A tale of two science classrooms: How different approaches to participation shape learning

Adapted with permission from Stroupe, D. (2023). Growing and Sustaining Student-Centered Science Classrooms (p. 1-5). Harvard Education Press.

Teaching has always been a crucial and underappreciated profession across the world. Almost everyone spends some time in a school, and in those spaces, teachers play an important role in designing and facilitating opportunities for participation and learning. Many people fondly remember a favorite teacher and classroom or, conversely, might hope to forget a school that made them feel rejected. While society might collectively forget, those of us who spend time in schools know that teachers and administrators have a great responsibility as we shape the lives of children. By representing and upholding equitable communities and participatory structures that ensure powerful learning opportunities for children, especially those from marginalized communities, teachers and administrators can help change the world…

[Let’s peek] into the classrooms of two teachers, who I will refer to as Teacher A and Teacher B. Both teachers graduated from the same teacher preparation program, and both taught life science in very diverse schools in the same district. However, Teacher A and Teacher B differed in how they chose to open up, or restrict, avenues for student talk and participation around knowledge in their science classrooms. Let’s look at an example from each class, both of which occurred at the beginning of the school year. As teachers and administrators, we know that the beginning of the school year is such an important time for building a foundation for a science community. For each example, imagine you are sitting in the room, as I was when I watched these lessons unfold, and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of middle and high school science classes.

In Teacher A’s classroom, students are learning about why identical twins look alike, and why differences might exist even with their similar DNA. Following the first lessons in which students share some initial ideas about why identical twins might look similar and begin to hear terms such as “dominant,” “recessive,” “trait,”, “allele,” Teacher A decides that students should complete Punnett squares to visualize how physical traits and alleles are related. If you need a quick refresher about Punnett squares, recall that a Punnett square provides a space for visualizing and writing potential allele combinations for one offspring given the parents’ alleles. A typical example usually includes a two-by-two table, with two alleles from one parent on the side of the table, and two alleles from another parent above the table.

In this example, Teacher A demonstrated how to complete and interpret a Punnett square and asked students, in groups of two or three, to attempt three example squares as practice. After showing students how to correctly complete the squares, Teacher A wrote a new square on the whiteboard for students to attempt individually. As the murmurs of talk receded into individual pondering of the problem, a quiet student — one I had never heard speak in class before this moment — raised his hand. Tentatively, he asked, “Excuse me, Ms. [A]? I have a question. When we do Punnett squares, we also do examples with four kids. What if there are five kids? Where does the fifth kid go?”

Let’s pause here, in this moment, to think about the layers of what the quiet student said. For some people, the focus might fall on science knowledge and the student’s “incorrect” idea about Punnett squares; after all, the cells in a Punnett square provide a space for people to record possible allele combinations for an individual, and do not represent multiple children. Others might be interested in the student deciding to share a question in the class. What prompted this student to speak at this time, when they had never previously spoken in class? Another layer is that the student might be speaking on behalf of other students in the class. After all, if one student thinks that Punnett Squares illustrate multiple children, how many other students have the same question?

While Teacher A could have been considering any of those possibilities, their thinking remained invisible as they said back to the student: “That’s not how this works. We need to keep moving to finish the practice problems.” While this talk move (a talk move is a statement made by a teacher or student to open up or restrict future classroom talk) may seem routine to some teacher and administrators, from the perspective of this student, Teacher A’s words caused silence. Whenever I visited the classroom for the remainder of the school year, this student never spoke in class again — not to the teacher, other students, or administrators who entered the space.

Let’s move from Teacher A’s classroom to Teacher B’s classroom, just a few miles away. In Teacher B’s classroom, students were learning about evolution by asking “How did we get chihuahuas from wolves?” which a student asked Teacher B in the hallway after school early in the academic year. Before the class began, Teacher B told me that they wanted to make students feel like their ideas had value, and that, like scientists, ideas about the world could be put into the public plane of talk and analyzed by a larger community. For this lesson, Teacher B created a poster using a large piece of construction paper and wrote a title: “Our hypotheses: From Wolf to Woof.” After students had five minutes to discuss ideas in pairs, Teacher B announced that the whole class would now think together, given their discussions. To catalyze the conversation, Teacher B asked students to share ideas about why chihuahuas exist, especially if they look so different from wolves. Importantly, Teacher B told the class to share ideas, if possible, that they considered during conversations with peers. After several students offered hypotheses (“Maybe the DNA changed because of a mutation,” “Maybe a wolf had pups that were all really different in size”), a series of student comments occurred in quick succession:

STUDENT 1: “Maybe mating with a rabbit would make a dog small.”

