Developing Models in the Classroom: Discussion-Leading Strategies to Support the Scientific Practice of Modeling


These pages describe a framework of discussion-leading strategies to help students as they learn the Scientific Practice of Modeling. In addition to general strategies for fostering student participation in discussions, this site presents many specific strategies to foster modeling practices and conceptual understanding of content.

Photograph of teacher at the blackboard with two models of the circulatory system in colored chalk. He is using a ruler to point rather energetically to the connection between lungs and heart in one of them.


The pedagogical approach used in the numerous classroom examples included here is a type of guided inquiry, an approach that lies in between pure inquiry and pure lecture. The site is primarily oriented toward teacher educators for use as a resource for a graduate level education course. It should also be of interest to curriculum developers, education theorists, teachers, and others interested in scientific modeling in the classroom.



In the US, users of the NGSS (Lead States) may note that in each of the classroom examples, students are engaged in modeling (Science and Engineering Practice) while reasoning about systems (Crosscutting Concept) in lessons with science content goals (Disciplinary Core Ideas). Thus the examples, gathered over years of classroom observations in middle and high schools, include important aspects of the NGSS 3-D approach. The learning is rich and layered, and so are the teaching strategies that support it.

Mostly hollow lungs with a hole at the top and one at the bottom for air to move in and outLungs filled with squiggles representing alveoli; arrangement of alveoli is not clearA capillary is shown surrounding 4 alveoli.  The alveoli look like grapes with small tubes leading to the capillary. Circles in the capillary represent blood cells. Tiny pairs of circles represent O2 and are inside the alveoli, the capillary, and inside the blood cells.This is like the previous picture except there are no tubes from the alveoli to the capillary. Instead, the alveoli are nestled against the capillary, which wraps snuggly around them.
                       Evolving progression of models generated by students during discussion: alveoli and capillaries in a lung


Some Questions Addressed in These Pages

  • How can a novice teacher get a discussion started, and how can it be maintained?
  • How can novice teachers be helped to build up discussion-leading skills gradually? How can teachers help students build discussion-participation skills?
  • What should teachers do when students' alternative or partial conceptions surface in discussion? How can teachers respond without dismissing student thinking, while maintaining progress toward content goals?
  • How do teachers teach students to think in science class and still reach content goals?
  • (For USA users of NGSS) How do teachers foster the Modeling Practice in a way that helps students master Disciplinary Core Ideas along with Crosscutting Concepts such as reasoning about systems?


An Overview of the Framework of Strategies


Traced image of a student. In the first, he has his arms held up high, fists clinched, as if grabbing onto something. In the second, he has pulled his fists downward to chin level. The impression is of a forceful pull.At a fundamental level, students and teachers are thinking in words and images. They communicate these to the rest of the class by multiple means, including speaking, gesturing, and white-boarding. When this occurs in the context of whole class and small group discussion, the teacher needs to think both about the immediate needs of the discussion and the higher-level goals for the lesson. So the teacher is thinking about at least two levels of strategies: participation strategies and strategies to keep students moving toward the content goals of the lesson. In other words, there are layers of activity in most classrooms, with constant interactions between individual reasoning processes and broader classroom activity. 

                                                      Student gestures


Descriptions of these and other layers or levels of classroom activity are derived from observations of modeling activity in guided inquiry lessons in 6th-12th grade science classrooms. We see the levels reflected both in student reasoning processes and in the strategies that teachers use to foster them during discussion.


Visualization and Participation are on the bottom and point upward to Creative Reasoning Processes. Those point upward to Modeling Phases. Those point upward to Classroom Modes, which are on the top. A call-out box says, "Each level supports the level above it."


4-level framework of strategies




Our goal is to help teachers have successful modeling discussions. The 4-level framework offers a way to organize discussion strategies into smaller groups or "chunks" that can be learned one level at a time.



Teacher is looking at her class, has her elbows high and out to the side. Her fingertips are touching and her forearms create a shallow V. Her hands and fingers represent a closed valve. The teacher has bent her hands upward from the wrist, as though the valve has opened. Her hands now form an upside down V with a gap of a few inches between her fingertips.

Teacher gestures


Enter the Site

The site has sections designed to address the needs of multiple audiences.

  • Core of This Teaching Approach is recommended as a starting point for teachers and teacher educators. It uses a classroom example to provide introductory guidance on how to foster modeling practices and conceptual understanding in whole class discussions at the middle and high school level.

  • An Educator’s Tour uses a different classroom example to provide an overview of the structure of the 4-level framework of strategies presented in the Strategy Catalog.

  • For those teaching education courses, Course Syllabus Ideas contains suggestions for using this site as a resource for a graduate course. It includes video examples and activities developed from experience teaching aspects of this material in courses for pre- and in-service teachers.

  • An Introduction to the Full Theory provides a fuller rationale for the organization of the framework and a graphical map of the Strategy Catalog.

  • Although we recommend starting with the first two items above, if you want to jump right into the Strategy Catalog, the easiest to start with are probably the general Level I Participation Strategies for helping students participate actively in discussions. Developing a culture of group participation over time is an important prerequisite for using the other strategies.

  • Articles include case studies of active classroom discussions in which teachers were using the strategies to scaffold students as they learned about systems in the context of physics, physical science, and biology.