Let’s Talk Science...At A Distance
By Jill Mayorga, Chemistry Teacher, Math and Science College Preparatory
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about unexpected changes in education and for science classrooms in particular. However, I have been surprised to learn that one classroom practice seems to retain its effectiveness, and in many ways, has elevated its importance.
Content and Questions
Science talks have different names and serve a variety of purposes. They can be considered classroom discussions, structured small group and partner talks, Socratic seminars or debates. I will use a broad definition of how talk serves as a tool for thinking and learning described by Windschitl, Thompson & Braaten (2018) in their publication titled Ambitious Science Teaching (AST). There are three main requirements. “First is prethinking the goals for different kinds of classroom conversations. Every conversation should have a purpose that students can understand. The second idea deals with the cognitive demand of questions and the third idea is about developing a repertoire of talk moves to serve the goals of the conversation” (p. 40). I consider a science talk to be any form of academic discourse where students are actively sharing their ideas, using data and evidence to support their thinking, grappling and engaging in sensemaking about science concepts and ideas.
The most important part of preparation is defining the purpose for the science talk. It’s best to use the science and engineering practices as your guide in doing this. Students can engage in a science talk based on questions they wonder about a phenomenon, a model they are developing, data from an investigation or an explanation or argument they are constructing. The purpose should be clear to both the teacher and students. Some science talks are summative and are a culmination of multiple investigations and data gathering. Others are more formative, where students are beginning to explore a phenomenon or gather evidence around science ideas. After defining the purpose and type of talk, teachers should carefully craft question(s). I have found that 1-4 questions work best. Sometimes, it is helpful to include 1-2 scaffolded questions to allow students to build upon ideas in order to access higher order thinking questions. Additionally, integrating a crosscutting concept into the question(s) can help increase cognitive demand and lead to greater sensemaking around the 3 dimensions of NGSS. Finally, talk moves are important for both students and the teacher. I have used talk moves from both the Exploratorium online resources and AST. I also provide students with science discourse stems taken from CA NGSS Rollout 4 that they can use to share, add to, challenge ideas and ask questions.
Set up and Process
We follow four simple rules for the science talk:
- all students must talk or write something in the chat at least once
- one person speaks at a time
- create and take “just enough” space to allow everyone to enter into the conversation
- respectfully agree and disagree with science ideas, not people.
In addition to these, students in each class add their own norms that we review before each talk. At school, I would ask one volunteer to tally who and how many times each person shares. During distance learning, I ask for one volunteer to be our chat recorder. This person is responsible for documenting anything students say in the chat. I document what students are saying aloud in a Google doc. At the top of the Google doc, I include the norms, science discourse stems and science talk questions. I set my timer for fifteen minutes and we begin.
I act in a facilitator role, rather than a direct participant. I ask the class students who would like to start us off and then open the floor for anyone to add on, agree, disagree, ask a question or share a new idea related to any of the science talk question(s). I close the science talk by asking the class which questions or concepts they think we still need to learn more about in order to better understand the concept or phenomenon in question. I have noticed that this empowers students and leads to greater engagement. Finally, I end with a quick reflection where students compare the talk norms with how it went for them individually and collectively as a class.
Engagement, Assessment & Accountability
Science talks have helped to support engagement, continuous data gathering and formative assessment and allowed for greater accountability. As a teacher, it helps me uncover student thinking, possible misconceptions and inform future instruction. Consistently, students have ranked science talks as their preferred method of learning, both in informal reflections following the talks and in student surveys. 96% of students agreed or somewhat agreed that science talks helped their understanding, 94% stated they learned something new from their peers and 91% agreed or somewhat agreed that their peers pushed their thinking. Some comments include, “[w]e get out of our comfort zones and everyone shares their opinion,” “[w]e all have a chance to participate and I learn from hearing other ideas,” and “[w]e do better listening to each other.” Similar to students, I find that science talks are the most enjoyable distance learning classes for me as a teacher.
I was hesitant to try Zoom science talks, but have not been let down, and hope to continue with more science talks in our next semester of distance learning. If you haven’t tried it yet, either inside the classroom or online, I encourage you to give them a try!
Note: In the Resources section I added a few examples and templates that I’ve used to structure science talks both in person and in a distance learning environment.
CA NGSS Rollout #4 Using the CA Science Framework (April - December 2017)
Exploratorium. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from
Science Talk Resources- Both classroom and Distance Learning Examples and Tools, Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (2020). Ambitious Science Teaching. Harvard Education Press.