IV Classroom Modes: Setting the Stage for Modeling in Guided Inquiry

The goals of this classroom activity are to provide the students with some phenomenon or problem that they can eventually explain via a model and to have them start the modeling process.

Often, another goal is to detect existing student ideas. There are a number of activities or combinations of activities that can accomplish these goals. The first classroom example below sets the stage by using two Level III Modeling Phases: identifying a puzzling Pattern to be Explained by a model and having students Generate an Initial Model.

Example 1

Students were asked to predict whether two identical bulbs in series with a battery would look the same. Many students said that when electricity went from the battery to the first bulb some electricity would be used up, so they predicted that the first bulb would be brighter than the second bulb. The teacher then asked them to try this as an experiment, and the students saw that both bulbs were the same brightness. In the next class, the teacher asked the students to create a model for how bulbs become lit by drawing the circuit and showing how charges move within the wires. This was followed by a discussion of the various models.

A diagram of a circuit has a battery with two bulbs connected in series.


Setting the stage may be accomplished by a single activity or a sequence of activities, and such a sequence can vary widely. The above example starts off on the first day by setting up a puzzling Pattern to be Explained (bulbs of equal brightness in the circuit), and on the second day, students are asked to Generate Initial Models (explain why that happened). On the other hand, a chemistry unit for high schoolers on ocean acidification might begin with a video, progress to a discussion, and then involve a laboratory activity in the form of an Exploratory Observation, all of which would set up the pattern to be explained. The question for the curriculum developer or teacher might then be at what point to have students construct their initial model.

Although these two phases of activity will be discussed separately under III Modeling Phases, we preview them here to make the difference between them clear.

Setting up a puzzling Pattern to be Explained by a model
The phenomenon that is to be the focus of the modeling activities can be introduced by Exploratory Observations (discussed more at Level II in this catalog), a classroom demonstration, a video, or a discussion, among other activities. In classroom implementations, we have observed a single surprising empirical observation initiate extensive classroom discussion and lead into modeling, especially when the focus is kept on the student ideas about the observations (rather than the teacher’s ideas).

Generating Initial Models by co-constructing them
In guided inquiry, a process of co-construction may be used in which both the students and the teacher supply ideas for the model. However, there is a question about how to construct an initial model that can then be built on, and we find it helpful when a curriculum can give some indication about how to do this. The teacher will use techniques to elicit ideas from the students, but needs to know how to incorporate these into a useful initial model without prematurely evaluating those ideas. Additional techniques and examples are provided on the Level II page Support Generation.

Detecting students’ existing ideas
Teachers report that detecting existing student ideas during the discussions in the Setting the Stage portion of the unit alerts them to potentially problematic ideas that might have to be dealt with at some point later in the unit. In addition, it has been shown that getting student ideas out into the open by whiteboarding, listing them on the board with sticky notes, whole class discussion, or some other means, also helps students to understand their own thinking and to be more ready to integrate new information. Whatever the method chosen, the focus is on getting enough ideas openly expressed to form a base for the targeted model construction and evaluation that will come later.

Example 2

In a middle school class studying the human body, the students had learned about how oxygen is transferred from the lungs to the blood and how it moves from capillaries into the cells of the body. However, they did not have a conception of the overall structure of the circulatory system. To set the stage for this new modeling activity, Teacher N used a focusing question adapted from the Energy in the Human Body curriculum, asking the students, “How does oxygen get to your big toe?” He then asked them to draw their ideas in small groups.

Their drawings gave him a clear idea of what the students understood so far and also provided some partial models that, though incorrect, provided a starting point for the cycles of model improvement to come.

A student drawing has a diagram of lungs connected to a heart by a pipe. A red and blue loop extending down from the heart represents a circulatory loop connecting the heart to the big toe.


Supporting and Contributing Strategies

As discussed on this page, there are multiple smaller teaching strategies that can support the large goals described here. Setting the Stage will normally include one or both of the following Modeling Phases (Level III in our Framework), separately or in a combined activity:

III. Identify the Pattern to be Explained and
III. Generate an Initial Model

Several Creative Reasoning strategies that are apt to be helpful are grouped together under:

II. Support Identifying a Pattern
II. Support Generating a Model

There are many Visualization strategies that may be helpful. You can start with:

I. Imagery Talk
I. Depictive Gestures
I. Scientific Drawings



A discussion of this classroom mode in the context of a classroom example is in Core of this Approach.

Some of the background for this mode and how it fits into the larger framework is in the Level IV section of the Educator's Tour.

For more discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of this part of the framework, see the Introduction to the Full Theory page.


Articles, Papers and Websites

More in-depth discussion is found in the following paper by the team:

Large scale scientific modeling practices (Nunez-Oviedo & Clement, 2019)

For another site with ideas on how to elicit student ideas:

Ambitious Science Teaching, a website from Mark Windschitl’s group at the University of Washington.