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Investigating “like a scientist”

Focus key competencies: Participating and contributing, thinking (like a scientist)

Learning area context: Science


In this story year 7 and 8 students were moving into the final stages of a science/statistical investigation that had begun when, in small teams, they planted and began to care for potted tomato plants. (The scenario is hypothetical but the ideas are based on actual student responses to Assessment Resource Bank item LW0652 developed at the intersection of year 7-8 statistics and science to illustrate what tasks in this inter-disiplinary space could look like.) When the plants had grown everyone could see that some plants appeared to be healthier than others, but also that there was variation in the overall combinations of “healthy” features. The teacher challenged the groups to look at all the plants and then develop a set of measurement “rules” for determining which group had the healthiest plant. He suggested they should try to think of at least four different measuring or counting rules, and then rank the plants by acting on their set of rules (the constructor of claims role).

Groups came up with a range of ideas for measuring and counting: number of leaves; size of leaves; colour of leaves; number of leaf buds; number of flowers; number of tomatoes; size of tomatoes; colour of tomatoes; height of plants; length of inter-nodes; bushiness of plants and so on. There was a lot of discussion about the relationships between some of these measures, and what to do when a specific measure showed considerable variability, for example allowing for different leaf sizes on one plant.

Next day, each group got busy measuring and counting according to their set of rules and recording the results on a table they had designed for this purpose. They then presented the results of their investigation to the class, explaining and justifying their measurement priorities and protocols as they did so. Other groups listened for clear explanations of what would be measured or counted and exactly how this would be done so that the plant/plant comparisons were “fair”. (No-one wanted their plant to be unfairly disadvantaged so this exercise engendered some very lively debate.) They also listened for explanations about why certain features might be regarded as stronger indications of health, and thought carefully about how groups had accounted for combinations of features.

One team put the height of the plants at the top of their list, arguing that healthy plants are tall plants. Other groups questioned this assumption, pointing out that the tallest plants were rather spindly and pale. Someone then noticed that this group’s height measurements did not match their own group’s record. When this was investigated further the critiquers were found to have made a measurement error, beginning measuring from the 1cm mark instead of zero. This aspect of their critique was not upheld (the teacher arbitrated when disputes needed to be settled). Another group observed that the plant with the most tomatoes was actually somewhat shorter than most of the others. They argued that this would have to be the healthiest plant because it could not have made so much fruit otherwise.

The debate lasted for some time and in the end the class agreed that no single indicator was a sufficient basis for a claim. However, despite a few “equal” placings, they did come to agreement about which were the overall healthiest and least healthy plants. In the process they had debated many aspects of cause and effect in plant growth, and also come to a realisation that some qualitative indicators (green vs. yellow leaves) could not discriminate sufficiently well for the task at hand.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

The nature of science (NOS) strand is the integrating strand of NZC and investigating in science is one of four sub-strands. Researchers are clear, however, that students will not learn about relationships between NOS and investigations simply by doing traditional investigative activities (see for example the recent major NOS review by Lederman 2007). They need opportunities to reflect on this relationship. The sequence described in this story models how scientists produce and defend robust measurement protocols as an integral part of their investigative processes. Participating and contributing is integral to the group task, which aims to model for students two key roles played by scientists in the course of their work. (Researchers have recently suggested that these roles for scientists are to construct robust knowledge claims, for example by carefully planned investigations, and to critique the knowledge claims made by their peers. A dynamic relationship exists between these roles and students need to experience this relationship by modelling both roles during specific learning episodes, not just focusing on one or the other, Ford & Forman, 2006.) Students develop their critical thinking competencies by problem finding, with the aim of developing their own criteria for carrying out a specific measuring challenge.

Students must also relate to others as they listen carefully to the measuring plans of other groups. They must manage themselves to respond in appropriate ways as they both give and receive feedback in the manner of a “scientific” critique.

The investigation requires students to think critically about the life processes of living things (specifically fruiting plants), which is one of the achievement objectives in the Living World strand of NZC. Although the story is set at curriculum level 4, it could easily be adapted for other curriculum levels by varying the context and altering the complexity of the thinking required to establish a transparent measurement regime.

The example also models links between science and the learning area of mathematics and statistics. Science provides an interesting and challenging context for practising e-data gathering aspects of a statistical investigation. 

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Initiative was integral to the task because each group had to come up with ideas for different ways of measuring and then try them out to see how well they worked in practice. The element of competition (can we convincingly establish that ours is the healthiest plant?) provided a motivating element that encouraged all the students to take up the opportunity to participate.

Connections between this task and students’ wider learning experiences could be developed in several important ways:

  • The task models the link between NOS and investigations by connecting the two roles of scientists into a coherent learning experience.
  • This task should ideally be part of a sequence of similar investigative experiences that provide opportunities for students to transfer their new insights about how to overcome measurement challenges into other contexts and inquiries.
  • ŸWhat students learn here can connect to other similar experiences to lay a strong foundation for later citizenship roles by helping develop a “feel” for the complexities of statistical claims (which are often at the heart of contested issues).

Problem finding is one way of building challenge into learning expereinces. Finding the right questions to ask strengthens critical thinking and is an important life skill to build over time. Adding a “nature of the subject” reflective dimension provides intellectual challenge and stretch and enhances the likelihood that students will voluntarily use their critical thinking competencies when not deliberately required to do so. Researchers call this an ‘epistemic orientation’ to knowledge. This type of orientation is known to strengthen learning to learn abilities (see for example Alexander et al., 2011).

Discussion starters: Thinking and acting

This story illustrates one way to build students’ “scientific literacy” as they take part in simple practical invesitgations. Students are not scientists: what features of the way the learning is organised are designed to give them a “feel” for the complexities of how scientists actually work, without being too hard or too overwhelming? In how many ways is critical thinking fostered here? 

In this way of organising practical work, students cannot avoid playing an active part in the investigation. Participating and contributing in the moment is integral to the pedagogical design. But what sorts of future participation and contribution might begin with these simple steps in building students’ scientifc literacy? What sorts of things might need to happen (within and between classes and schools) to ensure this future potential continues to be developed? 

The story Road safety as a context for statistical inquiry explores an aspect of building “statistical literacy”. What other types of literacy (scientific literacy, statistical literacy, media literacy etc) are explored in the other stories? Are these discipline-specific literacies important outcomes to foster? Why or why not?


Alexander, P., Dinsmore, D., Fox, E., Grossnickle, E., Loughlin, S., Maggioni, L., et al. (2011). Higher order thinking and knowledge: Domain-general and domain-specific trends and future directions. In G. Schraw & D. Robinson (Eds.), Assessment of Higher Order Thinking Skills(pp. 47–88). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Ford, M., & Forman, E. (2006). Redefining disciplinary learning in classroom contexts. In J. Green & A. Luke (Eds.), Rethinking learning: What counts as learning and what learning counts(30 ed., pp. 1–32). Washington: American Educational Research Association.

Lederman, N. (2007). Nature of Science: past, present, and future. In S. Abell & N. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014