all indications well understood by the students, just doesn’t take hold. Perhaps what is happening is that we are trying to teach something that contradicts the students’ existing erroneous conceptions on the subject. Unfortunately such existing misconceptions have more “sticking” power and often remain as the student’s dominant explanation.

For example, if you ask your Secondary 2 students to explain why summers are warmer than winters, you may often get the explanation that in summer the Sun is closer to the Earth than in winter. Many teachers have found that even if you take them through a teaching unit which explains the seasons as the result of the tilt of the earth’s axis, students will often remain faithful to their original misconception that seasons are a result of the earth’s relative proximity to (or of a possible variation of the intensity of) the sun.

Dr. Patrice Potvin, a science education professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), has done considerable research into student misconceptions in science (more correctly referred to as alternate conceptions!). He has studied the nature of these conceptions with an eye to helping teachers help their students deal with them and direct them to more acceptable scientific understandings. But he has discovered, as so many science teachers have too, that student misconceptions can be very tenacious. Dr Potvin notes that “a growing number of studies have argued that many frequent non-scientific conceptions (sometimes designated as “misconceptions”) will not vanish or be recycled during learning, but will on the contrary survive or persist in learners’ minds even though these learners eventually become able to produce scientifically correct answers.” Potvin et al. (2015).

What then can teachers do in the classroom to mitigate the learning obstacles presented by these misconceptions?   Dr. Potvin has recently done research in which he has exposed students in different science disciplines and of different ages to “treatments”. In all cases students were given a pre-test, then exposed to a “treatment” i.e. a teaching situation designed to teach the correct concept, and then a post-test to see if the initial misconception had changed for the better. In one study of Grade 5 and 6 students, for example, he tackled the factors which influence an object’s buoyancy in water – trying to steer them away from the erroneous idea that size or weight alone determine buoyancy. In another study of physics students he worked to correct incorrect notions of electric currents – that a single wire can light a bulb or that a bulb consumes current, for example. Both of these studies involved large numbers of students, rigorous experimental methodology and sophisticated statistical analysis to determine whether or not the results were significant. The results showed the tenacity of student misconceptions. They were written up in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Potvin’s research makes a couple of suggestions to teachers:

  • Be aware that initial misconceptions may persist and so teach with durability in mind.
  • Provoke “conceptual conflicts” by giving illustrations which dramatically illustrate the differences between the correct and the erroneous conceptions. For example when trying to dispel the idea that the weight of an object is the main factor in its buoyancy, he suggests “comparing the buoyancy of a giant tanker boat (that floats even though it weights thousands of tons) to that of a sewing needle would provoke a stronger conceptual conflict than, say, comparing a wooden ball with a slightly bigger lead ball” Potvin (2015)

This is just a brief glimpse of the research being carried out in this complex area of science education, both locally at UQAM as well as internationally and being reported in many academic journals of science education.

With this in mind, an interesting project is being undertaken at McGill University to help teachers tackle science misconceptions that their students bring to the class. As a joint bilingual undertaking of McGill and UQAM, its aim is to help teachers of Cycle 1 secondary Science and Technology (S&T) diagnose and hopefully correct their students’ alternate conceptions in as many of the 85 concepts of the MELS S&T program as possible. Teachers from 3 school boards (two English and one French) have been working hard to develop diagnostic questions for the concepts – questions whose incorrect answers help identify misconceptions their students have. Corrective measures are also being developed to help teachers guide their students. LEARN Quebec is a partner in the project and will be the online distributor to teachers across the province once the question bank has been completed. Hopefully, along with the current research being done, this will help advance our students’ understanding of the science concepts needed to make them scientifically literate members of society.


Some references

Potvin, P., Mercier, J., Charland, P., & Riopel, M. (2012). Does classroom explicitation of initial conceptions favour conceptual change or is it counter-productive. Research in Science Education, 42(3), 401–414.

Potvin, P., Sauriol, É. and Riopel, M. (2015), Experimental evidence of the superiority of the prevalence model of conceptual change over the classical models and repetition. J Res Sci Teach, 52: 1082–1108. doi:10.1002/tea.21235

Science Fairs: Yea or Nay?

science_fairThis post was co-written with Heather McPherson.

