Today I used a resource from the IDEAS project (short for IDeas, Evidence and Argument in Science)which was developed at King's College, London to encourage scientific reasoning by engaging in argument with others and evaluating arguments. I came across the IDEAS project whilst writing an assignment on reasoning and argumentation for my Masters in Science Education over Christmas. Argumentation encourages cognitive conflict to be established by offering competing theories surrounding a scientific idea, some of which could highlight particular misconceptions that students have, whilst encouraging students to work as a group to argue their opinion and evaluate the opinions of others before using written argument to conclude and consolidate. The resources pack is designed to provide 15 activities for 15 different KS3 Science topics but the thinking behind it (and the resources) could easily be adapted to be used with other topics and with older students. The resources include activities like card sorts, experimental observation, projects, ranking arguments, agreeing or disagreeing with statements. Concept cartoons are another example of where cognitive conflict can be created and (hopefully!) resolved by the subsequent discussion and argument.
I tried Activity 5 from the pack "Euglena: Plant or Animal?" with my year 8 class today to introduce the interdependence topic and classification. I showed a quick video of some euglena under a microscope before providing students with evidence cards and a table to sort them into depending on whether they thought the evidence suggested that euglena was a plant cell, animal cell, both or neither. I explained that this is what scientists do all the time - they make observations and do experiments to gather evidence and then they evaluate the evidence. I've found that the quality of student talk can be improved by modelling high quality talk and providing scaffolding in the form of sentence starters, such as "I think that euglena is ... because ..." Once students had spent 10-15 minutes discussing the evidence and I asked them to give their own personal view (having made it clear earlier that the group didn't need to reach a consensus and that it was ok to disagree with others in your group) and to give three pieces of evidence to prove their opinion, however, they couldn't just copy the evidence from the card sort they had to add further explanation as to how this was evidence for their point of view. They were asked to start their written argument by writing "I think euglena is ... because ..."
I pointed out that the process students have been through is exactly what scientists do when they are doing research to try and explain phenomena in the world around us, and that once they have come to their own conclusion and written it up in a paper they need to have it peer reviewed before it can be published. So then all the students went to a scientific 'conference' and had their work peer reviewed, first by a peer in the class who agreed with them (to strengthen their argument) and then by a peer who disagreed with them (to try and convince them otherwise). Finally we had a vote on what the class now though euglena was (turns out it's neither a plant cell or an animal cell, but belongs to the protist group - as someone who teaches all Chemistry this was almost a revelation to me as well...) Then cue discussion about the 5 kingdoms and some very creative classification of their school bags into different groups, which gave them some appreciation of the scale of the task that faced scientist when they tried to introduce the classification system!
I loved this activity and this way of thinking because it is so closely linked to the processes that 'real' scientists do and gets students to work on their thinking and literacy skills at the same time. I'm incredibly fortunate to have a top set year 8 class to try activities like this with and I do wonder whether students in lower sets might struggle with the distinction between argumentation and just having an argument, but perhaps with sufficient scaffolding and training they could also learn to develop their reasoning and argumentation skills which are so valuable not only within the scientific community but within our society generally.
The IDEAS training and resource packs are available on the National STEM centre website (click here)