Making Science Come Alive: Teaching for Engagement and Deep Learning

text over glassware: Explore - Before - Explain

A primary goal of modern education is to prepare students for a globally competitive society. Importantly we must ask questions such as, “who is doing the hard intellectual work in the classroom?” and "what does doing hard intellectual work look like?" The answers to these questions are inherent in what is necessary to ensure students are ready for the reality of their world where there is a dramatic acceleration of emerging industries and occupations that offer opportunities for anyone who has the skills to take advantage of them.

When we sequence instruction in an explore-before-explain fashion, students’ evidence-based claims—their constructed knowledge based on firsthand experiences with evidence—become the framework for their understanding. Explore-before-explain teaching emphasizes that at the nexus of the explore and explain types of instruction is where students construct deeper conceptual understanding and the ability to transfer their learning.     

I’ve learned from Jay McTighe’s and Grant Wiggin’s work with Understanding by Design (UbD)® that the importance of instructional sequence and explore-before-explain is only part of the lesson planning process. By focusing on results that matter most, and using them as the guidepost for lesson design, we can better ensure that students are success-ready in K-12 classrooms and beyond. The sheer volume of content-related ideas in science means that teachers have to prioritize — that is, to make the best use of instructional time, to leverage the highest learning possible.

The UbD® framework offers a three-stage curriculum unit design process based on the idea that teaching is a means to an end, and curriculum planning precedes instruction. The most successful teaching begins with clarity about desired learning outcomes (Stage 1) and the evidence that will show that the targeted learning has occurred (Stage 2). Daily lessons that describe the planned teaching and learning activities are then developed (Stage 3). A critical factor in a quality unit plan is alignment—all three stages are aligned, not only to standards but also to one another.

When I first read UbD® I noticed a natural fit with explore-before-explain teaching. For example, students’ evidence-based claims help teachers focus on measurable learning outcomes in their planning (Stages 1 and 2 of UbD). Students’ evidence-based claims are evidence of a vital 21st century skill, require the special combination of the three dimensions of A Framework for K-12 Science Education, and lend themselves to evaluation both in terms of accuracy and in the logic in the argument (e.g., data -> evidence -> claim). Moreover, students’ evidence-based claims represent authentic interdisciplinary learning and address technical writing skills that focus on students supporting logical reasoning with facts and details advocated by the CCSS-ELA and importance of understanding data and measurement highlighted by the CCSS-Math. The interdisciplinary features of explore-before-explain reside in the importance of students using data as evidence to articulate a scientific claim.  While there are abundant worthwhile learning goals and ways to assess student genuine learning, focusing on evidence-based claims is an easy entry point to UbD due to the considerable alignment between stages 1 and 2 as well as to 21st century standards. 

Big Idea 1: Explore-before explain engages students in active meaning process by “doing” science in the ways called for by the Next Generation Science Standards.

The explore-before-explain framework offers teachers specific lesson-sequence guidance (Stage 3) that honors the intent of UbD® and is precisely what is called for in contemporary science standards. By using explore-before-explain approaches, teachers have prescriptive guidance on the types of learning activities that should be in their lesson structure to promote long-lasting conceptual understanding. Specifically, these lesson features are to initiate instruction by uncovering students’ ideas. Uncovering student ideas and experiences grounds learning in phenomena. Secondly, instruction transitions from students’ incoming ideas and experiences to firsthand experiences doing science to learn science. Moving from students’ initial ideas to firsthand experiences ensures a high motivation because we create a “need-to-know” situation for students and establish a storyline for learners. Thirdly, we use explanations to sophisticate students’ understanding of underlying scientific principles and introduce essential academic vocabulary that is not easily assessable from firsthand experiences or necessary to discover independently. This sequence—uncovering student ideas -> exploration -> explanation — creates considerable consistency in our lesson design and promotes students’ conceptual coherence. Certainly teachers could use other research based practices in Stage 3 of UbD like classroom inquiry and problem/project-based learning, but many find that explore-before-explain eases their professional learning process because it seamlessly aligns with Stages 1 and 2 of UbD and organically addresses modern standards in many disciplines.    

Big Idea 2: Clarity about priority learning goals (Stage 1) and associated assessment evidence (Stage 2) guides teachers in developing students’ understandings through explore-before-explain teaching.


More to Explore

If you want to delve into the details, Jay McTighe and I have an comprehensive example for you in the form of a white paper titled “Using Understanding by Design® to Make the NGSS Come Alive.” In the white paper we show how UbD® and explore-before-explain teaching can complement each other with a specific illustrative example of the 3-stage UbD® design process in chemistry.