What has been your experience with science fairs? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.ca

Traditionally winter is science fair season and students here in Quebec and all across North America were busy putting the finishing touches on their projects – pasting their results on their display boards, rehearsing their presentations for the judges, and making sure that their design works properly or their experiment produces the required data. By mid-winter most schools have had their local fairs and the best projects are being honed for regional, national and international fairs.

We can’t imagine schools without their science fairs – they are a poster-board fixture on the school science scene. But are science fairs actually good for student learning of science? Do they motivate students to want to do inquiry-based science and pursue further studies in science? Are they worth the teacher, student and parent time and effort required? Is there research to back up the value of participation?

By its nature, science fairs require students to engage in the process of inquiry learning. Students choose a topic based on their interest. Throughout this process, the student is in complete control of the process with guidance from teachers and mentors. This is the basic precept of inquiry learning. According to Yeoman et al (2011), learning through inquiry is closely linked to high-quality practical work. Science fair projects demand inquiry skills, and they do produce high quality results from students. Every year newspapers report on the extraordinary scientific work done by young boys and girls as a direct result of the inquiry processes undertaken during their projects. Over lunch or coffee listening to the judges at the Montreal Regional Science and Technology Fair (MRSTF) or the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF), discussing the projects they have evaluated, one gets a sense not only of the high level of the inquiry work done but also of the palpable enthusiasm of the student scientists.

Frank LaBanca (2008) however reported that there was almost no published research on inquiry and problem learning associated with science fairs. So what do we know? Literature reports that student involvement in science fairs promotes positive attitudes about science. Laura Fisanick (2010) found that teachers believe science fairs promote students interest in science and provide opportunities for students to learn. Science fairs do have their critics however. According to a study by Abernathy and Vineyard (2001), detractors criticize:
• problems with subjective judging,
• an overemphasis on competition,
• lack of clarity with the rules,
• too much teacher control,
• too much parent control,
• mandated competition
Syer, Cassidy A. & Shore (2010) also point out that the pursuit of extrinsic rewards of marks and prizes and the often-compulsory nature of the participation can undermine any intrinsic motivation the student may have had at the outset.

Who participates in science fairs in Quebec? According to Hydro Quebec, in 2014, more than 15,000 young people took part in local, regional or in the pan-Quebec finals. Interestingly, Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that women were underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – that only 39% of STEM university graduates aged 25 to 34 were female. However in the 2013 MRSTF fully 66% of participants were female! So perhaps participation in science fair competitions can help address the gender gap in STEM disciplines in post-secondary studies. In fact some research does show that there is a positive correlation between science fair participation and future enrolment in STEM-related studies (Sahin, 2013).

Quebec has a very active science fair scene. The Educational Alliance for Science and Technology (EAST) has been organizing the MRSTF since 1983. In fact EAST also organizes robotics competitions at junior and senior levels in the Montreal area. In May 2016 EAST will be joining with the Ministry of Education and other Quebec-based groups to host the Canada Wide Science Fair at McGill University.
Science fairs require effort, time and dedication from students, teachers, mentors and organizers. They provide a real showcase for aspiring young scientists to demonstrate their inquiry skills.

Abernathy, Tammy V. and Vineyard, Richard N. (2001). Academic Competitions in Science; What Are the Rewards for Students? The Clearing House.

Czerniak, Charlene M., and Lumpe,Andrew T. (1996): Predictors of Science Fair Participation Using the Theory of Planned Behavior. School Science and Mathematics 96 (7) 355-61.

Fisanick, Laura. (2010). A Descriptive Study of the Middle School Science Teacher Behaviour for Required Student Participation in Science Fair Competitions. Thesis. Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

LaBanca, Frank. (2008). Impact of Problem Finding on the Quality of Authentic Open Inquiry Science Research Projects. Thesis. Western Connectiticut State University.

Yeoman, K. H., James, H. A., & Bowater, L. (2011). Development and Evaluation of an Undergraduate Science Communication Module. Bioscience Education, 17.

Sahin, Alpasian. (2013). STEM Clubs and Science Fair Competitions: Effects on Post-Secondary Matriculation. Journal of STEM Education Innovations and Research, 14 (1) 5-11.

