52 Weeks of Grade-less — Week 8: Creating “The Wonder”

I thought I knew the best way to teach science.

I thought I had found some efficiency in the presentation.

Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

It worked for me but I wonder how much wonder I had killed in my students.

Despite all of my work, I was struggling to find a way to get my science class to be more student inquiry centered and problem based in a grade-less environment. Every year it was better than the last, but alas, still not good enough. It was difficult for me to see how ALL the science practices fit together. I saw how most did but there were a few Practices that seemed like they were best done at a different time. Or at least not during an Inquiry lab.

That all changed this weekend.

This past weekend, I had a great opportunity to meet with some of my colleagues in the New York State Master Teacher Program @NYSMTP and Science Teachers Association of New York @STANYSorg to listen and work with Paul Andersen of Bozeman Science. We were doing a Deeper Dive into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

I was pretty excited to go …

What to expect from this post and subsequent posts

Let me give you an overview of where I am going with this post and some of the ones that will follow.

I hope to share what I learned from this enlightening two day conference / workshop with Paul Andersen and the other science educators in NY State. At this point, I am not sure how many posts it will take. However the following should be noted.

  • This might feel like it is geared only to the science teacher and it is primarily. However, there are some awesome techniques that I have found and that I want to share. These techniques can be used in just about every class in at least part, if not completely.
  • This is a blog series with its roots in going grade-less, so, as such, I will focus in on the “How does the Grade-less paradigm fit into this?” question at the end of each post.
  • This post will introduce the Science Practices and specifically address the first two practices: Asking Questions and Modeling.

Let’s get started.

How do the practices fit together?

Paul introduced us to the Inquiry Continuum. It should be out goal to move the student forward from Teacher Centered to Student Centered learning. We do this through 5 steps: Questions-Models-Investigations-Analysis- Explanation

There was some old and some new with this idea. I had always done Question then, Investigation then Analysis, but Modeling seemed separate from the inquiry process. Modeling seemed like something you did once you had figured it all out, not something you do in order to help figure it out. That was new to me. Explanation as part of the inquiry process was new too.

So Paul had us lay out some practice cards that he shared with us into a specific order as shown below:

The Practices are not random or disconnected — they have order!

The Inquiry Continuum uses the Practices

  1. Questions in the Inquiry Continuum was the Practice of “Asking Questions”
  2. Model — “Developing and Using Models”
  3. Investigation — “Planning and Carrying out Investigations”
  4. Analysis — Both “Analysis and Interpreting Data” AND Mathematics and Computational Thinking”
  5. Explanation — “Constructing Explanations”

That left the other two practices “Engaging in Argument from Evidence” and “Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information”. These are what scientists do with the knowledge learned through the inquiry process. Some teachers may argue that Argumentation comes before Explanations and I do not disagree. I can see the placement of Argumentation as before or after Explanations. Either way, Argumentation and Explanations were close to each other in the process.

Paul mentioned that he thought you could do all eight practices in one storyline or pick and choose as you see fit. Reordering when applicable works too. However, he felt this was the most efficient way.

How do we do these? Paul shared this slide … Over the next two posts I plan to share about each step.

The Wonder

As I was writing this blog a tweet popped up in my Twitterfeed from Alice Keeler

Alice hit the nail on the head — we want kids RUNNING to our classroom to see “What’s Next!?” How can we introduce “The Wonder” into our classes? Paul talked a lot about this during his time with us. He described “The Wonder” as that look we have when we are really thinking and saying to ourselves — What’s going on here?

The Wonder Tube


How do we get the wonder into our science classes? We use phenomena. Phenomena are those discrepant events that are complex enough that we have to investigate to find an answer. The Wonder Tube above is an example of a phenomena.

So how do science teachers find these phenomena? Well many of these we already use in class. There are others found in the resources below:

Phenomena Resources
Paul’s Phenomenon Aggregated List
#Project Phenomenon 
TJ McKenna’s Phenomenon for NGSS

Once you have the Wonder of the Phenomena, don’t lose it. Don’t explain how it works! However, Paul says that teachers are too quick to jump to the explanation, thus killing the wonder.

Don’t give the explanation — it kills the wonder.

Keep the Wonder Going

So you found a phenomena that you think would be tied to the standards the unit calls for. Perhaps you are introducing intermolecular forces and you wanted to start with the phenomena below found at https://www.ngssphenomena.com/#/tears-in-space/ what do we do next.

How can this phenomena be used to drive the unit? Keep the wonder going …

Asking Questions

So after the wonder is set with a phenomena the first science practice to tackle is “Asking Questions”

So often I would tell students what THEIR question was. Actually, I was telling them what question I wanted them to have. How can I get kids to ask good questions? Can I skillfully lead them to those questions? Getting kids to come up with the questions changes the equation. I always admired the teachers who could pull those questions out of students. It always seemed like some Jedi Mind Trick.

Now I know that this can be accomplished by what’s called the Question Formulation Technique. It’s a process to teach to the students so they can do it for themselves.

