WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor (Emeritus), Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto

Developing Expertise for
'Expressing Ideas'
(Skills Education)

Welcome! This page provides perspectives, general practices and links to resources for helping students to develop expertise (e.g., skills & attitudes) for expressing ideas. Students might, for example, develop expertise for asking questions, developing hypotheses and displaying their ideas through concept maps. If you have comments, questions, suggestions, resource ideas, etc. about anything here, please write to me about them. Thanks.

Rationale for Developing
Expertise for 'Expressing Ideas'

Based on constructivist learning principles, learners often begin instructional sessions (e.g., courses, lessons) with pre-conceived notions about ideas, skills, etc. teachers intend to teach. These ideas, attitudes, etc. may interact with those received from the teacher or elsewhere and, sometimes, interfere with those ideas, skills, etc. Learners are not often, however, aware of their own pre-instructional ideas, skills, etc. For such reasons, educators recommend that teachers begin lessons by asking students to 'express' their pre-instructional notions about topics the teacher intends to address. To 'express' ideas, etc. means to translate cognitive structures (e.g., ideas, beliefs, etc.) into symbolic form or physical action. People do this through, for example, facial expressions, limb movements and speech.
Once expressed, students' ideas, skills, etc. move to the forefront of their consciousness and they may then be available for challenge and possible change - if alternatives also are available to them. This is, based on constructivism, a first step in students' development of skills they could use for various purposes - including to generate knowledge indicating WISE problems that, in turn, might lead to WISE Activism.

Despite the benefits of expressing ideas, students often lack 'expertise' (e.g., attitudes, skills, knowledge) for doing so. They may not, for example, be aware that concept mapping - for instance - can help them to express and explore their ideas, attitudes, etc. Accordingly, it is important to provide students with lessons and practice activities intended to help them develop skills they might use for expressing their own ideas, skills, etc. 
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Based on the pedagogy outlined at Skills Pedagogy, some specific suggestions for helping students to develop skills that they could use for expressing ideas are provided through the links at right. Note that no resources are provided for the 'Students Apply Skills' phase, since they would do that in the 'Expressing Ideas' phase of my constructivism-informed pedagogical framework.
Expressing Skills.
Learning Skills
(including Modelling & Practice).

(Many resources are provided as downloadable 'pdf' files, which can be read and printed with software like Adobe Reader.)

Expressing Skills
Here, students would be asked to express how they would express ideas. Like all expression of skills you use for thinking and acting, this is a form of 'metacognition,' or thinking about your own thinking. I suggest that this metacognition has two aspects; that is, i) Ontological responses; i.e., about what entities students might express and ii) Epistemological responses; i.e., ways in which they might express their ideas. For expressing how to express ideas in science and technology, I provide some examples in the table at right. For example, students might express (e.g., say or write) that they use qualitative and quantitative descriptions.

Getting students to express how they would express ideas may involve a 'stimulus-response' process. Students could be asked to express their ideas about, for example, concrete phenomena (objects and/or events), images of concrete phenomena or words about concrete phenomena. To encourage WISE Activism, examples could be drawn from WISE Problems. For example, students could be shown plants in various states of health (some very healthy, others with holes, black marks, stunted growth, etc.)
and asked to indicate: what they know about them, what they want to know about them, what they find difficult about them and how they might solve problems they note about them. As they do this, they also would be asked to express: what kinds of things they chose to express (ontological responses) and how they did this (epistemological responses). Students might, for example, say, 'I wrote some qualitative descriptions.' Or, they might say, 'I made a model to show how I would solve this problem.'
Ontological Responses
Epistemological Responses
  • qualitative descriptions
  • quantitative descriptions
  • questions, causal questions
  • problems, causal problems
  • predictions of possible results of tests
  • possible explanations (hypotheses)
  • possible solutions
  • possible explanations for solutions
Graphic organizers
Note: All efforts to encourage students to express their ideas, skills, etc. should be mainly student-directed and open-ended, so that students are relatively free to express their own ideas - rather than those expected by the teacher.

Learning Skills (via Modelling & Practice)
For improving their abilities with Expressing Ideas, ideas and resources are provided below for Modelling and Practice activities relating to the categories at right. In all cases, it should be noted that 'skills' usually have a conceptual component, such as: 'Observing is theory-laden.' Such concepts fall within the domain of NoST which, in turn, can be related to STSE and WISE Problems (to promote WISE Activism). Note that Modelling activities should generally be mostly teacher-directed and open-ended, while Practice activities should be more student-directed and open-ended (refer to Learning Control).
Noting Problems.
Predicting & Hyothesizing.
Noting Problems, with Reasons.
Using Visual Representations.