STUDENT 2: “Yeah, a rabbit would make a small baby, not a Great Dane.”

STUDENT 3: “What about the ankle biter? Maybe a wolf mated with a rabbit to make an ankle biter.” [The class started calling chihuahuas “ankle biters” as a joke.]

Again, let’s pause here to consider the layers of complexity that arise simultaneously when these students shared ideas. Some teachers and administrators might worry about the students’ wrong ideas — we know that wolves and rabbits cannot create babies together. Other people might wonder about the students’ purpose in sharing ideas: Were they seeking attention, or purposefully trying to disrupt the class? Still others might be focused on Teacher B’s actions, questioning whether such a conversation is a productive use of class time.

Teacher B, however, recognized this moment as a point of departure from instruction that might limit students’ opportunities to engage in knowledge practices in a classroom. Here’s how the next minute of class unfolded:

TEACHER B: “Wait, why did you just joke that a rabbit mating with a wolf would make an ankle-biter dog as opposed to a Great Dane?”

STUDENT 3: Maybe because . . . rabbits are small. And ankle biters are small.

STUDENT 2: Oh, you feel my word. [Student 2 originally injected “ankle biter” into the science community.]

TEACHER B: It’s become a class word now.

STUDENT 3: Right. Rabbits have big ears. And ankle biters have ears that bend and look like rabbit ears.

TEACHER B: So what are you really suggesting about where chihuahuas get their traits?


Once students chimed into the discussion, the classroom talk exploded. Almost every student in the class raised their hand to contribute to the conversation, and by the end of class, three important ideas emerged: (1) parents must be close together to make babies (but all parents or just some species?, several students wondered); (2) Babies get traits from parents; (3) not all babies are identical to parents (some students wondered about animals that can clone themselves). Teacher B recorded these three ideas on the poster and told the students that their homework was to observe animals in the neighborhood to see if they all looked alike.

While these examples show a snapshot of the science communities found in the classrooms of Teacher A and Teacher B, there are three important features of the communities to highlight as a foundation for this book and our work as science teachers. First, how Teacher A and Teacher B opened up or constrained opportunities for student talk set the tone for the remainder of the school year. Students pay attention to teachers’ words and actions, and they notice how teachers respond to their ideas. Second, Teacher A and Teacher B sent different messages to students about what counts as a good statement to say out loud. By denying or valuing students’ statements, teachers demonstrate to students what words and ideas matter, and what words and ideas should remain silent. Third, Teacher A and Teacher B treated the purpose of participation differently. Teacher A wanted students to say correct answers and complete predetermined practice problems, while Teacher B helped students to shape the direction of knowledge production in the classroom by asking for multiple hypotheses, generating and using language to describe a phenomenon, and by encouraging and supporting students to share ideas. Each of these features sends visible and invisible messages to students about what knowledge matters, how knowledge should be invoked and used in a classroom, and who is allowed to share ideas and claims to knowledge in a classroom.

David Stroupe is an associate professor of teacher education and science education, the associate director of STEM Teacher Education at the CREATE for STEM Institute, and the Director of Science and Society at State at Michigan State University. He has three overlapping areas of research interests anchored around ambitious and equitable teaching. First, he frames classrooms as science practice communities. Using lenses from Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), he examines how teachers and students disrupt epistemic injustice through the negotiation of power, knowledge, and epistemic agency. Second, he examines how beginning teachers learn from practice in and across their varied contexts. Third, he studies how teacher preparation programs can provide support and opportunities for beginning teachers to learn from practice. David has a background in biology and taught secondary life science for four years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *