Teaching Scientific Explanation to Middle School Learners

On almost a daily basis, there are articles in the news that seek to provide a scientific explanation for how or why a given natural phenomenon occurred. The topic may be climate change, nuclear energy, genetically modified food or something else that impacts the everyday lives of middle school students.

Students need to be able to evaluate the evidence and reasoning presented in the article. In addition, they also need to grow in the ability to develop well-reasoned scientific explanations of their own.

Critical skills that all students should develop through their study of science are the ability to develop and critique a scientific explanation. Two of the practices identified as essential for all students in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are:

  • Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering).
  • Engaging in argument from evidence.

Katherine McNeill and Joseph Krajcik developed a framework for teaching students how to develop and critique scientific explanations. The framework indicates that a scientific explanation includes four parts:

  • A claim that answers the question being studied.
  • Evidence to support the claim.
  • Scientific reasoning that explains how the evidence supports the claim.
  • A rebuttal that considers and rules out alternative explanations.

Middle school teachers can begin the year by focusing on the first three components of the explanation. When students have developed enough experience with the concepts of claim, evidence, and reasoning, then teachers can introduce the rebuttal, which is the most complex component of the scientific explanation.

The ability to prepare a well-developed scientific explanation is an important skill that deserves focused attention across the middle grades. Research has shown that focusing on this skill across the middle school grades helps students develop a deeper and more complete understanding of the scientific phenomena students study in middle school. What teachers expect students to be able to produce in the way of a scientific explanation should become more sophisticated as students have more experience with developing and critiquing them.

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