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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education
ccarney@indiana.edu
812-856-8027

Last modified: Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Choosing words carefully: Two-week workshop focuses on the language of science teaching

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 12, 2007

SMIT'N workshop

Valarie Akerson (center), science education professor and director of the Scientific Modeling for Inquiring Teacher Network project, and teachers from the Monroe County Community School Corporation determine the composition of fat in a petri dish.

Print-Quality Photo

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A group of 15 teachers from the Monroe County Community School Corporation is concluding a two-week course that is part of a three-year professional development program for science teachers from kindergarten through sixth grade.

The Scientific Modeling for Inquiring Teacher Network, or SMIT'N, is a grant-funded project of the Indiana University School of Education in collaboration with the IU biology department and MCCSC. Aside from the summer program, the teachers have taken part in school-year workshops and received materials and classroom support in terms of providing instruction as well as feedback.

The workshops have focused on teachers' use of scientific inquiry teaching strategies to improve student learning. Project director Valarie Akerson said she is using scientific modeling methods that she hopes teachers can take back to their own classrooms. While the previous two summer sessions explored what inquiry is and how to teach it to students, this summer is focused on how the teachers use language in their instruction. This workshop will help teachers refine strategies to better meet their goals for student learning.

"The teachers are working on thinking about the ways they interact with students during scientific inquiries in their classrooms," Akerson said. "The kinds of questions they ask, the kinds of terms they use and how they use them can influence students' understandings of science."

A doctoral student assisting in the workshop said as the teachers concentrate on refining their instruction, he is helping to make sure they choose words that make the process of inquiry inclusive for the whole classroom.

"We're encouraging them to pay attention to the way they're wording questions," said Alan Oliveira. "Are you using personal pronouns in your questions? Are you using 'I' or are you using 'we?'"

Akerson said the goal is to develop a community of learning for the science classroom. Teachers are studying their teaching methods to ensure students feel they are taking part in the process. Oliveira said the goal is to achieve a more "symmetric relationship" between teacher and student.

"It's encouraging teachers to become more like partners with the students, or the 'guide on the side,' rather than being the 'sage on the stage,'" he said.

Among the tools the teachers are using to refine their skills is videotape of their own classroom presentations.

"We had them videotape themselves at the end of the last school year teaching an inquiry lesson," Akerson said. "We're having them look to see how their kids are learning and what their kids are doing and maybe think about if that's what they want, or do they want to try a different strategy that might influence their students to learn something differently."

A grant from the Indiana Department of Education has funded the three-year program. Many of the MCCSC teachers are completing their third year in SMIT'N.

Media Outlets: the following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at http://education.indiana.edu/audio.html.

Akerson describes how this workshop is focused on what teachers say and how they say it:

"The teachers are working on thinking about the ways they interact with students during scientific inquiries in their classrooms. So, the kinds of questions they ask, the kinds of terms they use -- "we" terms or "I" terms -- those kinds of ideas in supporting students learning, deciding and figuring out and helping us figure out which kinds of interactions support kids learning in which parts of scientific inquiry."

Akerson says after two years of working on teaching scientific inquiry, this year's workshop is adding a new twist:

"Something that's not been researched is interactions and use of language in the support of learning scientific inquiry. So this is different. It's kind of the new piece. The whole goal of the grant is to get teachers to teach through inquiry. Now this is the third year, so they are doing that. So we're trying to help them refine their skills."

Akerson describes how the teachers are using actual classroom experiences to learn better teaching practices:

"And we had them videotape themselves at the end of the last school year, teaching an inquiry lesson. So each morning when we talk about these language strategies and interaction strategies, then they go back in the afternoon and watch their video and watch to see how they're interacting. And we're not saying one way's right or one way's wrong, or better or worse, because we don't know that yet -- that's something that's being explored in the research. But we're having them look to see how their kids are learning and what their kids are doing and maybe think about is that's what they want, or do they want to try a different strategy that might influence their students to learn something differently."

Oliveira says the goal of working on the language of these science teachers is to make students feel more a part of the scientific inquiry:

"So, what we're trying to do is make that more equal, more on equal grounds there, make a more symmetric relationship. So, it's encouraging teachers to become more like partners with the students, or this 'guide on the side,' rather than being the 'sage on the stage.' So, it's really trying to make things more equal, more egalitarian, and making them aware of that. There are many implications to that."

Oliveira says the workshop emphasizes that exact use of language is important for science teachers:

"Encouraging them to pay attention to the way you're wording your questions. Are you using person pronouns in your questions? What are the social implications of that? Are you using 'I' or are you using 'we?' Are you creating one group or are you creating many groups in the classroom? Are you separating yourself from your students based on the language that you use? So that's what we're doing here, making them aware of that, making them sensitive of the social implications of the way they address the students."

For more information, contact Chuck Carney, 812-856-8027 and ccarney@indiana.edu.