Arguing From Evidence to Discover the ‘Why’ by Rebecca Schumacher

In my science classroom, students look at evidence all the time. Sometimes it is in photos or videos; sometimes in charts and graphs; and sometimes we generate our own data through investigations. A more traditional approach previously used is asking for concrete answers, as in giving students a graph and asking, “How many deer were found in Cook County, Illinois, in 1967 versus 2017?” Now we are shifting our thinking and asking different, more open-ended questions.

As we transition our practices toward three-dimensional teaching and learning, we also adjust our student expectations. The practice of engaging in argument from evidence makes sense; however, once you explore the K–12 Framework for Science Education in depth, it starts to appear more intimidating. One of the best resources for keeping this practice attainable is having another person to work with, whether it is another science teacher, the ELA teacher, or even another teacher you connect with through social media such as a Facebook group member or Twitter follower. Keep reaching out to others to help share the process.

Luckily, middle school students are still eager to share their ideas. Once one of them starts talking, others can’t wait to chime in. At this age, though, it is very important to remind them to listen to one another, or more than one student will say the exact same thing another just said. Keep in mind that it takes practice; stick with it, even when it seems like the students are not understanding it, and keep pushing them to look deeper. Students are full of great insight, and we should give them a chance to show it.

Engaging in argument from evidence might also sound like a traditional debate team situation in which evidence is presented to win an argument. This isn’t quite the case in science classrooms. We aren’t trying to win; we are trying to learn. When the students can connect what we have done in more than one investigation to another related phenomenon or something from their everyday lives, then we have a successful argument using relevant evidence. We are trying to look at evidence and make sense of it, and share that understanding with others.

Let’s return to our earlier question about deer in Cook County. We can easily look at a graph and answer how many more deer were found in 2017 versus 1967. But now we want to know why: What could be happening? How do you know? These types of questions will drive the lesson in a more meaningful direction. Often we don’t know the initial reason why, but as the students begin to express ideas and have small-group discussions, they create new questions for us to investigate. This is also a prime time, however, to get off track if the groundwork hasn’t been laid.

One way to stay on track is to start the year by making a list of discussion norms. Many students bring their ELA discussion cues ideas into the science classroom, which is a huge win for any teacher. They tend to generate norms like listening to one another and not telling one another that their ideas are wrong. We also make sure to reference the actual phenomena we are investigating because it steers the discussion in the right direction.

This is the perfect moment to employ talk moves. When we want the students to go a little deeper, we could ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Who else can add to what was just said?” “Can someone else say this differently?” “Where does our evidence support this idea?” Many great resources for talk moves are available and can help generate a deep discussion.

Through my work with NGSS and Next Gen storylines, I was introduced to the Talk Science Primer from the TERC Inquiry Project. Its suggestions are so useful for getting students to delve deeper when arguing with evidence. For example, when a student makes an initial observation, the teacher could ask them to say more about it, or ask if someone else can say it differently. This keeps the students accountable. Are they really listening to one another behind those blank looks? Sometimes they give you the 100% right answer, but you don’t want to discourage others from responding, so you have to put on your best “that was very interesting” face and keep going. That strategy also works for the most bizarre answers as well: “Oh wow, which is one thing I hadn’t thought of; anyone else?”

As we progress in our understanding and implementation of NGSS and storylines, it is important to remember that no one best way exists to handle every situation. Every teacher is different; every student is different. Some will get there faster; some will get there slower; some might not even get there until next year.

Constant communication is important. Talk to the other teachers at your grade level, talk to the other teachers on your team, in your department, at a conference. Have any relatives who are teachers? Talk to them, too; I know I do.

Don’t feel like you are in this alone, even if you are the only grades 6–12 science teacher in your tiny rural school, or the only science teacher in your building who has ever had three-dimensional science training. Maybe you are the teacher who just heard of NGSS or the Framework for the first time; that’s okay! Remember to keep moving forward, keep asking your students questions, and keep making your students examine the data to use as evidence when developing arguments to try to discover the “Why?”

Rebecca Schumacher is a sixth-grade science teacher at Hickory Creel Middle School in Frankfort, Illinois, where she is fortunate to work with a great team of teachers. She wants to acknowledge Erin Nemeth, the other sixth-grade science teacher, because their collaborative efforts have made this all so much easier. Schumacher received her master’s degree in science education from Montana State University and is National Board–Certified. She has been working with NGSS since 2014, from writing storylines to facilitating training for other teachers throughout Illinois.

Note: This article is featured in the September issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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