Observing is theory-laden: To 'observe' commonly means to express what the senses tell the mind about phenomena. However, observing is not a passive transfer of sensory information to the brain. The brain is, rather, active in interpreting incoming sensory information. For example, in observing many shapes, people see rectangles and triangles because of memories of such shapes, rather than because such shapes are present. Similarly, people 'see' various faces in the inkblots here. This illlusion 'showing' Jesus is amazing! — while others are a bit more common. Observing is, therefore, a process of 'projecting' — in a sense — ideas onto phenomena, rather than mainly having information from phenomena projected onto our brains. Learners are not 'empty vessels' that can having knowledge 'poured in.' Observing is, in other words, 'theory-dependent'; that is, what people (including scientists, engineers and students) 'observe depends on what 'theories' (conceptions) they already have in their brains. This, in turn, depends on what experiences — including what education — a person has had. This has important ramifications in terms of NoST, STSE and education. The ability of scientists & engineers and students to make particular observations depends on which ideas they already have in their heads. Not everyone will have the same ideas and, therefore, will not — necessarily — make the same observations. This means that all observations have an element of uncertainty.  It also means that students with more resources — such as more funds and greater community support — are likely to make more sophisticated observations.
  • Using information such as that at left, teachers should conduct lessons aimed at pointing out the theory-laden nature of observing. This should occur after students have made observations about common phenomena and expressed their ideas about how they express ideas (which may involve observing). For example, teachers might start by asking students to make as many observations as possible about different illusions and, then, share their observations with classmates. It should be pointed out, then, that different people will — naturally — make different observations about the same phenomena. They could point out that this is acceptable and that what they observe depends on their background experiences and, to some extent, their level of wealth.
  • Students should, then, be given some guided practice — in which they make observations of other phenomena, including phenomena based on WISE Problems, sharing with peers similarities and differences in their observations. Teachers should be careful to honour all observations made by students.

Investigators/Learners can make qualitative & quantitative observations: Something that likely comes naturally to people at a young age is to describe the 'qualities' of phenomena. For example, we might say that someone is "big," "funny" and/or "old." Although such 'qualitative' observations can be valuable in S&T, scientists and technologists often prefer quantitative observations; that is, assessments using numbers. In many countries, S&T measurements are made using SI Metric System. Scientists and technologists tend to rely on measurements because they feel that they are much more reliable and valid than qualitative descriptions — since human observing is so theory-laden. People should not assume, however, that measurement is theory-independent. Every measuring instrument, such as a thermometer, is constructed based on some theory (e.g., the kinetic-molecular theory). Indeed, there are several assumptions inherent to measurement with instruments people should consider.
  • After students have made many observations of phenomena (e.g., in expressing how they express ideas), teachers should explain, with examples, differences between quantitative & qualitative observations.
  • They should tell students that quantitative observations perhaps rely less on human opinion and, therefore, may be more reliable. Use illusions, such as the café wall illlusion, to illustrate benefits of measurement. Give students some practice with this using activities such as: Need to Measure.
  • If necessary, explain to students the parts of a measurement; i.e., value and unit, using a few common examples; e.g., 10 cm, 150 g, etc. Use sources such as Metric System to teach metric measuring and converting. Provide practice with resources like: Metric System.
  • Make up some activities to illustrate various measuring conventions and practices in S&T; e.g., Measuring in S&T. Provide practice with activities like: S&T Measuring Ex.
  • To illustrate the theory-basis of instrumentation, teach students how thermometers work, using the Particle Theory (assisted by simulations like this).

Generally, methods of measurement must be invented: An STSE (and NoST) point that should be raised is that science (and technology) depends on development (invention) of measuring approaches and devices. In S&T history, in fact, much progress depending on such inventions.
  • Students can be taught about limitations on S&T by lack of measuring devices by engaging them in a discussion about how they might measure such phenomena as: damage to statues because of acid rain, amount of garbage placed in recycling bins.
  • Afterwards, they can gain practice with this through various invention challenge activities, such as: A & B.
Inquirers/Learners can ask 'causal' questions: Although it is not the only kind of question, it is common for inquirers to ask 'causal' (cause - result) questions. Again, although these can take different forms, it is common for them to fit into the following general framewrk:

'What are effects of ___ (changes in an a possible cause variable) __ on ___ (changes in a possible result variable)___?

