Sunday, November 6, 2011


Overall the class goes something like this:

  1. Pose a problem/Show something/Do something
  2. Do some experiments and figure stuff out
  3. Name/Practice/Refine/Elaborate 
  4. Reflect
  5. Do something with what we've figured out
  6. Break model and go back to step 1 (ideally). Less ideally but more commonly: Start over with something tangentially related but its in the state standards and so I need to force a connection.
There are some mini-cycles (epicycles?) embedded when we get stumped or someone asks a really good question but that's basically how things go.

So what's the layering part? Science teachers like to have these process versus content arguments. I know this happens in other subjects too, but we really enjoy a good argument about the value of scientific thinking and skills versus content knowledge. My own thoughts on this argument are tangled but I will tell you that if you're planning on only teaching process or only teaching content, you're actually teaching neither. Now I'm going to appear to contradict myself and add that if you're teaching both at the same time, you're not going to be satisfied with your results for either one.

The layers:

(Layer 1) In step 2 of the list above, students are playing the whole game. They're working with multiple factors. They're trying to decide what's important and what's not and making on the spot choices. They're messing up and messing up again. We're developing both content and process at the same time.

(Layer 2) Step 3, we pull out the content and we address it separately. What do we call what we just figured out? Here's some vocab. You just figured out how to calculate speed. Let's practice that now.

(Layer 3) Step 4, we go back and reflect how we developed our content knowledge. How did we solve the problem? What tools or skills did we develop? If it's something we're going to use again, we name it so we can refer to it later.1

(Layer 4) Step 5, back to playing the whole game. We've hopefully developed our content knowledge and process skills to a point where we can use it for something a half a step higher. For example, constant velocity collisions instead of just determining speed.2 The level of difficulty is crucial here. I tend to go too hard and they're back to trying to figure out new content/tools rather than having an opportunity to put together what we've developed.

I have no idea if layering is the right term, but it's how I picture it in my head. Actually I picture it as a stacked bar chart like this:


Sometimes, I'm embarrassed by how nerdy my brain is. My nerdy brain also needs to reassure you that those percentages are just approximations.

In written form it appears cleaner than it really is. There's a lot of overlap. It would be more accurate to say each layer has a different emphasis rather than truly divorcing content from process but it helps me to think in those terms.

I don't have any research to back any of this up. What I do know is that I've had the most success when we can develop process and content at the same time, separate them out to work on them individually, and then put them back together.

1: This layer is a glaring weakness for me. I never put enough time into developing this step as I'd like and I haven't yet figured out any solid moves beyond standard reflection types of things. 

2: My credential is in physics so I feel I'm much better at developing these culminating activities for the physics portion. For chemistry it's never as satisfying. Mainly, "predict what's going to happen," or "why doesn't this behave like our model predicts," kinds of stuff. Note to self: Hang out with more chemistry teachers.

For the non-bloggers: I wanted to write a post about the big picture of what/when/how assessment occurs in my classroom. In doing so, I realized I needed context first so I wrote The Cycle. Now, 4 revisions later, I realize I need more context and so you get another post. It's like I mentioned in the last post about Mylene going down the rabbit hole. I would consider myself a reflective person, but blogging has forced me to take those reflections and make them concrete and semi-coherent. If you don't blog already, do so. Even if you never plan on anyone reading it. 


  1. I totally agree that if you think you are teaching both content and process at the same time you are not satisfied with your results for either. Maybe that's an artifact from all of our earlier science teaching experiences where the focus was exclusively on content "factoids" and if we tried hands-on stuff we were railed on for not covering enough content. I love the idea (trying it now) of teaching content through projects, but yeah, I'm never satisfied with the balance of content and process.

    Also, as someone who teaches a whole mess of different science preps, chemistry is just a different beast, as the experimentation involved is a lot harder to get out of the cookbook stage, or at least I haven't been as successful as I would like in that area. Maybe I need to start hanging out with chemistry teachers too...

  2. I like this notion, and I'm wondering if I can think about my math classes in a similar way - noting how content and process learning overlap.

    Not being a science teacher, my understanding of your classroom is shallow. I'd love a post on this same topic that delves into how this works over the course of one day or week or ... with lots of detail about you and your students.