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Decisional Thinking in Science

I am still tackling the task of tweaking my lessons from last year to make them more effective. That task never seems to end but it is made easier by a file cabinet full of idea sheets that I have saved from workshops, books and magazines.

Every teacher has a file like that. It is the one with ideas you cannot get to now but do not want to throw away because something about the ideas or the lesson on that handout/page made you think it would be useful…someday. Well, today was clean out day and I stopped on that file and read through some of the handouts. That spawned a lesson improvement session. After all, clean out time can be anytime.

I am trying to expand the number of real life situations my students encounter as they apply their science knowledge. I want them to stretch their decision making skills to include an explanation of the facts that support that decision and those that do not. This requires what one of my handouts called “decisional thinking”.

Anyone can state an opinion. A toddler can say they like or do not like something. As children grow they should be able to state and defend the reasons for various opinions. In science we call this arguing from evidence. Next, I ask the students to select one figure from history to be the central figure in a museum about the atom. Who made the most significant contribution? I ask the students to explain the criteria they used and the reasons. I ask them to state the evidence they used that supports and that which does not support their decision.

This task brings scientific history into a sharper focus. The students are studying the historical experiments that led to our current ideas about the atom with a purpose. Along the way they should develop a more accurate idea about what we know regarding atoms and how we know it. More importantly, they will have an opportunity to flex their decisional thinking skills and defend a position.

There are lots of web sites to help with content on this topic.
http://www.neoam.cc.ok.us/~rjones/Pages/online1014/chemistry/chapter_8/pages/history_of_atom.html
http://www.csmate.colostate.edu/cltw/cohortpages/viney_off/atomhistory.html
http://www.nobeliefs.com/atom.htm

One of my favorites presents a timeline. This visible history is especially helpful for students who need a little differentiation.
http://atomictimeline.net/index.php

The content is the easier part of this unit. The decision making skills will stretch some of my students a bit more. There are also sites to help them with that part of the lesson as well.

The Mind Tools site has a synopsis of De Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”.
http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_07.htm

More information is available and applicable to this lesson using the search terms, “critical thinking”.
http://www.freeinquiry.com/critical-thinking.html
http://www.studygs.net/crtthk.htm

Many of the sites on this topic are from social studies or writing but can be easily modified for science classes.

One of the other handouts in my idea file had an old lesson with a predecision task sheet that prompts the students to take time to consider the issues and evidence before making a decision. The sheet had questions that prompted the students to think from various perspectives. In my unit I will use one of these sheets. A sample question might be:

What are 5 reasons why _____ should be the focus of the museum of the atom?

What are 5 reasons why _____ should not be the focus of the museum of the atom?

These two simple questions prompt the student to look for evidence that supports their decision and evidence that would call their decision into question. That is a powerful piece of student thinking. We often ask student to support their work but seldom ask them to try to prove their hypothesis wrong. Good science requires both.

I will continue to work my way through this treasure trove of idea sheet and then gently put it back in the file to await another chance to help me make a lesson more effective. Summer for teachers is never “down time” and perhaps this lesson improvement time is the best argument for summer break.

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