A 'variable' is anything that can change, such as air temperature. A possible cause
(also called 'independent') variable may cause changes in a possible result (also called 'dependent') variable. A causal question could be: 'What are effects of steady temperature increases on the germination of different kinds of seedlings?'
  • Soon after students express how they would express ideas, they should be taught about cause - result variable relationships (if they don't already know). An excellent demonstration to use is based on the Cartesian Diver, shown at right. Directions: i) almost fill a plastic pop bottle with water, ii) draw about 1/3 of eye dropper with water, iii) drop eye dropper in bottle and seal the lid, iv) check that gentle pressure can sink the dropper (if not, adding more water to the eye dropper should help). Demo: i) Ask student to loan you a plastic pen, ii) rub the plastic on your clothing, iii) pretend to guide eye dropper down the bottle while secretely squeezing the bottle (while holding it up for the class to see), iv) Ask for possible causes.
  • Some other demos use falling objects: Drop various objects, asking for possible causes; e.g., paper helicopters, balloons of different volumes, paper airplanes, balls of different sizes & materials. Also, ask for possible results of causes you suggest; e.g., darkening of snow at roads' edges, increases in human cancer.
  • Depending on the students, vary the number of demonstrations and, then, provide practice in asking causal questions; e.g., i) Ask them to generate some (e.g., 5) C --> R questions from a list of observations; e.g., @ Common Observations, ii) Ask them to generate questions from this pair of cause - result variable lists: Mixing Cause & Result Variables, iii) Ask them to complete activities such as: Making Up Questions.
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Noting Problems
Inquirers/Learners can pose 'causal' problems: In addition to their use in questioning, cause - result relationships also can be used for posing problems — which, traditionally, is associated with technology, which is a field in which people aim to produce desirable results. A possible framework for problem-posing is:

'Cause variable(s) --- (may cause) ---> 'Bad' changes to result variables'

For example, we could pose these related problems:

'What causes leaves to develop ugly brown edges?'
'What can we do to prevent ugly brown edges from developing?'

It should be pointed out, however, that technologists' goals are not always stated as 'problems.' Often, they think of them as 'opportunities' or 'ideas,' for example. Nevertheless, the common denominator seems to be an aim to cause particular, desirable results to occur. A question remains, however, about whose desires are being represented by technologists' goals. Often, the main benefactors of technological design are those who finance technological design projects. Elaborations of such issues are provided at STSE Ed and WISE Problems.
  • At some point after students express how they would express ideas, they could be taught about how cause - result variable relationships can be used for problem-posing. A helpful approach to this is to ask them to list 'pet-peeves'; such as those here: Pet-peeves. Use students' pet-peeves to, then, get them to generate cause-result problems, such as: 'How can we make a less-fattening snack?' They also could try activities like: Noting Tech Problems.
  • Teach students that people can have (in a traditional sense) 'technological interests' (aiming to alter causes in ways that produce desirable results), as opposed to 'scientific interests' (aiming to determine natural cause - result relationships). This can be done by starting with a Socratic discussion about what 'scientists' or 'engineers' might do with each of: plants, sea water, light, etc. This can be followed with activities like: TechSci Goals Ex.
  • Teach students that goals for science & technology may not always be just about knowledge building or general social & environmental benefits but may, rather, be self-interested and, to a great extent, profit-driven — and, moreover, often with little regard for social & environmental problems. Lessons of this sort are elaborated via STSE Ed and WISE Problems.
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Predicting & Hypothesizing
Inquirers/Learners may make predictions, with hypotheses: As the Cartesian Diver demo can illustrate, inquirers/students often jump fairly quickly from: observing --> questioning --> predicting results of tests of possible explanations (hypotheses) they have in mind. Again, although there are variations, predictions often take this form:

'As .... (certain changes occur to a 'cause' variable) ...., .... (certain changes to a 'result' variable should occur) .... .'

For example, regarding tests of road salt on plant health, a prediction could be:

'As the concentration of road sal in water received by plants increases, leaves' biomass (mass of dry leaves) should decrease.'

