small group discussions in the science classroom

Back to Wellington and Osborne… They discuss how to manage discussions

One “aspect of effective discussion is to give the group a clear task to achieve. This provides an unambiguous objective for the activity, which gives the task a focus and provides the teacher with a means of monitoring both the progress and the quality of the discussion.” (p.101)

According to Wellington and Osborne, the ideal size for small group discussions is ‘small’; minimum two pupils and maximum four. “Clearly,” they write, “the fewer the numbers involved, the more time each pupil will have to speak. Organizing the groups is another matter. Essentially, if you and the pupils are not used to undertaking such small group discussion-based work in the classroom then it is very important to ensure that the pupils feel at ease by initially letting them work in their friendship groups. Later, as the technique becomes more familiar, it is possible to mix the groups, as self-selected groups run the danger that some of the talk may be off-task. Another important aspect of structure is training pupils how to engage in discussion in a cooperative and constructive manner and giving the group some well defined task to achieve. Elaborating the rules for discussion means spending some time spelling out what the normative expectations are of what is reasonable behaviour.” (p.101)

“The other aspect of effective discussion is to give the group a clear task to achieve. This provides an unambiguous objective for the activity, which gives the task a focus and provides the teacher with a means of monitoring both the progress and the quality of the discussion. …Where there is not such a clarity, then asking pupils to produce a poster or an overhead transparency summarizing the main points of their discussion for presentation to [-p.101] the rest of the class helps to focus pupils’ attention on the issue at hand. Alternatively, pupils can be asked to write an individual summary of their discussion and to read out what they have written to the rest of the class.” (pp.101-102)

As part of this discussion, Wellington and Osborne also address ‘questioning’: “It is a rather strange irony that most of the questions in the science classroom are asked not by those who don’t know – the pupils – but by the person who does know – the teacher. The reason for this is that the majority of the dialogue that takes place in the classroom is a monologue and evaluative. The teacher offers up questions, a pupil responds and a piece of evaluative feedback is given. If the answer is correct, the teacher can then proceed to the next stage in the argument. If it is error, the teacher then has to retrace the pupil’s steps and begin again. However, genuine dialogue, between real learners, is deliberative, where all the participants have an equal opportunity to participate in the dialogue. Therefore, encouraging pupils to talk about science means encouraging them to ask questions in a non-threatening atmosphere. Establishing the latter means that the pupils need to be given the opportunity to work together to generate questions which they can either ask of each other, or ask of the teacher.” (p.97)

Generating questions is a skill,” they continue, “and using a set of generic question stems helps pupils to begin the process of generating a searching question. Essentially, in this activity, pupils can be given the question stems, with or without the examples, and asked to write a limited number of questions [-p.98] themselves, even as few as two on the topic that has been studied. Generating a good question requires as much knowledge and skill as answering a question, so this can be a challenging, and in many cases a novel, activity for pupils.” (pp.97-98) Wellington and Osborne suggest a number of question stems (see below) and ways to use the questions generated by students:

Method One: “Here the teacher invites each pair to submit one question about the topic to him or her and then answers the question. This has some value as a means of answering points or issues that may have confused pupils so far. In particular, it provides a model of what a good answer to such questions may be.” (p.98)

Method two: “Each pair is asked to write down one of their questions on a piece of paper. The pieces of paper are collected in and then redistributed at random. Each pair is now given a period of time to prepare an answer to their question. Generally up to ten minutes is sufficient unless access to textbooks or reference works is required.” (p.99)

Method three: “The class is divided in two. Pairs on one side of the room pass their questions to pairs on the other side of the room. Questions from one side of the room are posed to the pupils on the other side of the room, who try to supply a correct answer. Each correct (or nearly correct as judged by the teacher) answer is awarded a mark. The teacher keeps a tally of marks for the two sides and continues until all questions have been asked and then totals the mark for each side to see which set of pupils have been more successful. This strategy introduces a competitive element which many puils enjoy.” (p.99)

Examples of question stems (p.98):

Comparison/contrast: What is the difference between… and…?

Analysis: Explain why…

Prediction/hypothesizing: What would happen if…?

Application: What is another example of…?

Application: How could… be used to…?

Identification of analogies and metaphors: What is… similar to?

Analysis of cause-effect relationships: How does… affect…?

Comparison-contrast: How are… and… similar?

Rebuttal to argument: What is the counter argument for?

Comparison-contrast: Compare… and… with regard to…

Analysis of cause and effect: What are the causes of…? How do you know?

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Jerry Wellington and Jonathan Osborne (2001) Language and Literacy in Science Education. Open University Press: Buckingham, Philadelphia.


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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One Response to small group discussions in the science classroom

  1. Pingback: Different ways of questioning | LiteracyNZ

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