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What Does It Really Take to Get High School Students to Make Their Ideas Visible?

By Angie Berk, Jen MacColl and Kristen Moorhead

Posted on 2020-02-26

Asking high school students to reveal what they really think about what causes a natural or designed phenomenon is risky business. Risky in that it requires students to take the intellectual and social risk of sharing their thinking, which may or may not be correct. We thought all we needed to do was to ask them to share their thinking. But we discovered it takes intentionally listening to who really is or isn’t talking and teacher moves to shift the culture from some students sharing ideas some times to all students revealing their thinking. We’d like to share two stories about what it really takes.

Ms. Berk’s Physics Class: Using Whiteboards to Visualize Energy Transfers and Compare Ideas

Student discussion and equity in sharing ideas is especially important in freshman physics. Core concepts and graphing methods are abstract and difficult for many students. Discussing these concepts and giving students equal opportunity to share ideas is crucial to success in physics. Assigning roles during the activity and sharing their ideas on a whiteboard helps accomplish this.

Before the energy conservation lesson, we defined what energy is and what forms it can take. Instead of a teacher-led lesson, students learn through a hands-on activity with assigned roles, working in pairs, with specific tasks to accomplish. Student pairs transfer colored water among three graduated cylinders representing total energy, kinetic/moving energy (Ek), and gravitational potential energy (Eg). They are given a scenario: a dog sitting still on a bed. Student A “acts out” transferring energy/water from the total energy cylinder to the Eg cylinder. In the scenario, the dog jumps down from the bed to the floor. Student B then transfers all of the energy/water to the Ek cylinder. They must discuss the question with their partner: Did the total amount of energy/water ever change?

Next, student pairs act out their own scenario with the water, switching roles. The pair then needs to translate what happens with the cylinders to sketches on a whiteboard. Student A sketches the change in cylinder energy/water level.  Student B then shares their whiteboard results with another pair of students, who have a different scenario.

Together, the pairs must then analyze all of the scenarios, seeking a pattern about the total energy in a system. They write down their group’s “rule” about a system’s total energy.

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The class does a gallery walk of all of the groups’ boards to develop a class definition of the law. Finally, students convert their whiteboard sketches to bar graphs.

During this process, students develop the core idea of conservation of energy. The teacher is available to answer questions, while evaluating student progress. Additionally, each student has the opportunity to share their ideas through pictures, graphs, writing, and talking.

Mrs. MacColl’s Biology Class: Alone Zone Really Matters!

This year, my students seemed more timid, self-conscious, and fearful of sharing their ideas than students in years past. Even with this classroom climate, I was surprised by my students’ reluctant performance in a Gallery Walk and their collecting and sharing of ideas.

I asked students to work with their lab partners to create a poster illustrating the structure and function of randomly assigned cells. Then I asked the partners to participate in a Gallery Walk to understand and make sense of others’ ideas. During their timed rotations, they were asked to categorize the cells as either epithelial, muscle, nerve, or connective tissue. As partners visited each poster, I asked them to discuss and analyze their ideas with one another.

I noticed it was awkwardly silent as students gathered the required information from the posters. I tried to expand the structure of their discussion to encourage more talking. I thought if I could get them to share aloud, differences in their ideas might press them to think more deeply about their own ideas. I cued students at the end of each rotation to use a sentence starter such as “I think…because…”and provided one minute for partners to share in this manner. The sentence frame increased the talk, but frequently only one of the partners was talking:

Partner A: I think red blood cells are connective tissue because connective tissue helps transport things.

Partner B: Yeah. I didn’t have time to write it.

Not a productive discussion. Therefore, I required 30 seconds of Alone Zone (private think time) before partner sharing to increase the likelihood of equitable talk, even if partners disagreed. Then I told students they would have 30 seconds to decide what type of tissue the cell made, then cued them to each share their “I think…because….”  With the addition of the private think time, I noticed both partners shared equitably and often shared different ideas! This strategy made my students’ thinking visible:

Partner A:  I think red blood cells are connective tissue because they flow in the bloodstream.

Partner B: I think red blood cells are epithelial tissue because they cover the interior of hollow organs.

Now that I could hear each student’s idea about red blood cells, it was revealed that half the students thought red blood cells were epithelial tissue, while the other half thought they were connective tissue.  Because I found a way for students to reveal their ideas, I recognized that this provided an opportunity for students to engage in argument for and against each of those claims using evidence.

Another example of the power of highly-structured protocol occurred during our “Cell Tank” activity, in which I asked students to analyze how a cell would function when missing their assigned organelle. I asked each group to create a Google document in which they could individually add their own unique ideas. I thought for sure I would observe all of my students contributing equally, especially since we had just practiced the Partner A/B structured protocol. Not quite. That idea crashed and burned as I observed one or two out of the four partners typing away, while the other two or three took a backseat.

On to Plan B. I distributed a large piece of butcher paper to each group and instructed each group member to choose a different color and physically write down their ideas. This strategy proved successful. Perhaps it gave my students the Alone Zone time they needed to think and write down their ideas. Perhaps they felt more comfortable sharing their ideas in writing.  Nonetheless, it gave me and my students the opportunity to analyze one another’s ideas and allowed me to observe equal participation.

So What Does It Really Take?

So many strategies are available for making students’ ideas visible. One “aha” moment for us was realizing the importance of having group accountability in place so that all students would share ideas. The second, and perhaps most important, “aha” moment was that listening to what students aren’t saying and intentionally providing structure really does increase the amount and quality of student intellectual engagement. It is only when students’ real ideas are revealed that teachers can guide students from their current conceptions to constructing lasting explanations of how the world works.

What strategies for making students’ thinking visible have worked for you in your classroom?

Angie Berk

Angie Berk is a physics and biology teacher at Arcadia High School in Arizona’s Scottsdale Unified School District.

Jen MacColl

Jen MacColl is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches (with her sidekick Benjamin) biology, zoology, and botany at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Kristen Moorhead

Kristen Moorhead is a consultant for Professional Learning Innovations, LLC. She is currently coaching K–12 science teachers in Scottsdale Unified School District as they shift their instruction to reflect the vision of the National Research Council’s A Framework for K–12 Science Education.

Note: This article is featured in the February 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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