Thinking like an expert, part 2: Ambitious Science Teaching and the power of story

A while back, I wrote about a powerful perspective shift I had while taking a class on teaching physics by inquiry.  Recently, I have adopted the teaching practices of Ambitious Science Teaching, which center units around reasoning and sense-making with complex anchoring events.

I have been familiar with the AST framework for several years, but this is the first time I have dived in head-first into planning all of my curricula around anchoring events.  It was hard at first to imagine using specific models and moments to teach the systems of the body, especially because traditional inquiry models tend to fall apart in this discipline.  I wanted to have an equivalent of the Physics by Inquiry way of developing schema about a topic that helps kids leave with a bigger picture than just the body’s parts in isolation.  I have found that using puzzling phenomena as anchoring events for each unit has been a great way of providing a structure that helps kids identify what is important and how to fit pieces together in a meaningful way.  If you read this blog post and want to learn more, I highly recommend exploring the free resources on the AST website and purchasing the new book, Ambitious Science Teaching by Mark Windschitl, Jessica Thompson, and Melissa Braaten to learn more!

-How is this different from project-based learning (PBL)?  For a long time, I was directed by administrators at my school to the Buck Institute of Education‘s vast resources on PBL to apply to my own curriculum creation.  While I have found that framework useful in some contexts, AST is specifically designed to get kids thinking and working as scientists and engineers over the course of their unit.  The reasoning work needed for students to understand anchoring events is very similar to the essential questions of PBL, with the added benefit that the science content and practice connections are made explicit through the dynamic, multifaceted nature of the phenomenon.  In my experience, PBL focuses on essential questions that are morally complex, which is perhaps the equivalent of the complexity of anchoring events that require many layers of scientific understanding and reasoning – some pieces directly observable and some not – to fully explain the event in a “gapless” way.

-Doesn’t it reduce the amount of content they learn?  When AST is used effectively, I would argue that is highly increases the amount of content students actually learn, while remaining similar in the scope of content standards (or Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) in the NGSS) that students are reaching.  Why?  Creating a framework by which students understand and weave together content standards increases their overall understanding and builds a schema they can continue to build on throughout the year and their lives.  When students are taught content in isolation, memorizing parts of the brain or the names of animal families, they are not creating meaningful organization that will serve them as they apply their learning in new situations.  The AST model is designed for backwards-planning using standards goals to ensure students are learning the required content in a framework that challenges them to think beyond the beginning and end of those three weeks of middle school.

-Is teaching this way equitable?  When considering equity in the science classroom, one must first consider the ways that engaging with content in a traditional way is often not equitable.  Memorizing large amounts of information, often through readings that center the work and logic of academics that are typically white and male automatically creates barriers to students whose cultural capital and

One of the things I love most about the AST model of teaching is the ways equity moves and tools are woven throughout the framework to emphasize every student’s learning process and making learning visible in concrete ways.  Many of these are highlighted in the STEM Teaching Tools put out by the UW School of Math & Science Education, who also created the AST model.

-Why does it work?  Essentially, I think this model works well because it encourages kids to do the important work of sifting through massive amounts of information to identify what is important and build a schema around that idea.  All research is based on this work – thinking like an expert to sift through the technical details into the heart of the phenomenon.  And so far, it seems to be working brilliantly.  I have never had such high levels of engagement from students across the spectrum of scientific interest and perceived ability – including students whose learning disabilities or other challenges might have prevented them from even getting started in a more conventional setting.

-What phenomena have you used so far?  This year, I have taught using specific stories that connect to content standards in anatomy and physiology as follows:

  • Why does a brain injury heal slowly while a bone fracture heals quickly?  We followed the story of Sarah, a traumatic brain injury victim whose brain took years of healing to return towards some semblance of normal.  This was a unit focused on neuroscience, brain structure, and learning.
  • Why do human divers get the bends but whales and dolphins don’t?*  This unit covered the way that oxygen enters the body by looking at the phenomenon of decompression sickness, a.k.a. “the bends.”  Students learned about the effects of pressure on the size and solubility of a gas, and saw the specific ways the body is designed to bring in gasses at normal levels at sea level that can become dangerous in higher-pressure situations. *Please note that there is evidence that whales and dolphins do sometimes contract the bends, though they have evolved to have an easier time diving to extreme depths without major harm – check out this awesome video that explains the basics of the phenomenon!
  • How can scientists learn about the lives of prehistoric people using only their skeletons? This used the research of Alison Macintosh and other researchers exploring the strength of prehistoric female people using only bone remains.  This was the first study to compare ancient female skeletons to living cis females, also providing a lens through which to discuss the sexism present in many different aspects of scientific research.

Here’s a link to Part I of this series on thinking like an expert – getting students to high levels of understanding and application in the middle school science classroom.

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