Syer, Cassidy A. & Shore, Bruce M. (2010). Science Fairs: What Are the Sources of Help for Students and How Prevalent Is Cheating?, School Science and Mathematics, 101 (4) 206-220.

What Motivates Students to Want to Learn Science?


How do you motivate your students to learn more about science? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

Imagine that the bell rings to end your science class and you hear groans from your students. “Do we have to leave?” “This is so great” “Can’t we just stay here?” Well maybe that happens to you from time to time, but in my teaching experience, I admit that it was a rare occurrence. If you think about the activities that interest you and fully absorb your attention – skiing in deep powder, listening to your favourite music, reading that page-turner novel, playing with your granddaughter – why can’t a science activity produce a similar response?

The question of what makes students want to learn science has intrigued me throughout my educational career. It seems to me that learning about the natural world that surrounds us should be of intrinsic interest to everyone, and learning about it in school should be fascinating for all students. But this doesn’t seem to the case. Enrolment in high school optional science courses around the world is declining and students increasingly drop science courses as soon as they can. They find it difficult and boring and, surprisingly, they find it unrelated to their lives! In one study comparing the attitudes of students in different countries, Terry Lyons found that students frequently reported being turned off by “the transmissive pedagogy, decontextualized content, and unnecessary difficulty of school science.” (Lyons, 2006). In other words, they say it’s too hard, doesn’t involve them and is meaningless to them.

Intrinsic Motivation – Flow Theory:

We would all like our students to be intrinsically motivated to learn science – in other words to want to do science for its own sake and have a genuine interest in it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian/Croatian psychologist developed the theory of Flow – an explanation of intrinsic motivation. A highly influential University of Chicago professor, his ideas have influenced people from President Bill Clinton to the winning Super Bowl coach of the 1993 Dallas Cowboys. Flow describes people’s state of “complete absorption in the present moment” when they are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). They are in control of their actions and pursue the activity for its own sake, not in pursuit of a reward or to avoid a punishment. Some of the conditions for Flow are: “perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch but do not overmatch existing skills”, “clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress being made.”( p. 195).   People “in Flow” would be observed to be focused on an active task, unselfconscious and in control. They may comment about the surprisingly fast passage of time while doing the activity. Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us called this Type I (I for Intrinsic) behavior. By this he refers to intrinsic motivation characterized by autonomy (control over the project), mastery (the desire to continually improve it), and purpose (doing something that has personal meaning).

Extrinsic Motivation

The opposite of Flow or Type I behavior is motivation by punishment and reward, often referred to as extrinsic behavior. Though this is a common practice in education, this behavior more often undermines motivation and engagement on the part of students and tends to reduce learning and understanding (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2005; Kohn, 1999; Pink, 2011). Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, argues that using rewards – points, stickers, extra play time, etc – to motivate students is just as damaging to learning as imposing punishments – detentions, loss of points, reprimands, etc. As soon as the reward or punishment is removed, he points out, the motivation for doing the activity disappears. Corroborating this, in an meta-analysis of 128 studies, Deci, Koestner, & Ryan found that rewards of all types significantly undermined intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).

So how do we get our students intrinsically motivated to learn science? The research discussed above would indicate that the project or activity has to have the following characteristics:

  • a clear purpose.
  • personal meaning to students.
  • some degree of student control over it.
  • an appropriate level of challenge – difficult enough to keep them interested, not too challenging to create frustration, and not too easy to bore them.
  • continuous and immediate feedback.

Skilled science teachers learn by their own experience, workshops with other professionals, and discussions with colleagues. They struggle with balancing their desire to intrinsically motivate their students, with the requirement to cover the concepts needed to meet the requirements of the curriculum. I’d love to hear how you do this with your students.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow Theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lyons, T. (2006). Different Countries, Same Science Classes: Students’ experiences of school science in their own words. International Journal of Science Education, 28(6), 591-613.

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Is “The Scientific Method” Good Enough for Today’s Science Classroom?

