Five tips for using Pinterest to teach science
By Ryan S. Nixon, Shannon L. Navy, Sarah Barnett, Marissa Johnson, and Delaney Larson
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many professional development programs have been canceled or postponed. Many teachers are working from home, at least in part, limiting how frequently they can interact with colleagues and interrupting the ease of popping in on the teacher next door. Because these common resources are out of reach, we are turning to online resources more than ever.
One of these online resources is Pinterest. Pinterest is a social media website where individuals can bookmark content found elsewhere on the internet in one convenient place. When something is bookmarked it creates a pin. Clicking on a pin takes a user to the original content, such as a website, image, or video. Users can search for pins created by other users by typing in search terms and scrolling through the pins that are presented on the screen. While not an education-specific site, education-related boards are the second-most followed category of boards on Pinterest (Mittal et al. 2013).
Surveys show that many elementary teachers turn to Pinterest to find teaching ideas (Hunter and Hall 2018; Pittard 2017). However, teachers and scholars have expressed concerns about teachers’ use of Pinterest, including concerns about cute instructional ideas that lack conceptual content, pressure to have a “Pinterest-worthy” classroom, and wasted time from scrolling through endless content (Gallagher, Swalwell, and Bellows 2019; Hertel and Wessman-Enzinger 2017; Schroeder, Curcio, and Lundgren 2019). While it seems clear that teachers find Pinterest to be a valuable resource, teachers also need to be intentional as they use it.
Our team of teachers and researchers has spent several months closely analyzing 1,600 pins and their associated websites for teaching the topics of force/motion and adaptations. As we did this, we came to some important realizations about the benefits and weaknesses of Pinterest and some tips for how to better use this platform, especially related to elementary science instruction. In this article we offer suggestions on how to intentionally use Pinterest to support your science instruction, by taking advantage of its strengths while avoiding some of the concerns.
One of the key benefits of Pinterest for teachers is that it can provide instructional ideas that teachers can adapt for their classrooms. The website showcases a vast number of ideas easily available and searchable in one place. As teachers scroll through the pins, they can see what lots of other teachers are doing and can consider which of these would be useful for their classroom. Many pins show instructional activities that teachers are doing with their students or posters they are displaying in their classrooms. Pins also show examples that teachers may not have considered using, ones that go beyond the most common examples. For instance, we encountered examples of animal adaptations with which we were previously unfamiliar. This platform is effective at helping teachers see many ideas that could start them on the road to planning their instruction.
Another benefit of Pinterest is its ability to connect teachers with resources and authors that resonate with them. Many of the pins are linked to websites that include multiple ideas in addition to the one on the pin. Once on a website, teachers can see the authors’ style, context or quality of their work and find individuals or organizations whose approaches resonate with them. Thus, one pin can help teachers identify many resources in addition to the one it was linked to.
Our analysis of pins and websites showed us several weaknesses of Pinterest. While outright content inaccuracies were somewhat rare on the pins (16% of the pins had inaccuracies), they were more common on the websites the pins were linked to (41% of the websites had inaccuracies).
One weakness was that pins and websites, while often avoiding content inaccuracies, were very shallow in terms of the science concepts they included. Over three-fourths of the websites focused on students memorizing low-level facts or definitions. Pins and websites frequently did not identify any of the most important science concepts as identified in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for force/motion and adaptations. While the ideas found on Pinterest could certainly be used to teach important science concepts, teachers are left with the work of identifying which concepts are involved and making those connections for coherent student learning.
Another weakness in the websites and pins is how science instruction was portrayed. Investigations, where students work with data to answer a science question, were very rare: less than a third included any investigation. The investigations that were included were missing important pieces (e.g., a question guiding the investigation). In addition, websites were predominantly lists of ideas or activities (56.8%) instead of coherent lessons or units. While there are benefits to seeing a series of ideas, this leaves the work of connecting the activities into a meaningful lesson or unit up to the teacher. With these weaknesses, it seems clear to us that Pinterest can serve as a starting point for generating ideas for lessons, but teachers are left with a lot of work to do to make the ideas meaningful, conceptual, and coherent.
In light of these benefits and weaknesses, we present the following tips for teachers using Pinterest as a teaching resource.
Before searching for ideas on Pinterest, make sure you understand the science concepts yourself. The benefits and weaknesses indicate that while Pinterest has some great ideas for teaching, it should not be approached as good resource to help teachers learn science concepts. If you understand the concepts, you will be better able to identify pins and websites that represent important science concepts accurately.
Other resources are available to help elementary teachers strengthen their knowledge of science concepts. There are, for example, books and articles intended for this purpose. The Stop Faking It book series from NSTA and Science 101 column in Science and Children are both intended to help teachers strengthen their understanding of science concepts. In addition, Page Keeley’s formative assessment probes can be a useful way for teachers to assess their own knowledge by first taking the assessment. Each probe is accompanied by a brief description of the science concepts for the teacher. Furthermore, there are a number of websites designed for this purpose, such as Learner.org’s Essential Science for Teachers series.
