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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Fulcrum Institute Development Team

Scientific Discussions in the Classroom and Online

Productive scientific discussion is a goal of the Fulcrum program. Program discussions support the development of participants' scientific understanding, provide structure for discourse face-to-face or online, and model productive classroom discussions.

Discussion is part of science. Scientists share the data they collect, discuss and debate their analyses and conclusions. In sharing their work, they contribute to the knowledge in their field. When students discuss their ideas, perspectives, findings, and interpretations, they experience the practice of science. Through talk, students can clarify their thinking, expand their ideas, weigh evidence, debate alternative explanations. Discussion can occur in pairs, small groups, or the full class. Effective full-group discussions rarely take place; they are omitted because time is short but also because they are hard to orchestrate. However, if being exposed to the ideas and perspectives of others and learning to debate alternative ideas and interpretations using evidence are critical science activities, then learning strategies to support full-group discussions is an important goal for science teaching.

Fulcrum Institute discussions are designed first to further your understanding of the science concepts you investigate and support scientific sense making. The expectations and discussion skills you use for productive discussions in your online study groups are the basis for productive discussions in your classrooms. Whether learners are adults or students, the expectations and skills for discussions need to be made explicit, modeled, practiced, and reflected upon.

Fulcrum Institute Discussions

Institute discussions are organized around a core question that is (1) based on a big idea or concept that is the focus of the investigation, (2) "open", that is, invites multiple perspectives, interpretations, or responses, (3) equitable, crafted so that every participant can respond. Discussions take place with participants facing each other in a circle as equals around an actual or virtual table.

Participants are encouraged to

  • Listen
  • Support ideas with evidence
  • Explain reasoning
  • Take the conversation to another level by
    • adding to or building on another's idea
    • asking for clarification or evidence
    • disagreeing respectfully
    • debating an interpretation or point of view
    • challenging assumptions

Discussion leaders are encouraged to

  • Make expectations for discussion explicit
  • Provide time for participants to review their science journals/notebooks and/or jot down ideas
  • Ask the central question and hand the discussion to participants
  • Encourage the use of wait time
  • Stay out of the discussion except to
    • encourage participants to direct responses and questions to each other
    • encourage full participation (invite a full range of perspectives or interpretations)
    • encourage participants to linger on the question
    • redirect the discussion when it gets repetitive or off-track
  • Wrap up the discussion