Municipal Archives of Trondheim

Do you think The Scientific Method is too linear or too rigid for the science classroom? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Dr. Joe Schwartz at the recent Teachers’ Convention in Montreal. He decried the lack of scientific process in the anti-scientific claims of the pseudo scientists who make enormous profits from non-traditional medicines like homeopathy or use scare tactics to promote opposition to vaccinations for young children. His position is that when these fake sciences are put through a rigorous scientific process (if ever), they fail to produce the results to back up their claims and are in fact fraudulent. So what is the role of science teachers in helping students navigate the claims of scientists and non-scientists that are out there?

Most science and technology teachers are very conscientious about making sure that their students have ample opportunities to do “hands-on” science activities whether in their classrooms or in specially-equipped science labs. This requires them to prepare lab experiments for their students involving extensive amounts of time developing procedures, gathering materials and instructing their students on the expectations. In my discussions with them, they make it clear that students’ understanding of the process of science is as important as their knowledge of the scientific “facts”.  In fact, science educators are conscious of the fact that it is their role to help their students become scientifically literate, in order to better understand the scientific processes that allow society to discriminate between science and superstition, between medicine and quackery, between truth and fraud.

At the heart of science education in most people’s minds lies The Scientific Method (TSM). But is it enough to help scaffold the kind of critical thinking required today? Most teachers will tell you that TSM involves certain set steps. Shown here is the traditional model of TSM which I followed as a high school student in the 60s, and is still common in today’s science classrooms. This is copied from Windschitl (2004):


Critics say that, as it is used in the classroom, TSM is too linear a process and that it does not mimic the way scientists really work. The way it is applied in schools may be too simplistic and may not promote inquiry. For example, the statement of the problem is often too clean and simple, not the messy reality of true science. Hypotheses are often done for the sake of having one and are often unrelated to existing models. Derek Hodson in a 1996 article in the Journal of Curriculum Studies points out that scientific processes must be carried out within “a substantial measure of theoretical knowledge” otherwise predictions are only guesses. “In reality, doing science is an untidy, unpredictable activity that requires each scientist to devise her or his own course of action. In that sense, Science has no one method, no set of rules or sequence of steps that can and should be applied in all situations.” All too often in our classrooms, procedures and conclusions are too simple. The steps are all listed clearly and the results are the expected ones. Inquiry-based learning requires much more.

I had a recent discussion with a friend and science consultant. She pointed me to an article by Mark Windschitl and colleagues in a 2008 article in the journal Science Education saying that schools need to present scientific inquiry in a much more realistic way than TSM. In their Model-Based Inquiry (MBI) paradigm, they talk about 4 conversations to take the place of TSM.

  1. Organizing what we know and what we want to know. This involves exploring what is already known – establishing a model of this.
  2. Generating testable hypotheses: This means thinking more deeply about what might happen and why. Understanding that there can be competing explanations and methods of attack. Don’t just guess!
  3. Seeking evidence. This involves using data from different sources, establishing models and deciding how to represent the data.
  4. Constructing an argument: Deciding how the original model is affected by the data; explaining the data

Below is a diagram (again copied from Windschitl (2004)) of Windschitl’s Model- Based Inquiry. If you start at the top and go counter clockwise, you will see that the process of formulating a hypothesis takes into account the existing understandings and current theories and observations. As the investigation is carried out and the data analysed, the original question(s) and model(s) are revisited and adjusted with the new findings and conclusions in mind. These revisions happen at any stage of the process – unlike the TSM linear process.


So if TSM isn’t producing the scientifically literate students we want, then what should teachers do in the classroom? As science educators, we know that we need to not only interest and challenge our students in science with good inquiry-based hands-on activities. Activities need to be as diverse as the real-life science they mirror, and include reading about science, presentations of science phenomena, debating, demonstrations, videos, thought experiments, etc. MBI can provide the methodology for those good classroom lab activities.

Stay tuned as I continue to look at inquiry-based science teaching and learning in upcoming posts.



Hodson, D. (January 01, 1996). Laboratory work as scientific method: three decades of confusion and distortion. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 28, 2, 115-136.

Windschitl, M. (2004), Folk theories of “inquiry:” How preservice teachers reproduce the discourse and practices of an atheoretical scientific method. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 41: 481–512.

Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (September 01, 2008). Beyond the Scientific Method: Model-Based Inquiry as a New Paradigm of Preference for School Science Investigations. Science Education, 92, 5, 941-967.