Deciding what you want your students to learn before searching on Pinterest will help your search remain focused. Without a specific focus to your search, you are at risk of looking through thousands of pins without knowing whether or not you found what you were looking for. Not knowing what you want your students to learn also increases your susceptibility to pins showing ideas that look cute or fun but may not be focused on student learning goals.
The process of identifying what you want students to learn starts with thinking about the standards you are responsible for teaching. However, most standards are written as things students should do and are less explicit about what students need to know to be able to do those things. This will require that you spend some time unpacking the concepts that are embedded in your standards and breaking those into pieces that are useful for instruction.
Make your search more productive by identifying common misconceptions about the topic before searching on Pinterest. This will be helpful because you will be better able to recognize when pins and websites communicate these misconceptions. When you see these misconceptions, you can decide to move on to a more accurate pin or website or decide to make modifications to correct for the misconception. Additionally, when you know the common misconceptions, you can watch for ideas that will help you address those in your instruction.
One way to identify misconceptions is to think back on your interactions with students over the years to identify what students often think they know that is incorrect. Common misconceptions for many topics have also been identified in research. Lists of these misconceptions can be identified with a quick internet search for the topic and terms like misconceptions or alternative conceptions. One excellent resource comes from the AAAS (see Internet Resources). Clicking on a topic will take you to a list of key ideas in that topic. Clicking on a key idea will then take you to a page that includes the heading “misconceptions” with a list of related misconceptions. Another comes from resources created by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education. This website has lists of “barriers to learning” divided by topics. As a final example, a website from Carleton College includes common misconceptions in Earth science (which is not frequently represented in the other lists; see Internet Resources).
Once you click on a pin and find yourself on a website, quickly find some information about the author. This is often as easy as finding the link to the “About” page. This is where authors have a chance to give you a reason to trust their credibility. Ideally, for science ideas, authors should provide insights into their science expertise and education expertise. Maybe this means they have teaching experience and a degree in science, or at least have a passion for science. We found that when authors have provided claims of expertise, the quality of the website is better. While these claims may not prove their expertise, it at least allows you to be more confident in their ideas.
As you select ideas on Pinterest, be aware that you will need to connect the ideas you use to help your students develop a rich conceptual understanding. Pinterest is especially good at helping teachers have access to a plethora of ideas, but it is not particularly good at helping them see how these ideas connect into a coherent curriculum that is needed for students to learn. If the teacher does not do some work to help the students see how the activities are connected, the students may enjoy the activities but struggle to make sense of the important science ideas embedded in them.
Tools such as those provided by Ambitious Science Teaching and NGSS Storylines (see Internet Resources) may be helpful for teachers trying to make coherent lessons and units. These tools encourage teachers to consider the most important science ideas that students are to learn and then break these into lesson-size chunks.
These tips are things teachers can do before using Pinterest (#1–3), while using Pinterest (#4) and after using Pinterest (#5) that will help make the social media platform even more useful. This social media platform can be a productive resource for teachers—especially when used intentionally. ●
Ambitious Science Teaching Development Group: Planning for engagement with important science ideas https://ambitiousscienceteaching.org/planning-engagement-important-science-ideas-2/
American Association for the Advancement of Science: Assessments http://assessment.aaas.org/topics
Department for Education Teaching and learning resources: Barriers to learning for ‘forces.’ https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110809170921/
‘Easier to address’ earth science misconceptions: Teaching Introductory Geoscience Courses in the 21st Century https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/intro/misconception_list.html
Next Generation Science Storylines https://www.nextgenstorylines.org
Gallagher, J.L., K.M. Swalwell, and M.E. Bellows. 2019. “Pinning” with pause: Supporting teachers’ critical consumption on sites of curriculum sharing. Social Education 83 (4): 217–224.
Hertel, J.T., and N.M. Wessman-Enzinger. 2017. Examining Pinterest as a curriculum resource for negative integers: An initial investigation. Education Sciences 7 (45).
Hunter, L.J., and C.M. Hall. 2018. A survey of K–12 teachers’ utilization of social networks as a professional resource. Education and Information Technologies 23: 633–658.
Lipsitz, K., D. Cisterna, and D. Hanuscin. 2017. Methods & strategies: What’s the story? Using the 5E learning cycle to create coherent storylines. Science and Children 55 (4): 76–80.
Mittal, S., N. Gupta, P. Dewan, and P. Kumaraguru. 2013. The pin-bang theory: Discovering the Pinterest world. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1307.4952v1.pdf
Pittard, E.A. 2017. Gettin’ a little crafty: Teachers Pay Teachers©, Pinterest© and neo-liberalism in new materialist feminist research. Gender and Education 29 (1): 28–47.
Schroeder, S., R. Curcio, and L. Lundgren. 2019. Expanding the learning network: How teachers use Pinterest. Journal of Research on Technology in Education 51 (2): 166–186.
Ambitious Science Teaching Development Group: Planning for engagement with important science ideas
American Association for the Advancement of Science: Assessments
Department for Education Teaching and learning resources: Barriers to learning for ‘forces.’
‘Easier to address’ earth science misconceptions: Teaching Introductory Geoscience Courses in the 21st Century
Next Generation Science Storylines
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