Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

After attending a lecture by Dr. John Medina last month I decided to buy and read his book “Brain Rules” where he talks about some of the things we know about the human brain and ways that it might inform what happens in the classroom. It is a great read. One of the points he makes is how those in the communication industry often use what we know about the brain to be more effective. What strikes me about this is, what is education if not communication! Why aren’t educators using more of what we know about effective communication and how the brain works in our day to day lives?

I then listened to the latest episode of “Lab Out Loud” which is a podcast by two science teachers sponsored by the NSTA. In this episode they interviewed Randy Olson the author of “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”. One of the things Randy talks about is how scientists are often bad communicators. There have also been discussions on the “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” about why pseudo-science is popular and why scientists have trouble getting their message across.

What seems to come out from all these sources is that scientists and science educators seem to think that because they have data that people will just believe them. Unfortunately this is not the case. What we are learning is that facts alone won’t change a person’s mind about a topic, and the way that scientists and science educators often position themselves as the authority on a topic can turn people off even more.

So what can we do? First off science educators have to think of themselves as the front line in the battle for people’s hearts and minds. Science educators have a narrow opportunity with a captive audience to engage them in thinking about why science offers a view of the world that they should value and trust. To do this science educators need to change their own behaviors and attitudes. I have heard many science educators complain that they aren’t entertainers and should have to be. This is the wrong attitude. While educators don’t need to entertainers per se they do need to be engaging and expert communicators (and what else is good entertainment?) Randy Olson points out in his Lab Out Loud interview about attending an acting class and how that changed some of his communication ability. It is time for scientists and science educators to seek out some of the things that entertainers, advertisers, and communication majors know, connect that with what we know about the brain, and about effective instruction so that we engage our students in science and not shut them down about science.

To that end here are my next 10 simple things that you can do increase the engagement and therefore the achievement of students. All these strategies are based on good communication skills and what we know about how the brain works.


I was watching some videos of teachers the other day with a few other educators and one of them pointed out how some of the teachers seemed to plan the strategies they used very carefully and later on could explain why they picked that particular strategy while others, while maybe good teachers, couldn't explain why they did what they did. This gets to the idea of intentionality.

Teachers must be intentional about the strategies they use…
Many teachers do a great job without knowing why what they do is great and why it works well, but most teachers need to be intentional about the strategies they use.
Teachers should constantly be asking these questions.

• For this content, what is the best strategy?
• Why do I think it will work well (why does the strategy match the content and intended outcomes and what is the evidence (research base) to back that up)?
• How will I know it is working?
• What will I do if it is not working with every student?

You can’t be an evidence based teacher if you don’t know and use the research base about teaching strategies to drive your classroom.

Constantly evaluating what you are doing.

Being intentional means constantly evaluating how what you are doing is working. Are the students getting it? Is everyone with you? Is everyone engaged? Does everyone feel safe (positive feedback to every student is very important to creating a safe learning environment)? If not, how are you going to change what you are doing to get everyone back on track? (in live entertainment this is often known as reading your audience)


We know that feedback is one of the keys to learning. If we don’t get feedback how can we correct our mistakes? But people also need positive feedback. What are they doing right? Students will shut down if they think they can’t do something, so make sure you are giving plenty of positive feedback.


Have you ever been exercising or out for a walk and have an “aha” moment. A time when your brain clears and you think of an answer to a problem? Well our brains were designed for movement. According to Dr. John Medina, the ideal operating envelope for the brain is “To make decisions about survival, while moving, in an unstable environment”.

Create opportunities for students to move, according to Dr. Ken Wesson just standing up increases the glucose to the brain by 5%, walking 15% If you want to engage the brain, people need to move. So have kids stand up to change papers, stand up to get supplies, have standing discussions…

• Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity standing up
• Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables while standing
• In Jewish “Yeshivas,” the Bible is memorized standing and sometimes walking
• In Muslim “Madrassas” students memorize the entire Koran while rocking and reciting (from Dr. Ken Wesson)

Dr. Wesson also suggests replacing student chairs with fitness balls. Again the idea is to keep students moving.