A possible explanation ('hypothesis') for this prediction is that salt in soil water may cause roots to dry out, due to osmosis, thus increasing biomass. An illustration of the relationship between a prediction and hypothesis is provided in Fig. 1 @ Sci vs Tech. It should be pointed out, however, that inquirers/students may not have well-formed hypotheses prior to their actual tests and/or after results of their tests.
  • Probably in association with (or at the same time as) students are taught about ways to asked questions (e.g., C--> R Qs), they should be taught about predicting & hypothesizing. Generally, demonstrations with simple materials often work well; e.g., inflating a balloon and asking students what they predict will happen if I let is go, with a reason. Similarly, showing students an oil-water mixture, the teacher could ask: 'How might oil affect birds' floating on water? Why?' Templates such as this could be used to assist students in developing causal questions, predictions & hypotheses.
  • Encouraging small groups of students to work on predicting/hypothesizing exercises, like those @ A & B can work well.
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Generating Solutions, with Reasons
Inquirers/Learners may invent solutions, with reasons: Like predicting & hypothesizing, it often is natural for inquirers/students to suggest solutions to problems. They also may have reasons for their solutions although, just as or more so than with hypothesizing, these reasons (like hypotheses) may not be well-formed prior to invention and testing activities. There are many and varied ways for people to invent solutions to problems. A crucial aspect of this, however, is that invention is a highly idiosyncratic, situational activity involving cycles between abstractions (e.g., thoughts) about a situation and contextual enactments (often manifested as physical objects). These also are forms of expression. For example, a person may draw a kite (e.g., below) and make a physical model (e.g., on a small scale) of one before building it. However, in the process of building it, ideas about how it might best work could change which, in turn, leads to changes in sketches and models. For these reasons, inventing is only introduced here. It is elaborated at: Tech Design. Often, the process revolves around finding optimum combinations of cause variables (CV) that might give rise to optimum combinations of 'desirable' result variables (RV) — a process that can be visualized like this:

CV1 ---------> 'desirable' RV1
CV2 ---------> 'desirable' RV2
CV3 ---------> 'desirable' RV3

The three sets of CV ---> RV represent three different cause - result relationships, such as a certain density of material (e.g.,
CV1) that could make a strong tent (e.g., 'desirable' RV1). This is not, however, a straightforward process — since changes in CVs can negatively affect RVs that they are not intended to affect. For example, increasing the density of tent material (CV1) may work well to make the tent strong ('desirable' RV1) but, at the same time, negatively affect another desired result variable, such as low tent weight (e.g., 'desirable' RV3). There are at least two major ramifications of this phenomenon: i) Invention often generates accidental negative side-effects (e.g., birth defects from thalidomide relief from morning sickness). Sometimes, however, those controlling inventions ignore such negative side-effects; for example, for profit motives — as occurred in the famous Ford Pinto case; and ii) Because of the likelihood of negative side-effects, inventors (and those who finance them) must take great care in mimimizing 'serious' (however that may be judged...) negative side-effects. Manufacturs also may engineer products to breakdown at a set point, in a process known as planned obsolescence.
  • During or soon after students have been introduced to developing causal problems, they should be given some insights into the nature of invention. There are, as with all of these 'skills,' several possible strategies. A teacher-led Socratic discussion about how to invent some familiar item of technology (e.g., a smog mask or a knapsack, etc.) should work well. The aim is to help students become familiar with working with cause - result relationships in invention that involve compromises, trade-offs and the possibility of negative side-effects. They also should realize that technological design is an iterative, idiosyncratic and situational activity — something that may appeal to their sense of independence and creativity.
  • Students should, as always, have opportunities to practise use of new ideas and approaches, such as the following technology design activities: Develop Problems/Solutions Ex & TechDesign_SAs

Using Visual Representations
Inquirers/Learners may express ideas using visual representations: Mediating inquirers'/developers' interactions between mental conceptions and concrete manifestations often are various forms of visual representation — including, for example, sketches, visual organizers, mathematical models, and concrete models. A person building a kite, for example, may imagine its shape, build a small model of it, sketch what was constructed; then, in examining the model and sketch, re-imagine its construction and develop revised models and sketches. Various forms of visual organizers can be quite helpful. Today, much of this inventing is further mediated by computer imaging software — such as rollercoaster simulation software.
  • While introducing students to some design processes, you can introduce them to various techniques for visualizing technology products.
  • In these lessons, it will be important to have them try simple design activities and, at the same time, some visualization technique(s). Various parachute design activities can be helpful: A, B. Setting these and other design activities in WISE Problem contexts (e.g., Parachutes: 2 Contexts) can promote WISE Activism. Paper helicopter activities, possibly with various templates: Copter, BirdieCopter, or various paper airplane activities: 1, 2, 3, 4, possibly using various templates: Plane. More complicated activities, like: Inventing Flight, may be used, but may best work when students have more conceptual understanding; e.g., of fluid dynamics.
© All rights reserved, J. L. Bencze, 2008.
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