There has been a great deal of talk about what modeling looks like in elementary classrooms. Indeed, a good number of primary teachers, upon hearing the term modeling, harken back to more simplistic or traditional versions of the water cycle or food chains. Some continue to think of modeling as the bridge between science and art. I recently attended a school event where teachers proudly shared an extensive array of what they considered student models for grades K–5. To my surprise, I found tables with partially eaten Oreo cookies depicting the phases of the Moon, gumdrop-chenille stick representations of DNA, and an Earth layered cake. Upon asking the students to explain their learning represented in the models, most excitedly shared how fun it was to make the models. The notable learning shared was about the construction of the different foods, not the essential science behind any of it! With time for science in the classroom so limited, was this an effective use of time? How can modeling be supported in a more productive and meaningful way?
If we are going to allocate time for modeling, we should be sure that the modeling is purposeful and enhances student learning. According to the Framework, “Scientists use models to represent their current understanding of a system (or parts of a system) under study, to aid in the development of questions and explanations, and to communicate ideas to others” (NRC 2011, p. 57). Modeling helps students as they observe phenomena and share findings. Models help students wrestle with and communicate complex concepts. Models are fluid, with revisions encouraged as students interpret data and develop their knowledge of a scientific process. Models can be physical (i.e., a model toy car), mathematical (data, equations), or conceptual.
Students as young as a preschooler can be engaged in making observations and then representing their findings in drawings and diagrams. These early representations serve as pre-writing skills for young children. Allowing students to express their thinking on paper for others to see and comment upon is an essential step in communication and developing scientific thinking.
As students become more proficient in developing models, they will begin to realize that all models have inherent limitations. This enables students to see the model as a communication tool, not the end product. Models should be organic and student-created, not teacher-led constructions. These student-generated models allow for productive conversations, consensus building, as well as evaluation of effectiveness and limitations. Using models in the classroom is so much more than the traditional diagram or flowchart.
So, let’s bring the practice of Developing and Using Models into our classrooms as a communication tool for developing and revealing student thinking. As always, we’d love to hear how you have made modeling more mindful in your classroom.
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