CSTA Classroom Science

Modeling Is Awesome

By Peter A'Hearn



A few years ago a team of us was teaching an astronomy lesson: “What causes night and day?” Kids watched a  time-lapse of the sky over the course of several days. Then we asked the question. We gave the kids a few moments to discuss with a partner and it was obvious that they all had the same answer, “The Earth turns!”

Seems like they already understand, time to move on to the next lesson, right?

To make sure, we gave a group of students a choice of balls and lights and asked them to come up with a way to explain night and day more fully. As groups began to demonstrate their understanding, the confusion quickly became very clear. There were groups that had a slow turning Earth and a faster Sun going around. Some Suns turned into the Moon at night. Some Suns turned off at night. Some just held the balls and said they really didn’t know. We can’t actually see the Earth turning—we need to make a picture in the mind’s eye if we want to imagine what that looks like. How can we know if that picture is correct if it is not made visible?

A recent discussion about the NGSS Science and Engineering Practice of “Developing and Using Models made me think about a poem I have had posted by my desk for years.

“The world is full of mostly invisible things”
-from To David About His Education by Howard Nemerov

The complete text can be found here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52813.
I’ll wait here for a bit while you click the link and read it.
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Okay… back?

It occurred to me that having kids make conceptual models that show their thinking is how we as teachers can begin to attack the “grand confusion” of the poem.

[gallery type="rectangular" ids="13631,13632"] 2 IMAGES, NO URL

Modeling is about making the invisible visible. When we ask students to make models of their understanding, we can quickly get past the “right” words and definitions to find out what they really understand and don’t. Modeling is the practice within the NGSS that will feel new to most teachers. It is well worth teacher’s time to explore this practice and become good at getting your students to make models that make their thinking visible.  Instead of keeping our confusion about the world under our hats, modeling asks us to make our thinking visible, where we can discuss, and debate, and begin to see more steadily and whole.


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