the classroom → supporting techniques → modeling in science

The process of developing and revising models is an integral aspect of science and is an integral part of the Causal Patterns curricula. The term "models" is used to refer to representations of how we think something works or to the mental constructs in our heads. The representations can be drawings, physical models, computer models, etc. Modeling encourages students to actively process concepts, to unpack and reveal their thinking, and to consider how the available evidence fits or not with their ideas.

If you would like to explore models further, see "Modeling in Science" within the curriculum "The Nature of Scientific Thinking: Lessons Designed to Develop Understanding of the Nature of Science and Modeling." This was developed in response to teacher requests for ways to teach modeling and the importance of models in science and learning to their students.

Tips for Teaching Modeling in Science

  • Start with modeling. Give students an open-ended question that embeds the concept of focus and let them draw a model to grapple with it.
  • Make time for modeling before discussing concepts with the class. This gives students think time and the opportunity to share ideas that they have had a chance to consider. Don't be surprised when more students engage in the conversation—not just your fastest thinkers!
  • Have students draw models before they write an explanation. They can think as they draw and then write a cogent explanation instead of a meandering one.
  • Give each student an individual whiteboard to draw their models on. This makes it easy to revise their model as they hear compelling arguments for changing it.
  • Invite students to draw models at multiple steps in exploring a concept, for instance, before, during and after a demonstration.
  • Develop a language of modeling with your class. Students will adopt conventions that work to solve certain problems, for instance showing a zoomed-in view of something microscopic.
  • Ask students to find ways to show the causal patterns or interactions in their diagrams. Help them develop a class vocabulary for illustrating and discussing the causal patterns.
  • Invite students to draw models to show how two ideas are connected, for instance, how higher and lower pressure accounts for windows being pushed out during a hurricane and for liquid moving up a straw.
  • As often as possible, have all students share their models with the class. It removes the social burden of deciding to share. Arrange the desks in a circle and go around sharing, discussing, and critiquing.
  • Use models as a point of discussion. Ask students to comment on what they see as working well about a model and what they would modify or change based upon specific evidence.
  • Critique models as a regular part of class discussions. Some models have more explanatory power than others, but no model explains everything about a particular phenomenon. Each model fits in some ways and not in others.
  • Invite the co-construction of models as often as possible. Work towards models that "make sense" to the class.
  • Invite students to tell you whether they find a concept to be sensible (they can grasp it), plausible (they see it as a possible explanation) and/or believable (they believe it to be so.) This separates understanding from acceptance of a concept.
  • Encourage students to generate "rival models"—different ways of explaining the same event—as often as possible. This encourages flexible thinking and resists over-investing in one model. However, if they already have a firm idea in mind, they need to grapple with it.
  • Don't hold back on the "scientifically accepted" model, but don't present it as "the right answer" either. It is best when a student presents some version or part of it and you can work towards it together as a class. Critique it as you would any other model.
  • Encourage students to view their learning as trading up for better and better models, not as "getting the right answer." Science works this way and learning does, too!
  • View learning as an evolution of understanding through different models and assess students' progress on that path, not whether they parrot back "the right answer."