Emotional Content

Our brains don’t pay attention to boring things, but they do pay attention to emotionally competent stimuli...
Every ten minutes or so the brain needs a hook that triggers an emotion (fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity…) The hook must be relevant to the class to be meaningful. (Dr. John Medina, Brain Rules) This could be a anecdote, A quick historical story... This is the creative side of being a good communicator and a good teacher.

Two minute paper

The two minute paper is a formative assessment tool and a way to engage students’ brains by taking advantage of a person’s own self interest and by having them make their learning relevant or attaching emotion to it. It was first described by Davis, Wood, & Wilson (1983), then popularized by Cross and Angelo (1988).
The method is simple. Have students write for one to two minutes based on a prompt.
Potential prompts (from Skip Downing “On Course”)

• Without looking at your notes, what was most memorable or stands out in your mind about today’s class?
• What was the most surprising and/or unexpected idea expressed in today’s discussion?
• Looking back at your notes, what would you say was the most stimulating idea discussed in today’s class?
• For you, what interesting questions remain unanswered about today’s topic?
• In your opinion, what was the most useful idea discussed in today’s class?
• During today’s class, what idea(s) struck you as things you could or should put into practice?
• What example or illustration cited in today’s class could you relate to the most?

• Would you agree or disagree with this statement: . . .? Why?
• What was the most persuasive or convincing argument (or counterargument) that you heard expressed in today’s discussion?
• Was there a position taken in today’s class that you strongly disagreed with, or found to be disturbing and unsettling?
• What idea expressed in today’s class strongly affected or influenced your personal opinions, viewpoints, or values?
• Analysis:
• What did you perceive to be the major purpose or objective of today’s class?
• What do you think was the most important point or central concept communicated during today’s presentation?
• Conceptual Connections:
• What relationship did you see between today’s topic and other topics previously covered in this course?
• What was discussed in class today that seemed to connect with what you are learning or have learned in other course(s)?

Make sure you give feedback (esp. positive feedback) to the students on their papers.


Get students to think about their own thinking. Here are some prompts for that. These could also be used for two minute papers.
What do you think?
Why do you think that?
What is your evidence?
How can you use it?

Other meta-cognition prompts from Dr. Ken Wesson

Before an activity:
• What do you know/think about this concept, idea or phenomenon?
• What would you like to know?
• How would you/we go about finding out?

During an activity (Metacognitive monitoring) :
• What is this (object or event) similar to? What does it remind you of? (Prior knowledge: Building bridges from what is known to what is new by deploying the appropriate metaphors).
• Are there other approaches to solving this problem/answering this question?
• Is there another way and/or a better way to answer this question?
• What is/was predictable here?
• If we changed one variable, what might be an alternative outcome?
• What other questions are beginning to surface? How can we answer them?

Following an activity (new understandings that support acquired knowledge):
• What did we investigate?
• What were we looking for?
• What did we do/see? How did we quantify or measure it?
• What did we learn? What conclusion(s) can we draw?
• Is there evidence to to support our conclusion(s)? (Scientific reasoning)
• What else do I already know that might support this new conclusion? (Synthesizing)
• What was most memorable/surprising about this investigation?
• What questions came up during our investigations? Were we able to answer them? What resources can we use to find answers?
• What do I/we still need to know in order for this concept to be clear?
• What other investigations could we conduct to discover more about this scientific phenomenon?
• What is the benefit of knowing what we have just learned?
• Create a short list of “what if” questions about the subject of your investigation.
• Can you proffer an answer to any of your “what if” questions?


Here is a new twist on a technique educators have been using for decades by Dr Ken Wesson. To the traditional KWL, add “How will you use it?” and “How would you prefer to learn it?”

What do you know?
What do you want to know?
What have you learned?
How will you use it?
How would prefer to learn it?

Processing time – Auto Ponder

During the class, or as students are leaving the classroom give them a problem without an answer, a riddle or question that is relevant to the topic at hand. Then let them put their brains on auto-ponder. You have probably experienced this effect when you wake up in the middle of night with the solution to a problem, or you remember someone’s name hours after you meet them (usually when you are moving...going for a walk or a run). Don’t make it an assignment, but do talk about it the next day with the class. This is an excellent way to start a class with a discussion, that is meaningful and may have an emotional content to it. Teachers need to take advantage of how the brain naturally works.

Stimulate the senses (Dr. Wesson and Dr. Medina)

Dr. Medina points out that “The learning link. Those in multisensory environments always do better than those in unisensory environments. They have more recall with better resolution that lasts longer, evident even 20 years later.” How might educators use this? We need to make sure that our classrooms are multisensory environments where students just hear about ideas, but they are exposed to pictures and movies, sounds, smells, and textures. Remember the more senses that are engaged the more robust the learning.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The brain, communication, and education

I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture about the brain, neuroscience, and education. It again struck me how brain unfriendly the classroom and much of our current education system is. The scientist giving the talk, Dr. John Medina, author of the book “Brain Rules” pointed out that one thing we do know about the brain is its operating envelope, it is “designed to solve problems related to survival in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion”. Could anything be further from many of our classrooms today!

So what can education learn from brain research. Unfortunately this is not a simple question. But there are several great researchers tackling this issue such as Marcia Tate and Eric Jensen. I think we can also add John Medina to that list. Unfortunately we don’t know nearly enough to really put many of the theories of brain research in action in the classroom, this is simply because the kinds of studies need to guide teachers are hard, expensive, and take a long time to carry out. For example an article was recently published in Psychological Science where a panel concluded that there wasn’t evidence support the learning styles hypothesis (that learners are primarily auditory, visual, or kinesthetic). It has since then mushroomed to the point where educators are saying research shows that we shouldn’t worry about learning styles. Really? Let’s look back at what the Psychological Science panel said, that there wasn’t evidence to support the hypothesis, not that the hypothesis was wrong, the learning styles hypothesis may be right or maybe wrong, we just don’t know, because doing the study that would prove it is really hard and expensive. This is the case with much of what we think we know about the brain and learning.

So what should educators do?

Go with what we do know. For example, regardless of what type learner a student might be, if one explanation of something doesn’t resonate or make sense to that student for some reason, we have to use a different way of explaining it to that student. This is sometimes called adaptive instruction and is a big piece of RtI (response to intervention). Simply put school and classroom practice must shift based on the needs of students. For this to be effective educators must constantly gather evidence on how their students are progressing toward mastery of a concept or skill. But beyond this, educators also need to know the early signals that students may be having problems, so that they can make informed instructional decisions and modify their day to day lessons to adapt to the needs of the students. This is the role of formative assessment, which plays a key role in evidence based science education.

We also know that the brain seems to have a working memory, but information in this memory is lost if not repeated in 2 hours. If the information is repeated within two hours it is recruited for long term storage. Think of the implications of this to the school schedule and for homework, how can schools use this notion of a 2 hour window to its advantage? Also it can take years for concepts (especially complex one) to be cemented into long term storage in such a way that it can be recalled and used accurately. Yet in education we often go over complex processes only once and expect students to master it.

We also know that the brain won’t pay attention to boring things for very long, and is particularly interested in how information connects to a storyline. A stimulus (be it in or out of the classroom) has less then 600 seconds to attract and keep the brains attention. If it fails to do so in that time, the brain will wander off on its own. We also know that brains working memory can only hold and work on 5 – 7 ideas at a time. Any more than this and the brain purges information without committing it to long term memory.

What all this means for education is that we need to rethink our information dense and brain unfriendly classrooms. We need to get our students moving and talking and thinking. We need to connect information into coherent story lines. We need to make sure that important information is repeated and students understand the themes that connect one content area with another. Most of all we need to recognize that learning and remembering things is an active process that specific rules, and for teachers to be successful they must follow those rules.