  1. Generate as many questions as you can. Do not comment, discuss, judge or answer any of the questions. Try to get 20 or more. The later questions are often the better questions.
  2. Label the questions into two categories — Closed (yields limited answers — yes or no — short list of possibilities) or Open (generates a wide variety of answers).
  3. Change a few of the closed questions to open questions and a few open questions to closed questions adding them to your list.
  4. Prioritize your list of questions — look for questions that are testable. Use the Asking Questions performance list (above) to help with this prioritizing. Often we look for open questions but there are occasions where a closed question is preferred.

Notice, step 4 shows students how “Asking questions” would be assessed. As Paul says “don’t hide the practices”.

Assessing Questions

Here is a Single Point Rubric for HS-LS3–1 which is the only Standard that addresses Asking Questions in High School Life Sciences. There is a link at the bottom of the picture is you want to look more closely. For more information on the use of the single point rubric — See Jennifer Gonzalez’s post or Aaron Blackwelder’s post

Link to actual Google Doc

Developing and Using Models

Tell a science teacher to develop or use a model and they picture an elaborate devise with multiple moving parts … a Rube Goldberg devise of epic proportions for sure!

But Models are often drawings with extra features included
Models can be pictures with extra features

But how do you model something you don’t understand yet? This was a stumbling block for me. I thought that it was a step to verify what you already knew, and it can be that way, but NGSS is looking to treat it like a hypothesis of the inner workings of the system. It becomes the first step in answering the question.

It’s an amazing transformative thought. Models as hypotheses. Often students get bogged down by the terminology. But asking questions and making a diagrammatic representation puts all the students on the same playing field. All kids can do this.

The students do not have to be right, yet. In fact the process works better if some of them are wrong. It’s better because it is an opportunity for students to clarify the discrepancies. Let the students clear it up, they will remember that better than if you told them the right answer … Remember, don’t kill the wonder.

One special note that Paul mentioned to us. Even though it is better if the models have differences, it is important to talk to the kids about the right way to talk about models. A student may be critiquing a model the person who created the model could feel defensive and judged if it is not presented the right way. Feeling judged closes the mind to creativity. Teachers need to teach the kids how to avoid this. Paul mentioned giving the students sentence starters.

How do you Model?

  1. Give students a few minutes to work quietly and alone. Perhaps even put up dividers between them. Allow them time to think and work. Don’t rush this.
  2. Have students work in small groups and take turns explaining their individual models. Often times students will begin updating their models to incorporate new ideas shared by other students.
  3. The group should come up with one model. Remind them to use to use color, labels and zoom in bubbles to see up close. Keep the models anonymous. Teachers should come by and push the students thinking by asking clarifying questions. Teachers should not correct the students … Let the misconceptions remain. Don’t rob the opportunity for other students to give them feedback to address these misconceptions coming up.
  4. Have the students double check to see if their model includes the performance indicators as listed on the cards above.
  5. Gallery walk: Nameless Models are hung up and students are given sticky notes and asked to walk around and comment on the other models they see.
  6. Large group discussion: Teachers should look for parts of different models that disagree with each other and ask the class questions to clarify these discrepancies. Don’t Kill the Wonder here by telling them the correct answer.
  7. The discrepancies in their models can serve as the reason to do an investigation.

Assessing Modeling

Here is a Single Point Rubric for HS-LS1–2 which is one of five Standards that addresses Modeling in High School Life Sciences. There is a link at the bottom of the picture is you want to look more closely.

Link to actual Google Doc

How does going Grade-less fit?

Going through this workshop, I never wondered to myself, “I wonder if my kids would want to do this?” or “How would I grade this?” Feedback is embedded in these practices. Some of the feedback is given to one self in the form of reflection. For example, while modeling, kids may adjust their own model as they hear other ideas presented by their peers. Some of the feedback is inherently peer driven. Gallery walks with sticky notes for commenting gives the opportunity for students to help other students. And finally, Teacher feedback can be given as the teacher circulates the room meeting with groups to push the practice to a higher level or it could be sought out by the student when clarification is required.

So Grade-less fits this wonderfully. Let the students wonder drive their learning and give them that internal motivation to keep going, not some judgment baring external grade. Assessment and Feedback when done right are helpful, not harmful.

The plan is to use these steps in every unit I can. Create storylines where the phenomena drives the story as the students seek out ways to find the explanation why. During those steps we may come across a Standard or a Performance Expectation. The Performance Expectation is the point in which the Content (Disciplinary Core Idea) intersects with the Process (Science Practice) and Cross Cutting Concept.

Standards are the intersection of three dimensions

When that happens I will assess it formally. Not all intersections of DCIs, SEPs and CCCs result in a Performance Expectation (remember only once is “Asking Questions” assessed), so those will be formative in nature. Students will be required to meet the standard when we get there. They keep trying multiple times until the reach the standard. If necessary, I may have to have other examples and assessments ready for the student who keeps trying and trying, over and over.

Properly used phenomena create situations in which student wants to be there. They want to learn so they have the explanation to the phenomena, not because they are threatened with a grade. As Alice Keeler mentioned earlier today, we want students to run to our class. Grading makes learning an activity in compliance.

Giving the answer “Kills the Wonder” while giving a grade “Kills the Desire”.

Let’s give our students the chance to direct their own learning with a helpful nudge from other students and the teacher. Let’s spark the interest and fan the flame of curiosity. Capture the wonder.