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Elementary Science

Using Models to Help Students Understand Difficult Concepts

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Kathy Renfrew Kathy Renfrew 37248 Points

September's Science and Children is all about Maps and Models. I have been thinking about Emmy's Moon and Stars, a formative assessment and what the students response to this particular probe tells us about some of the models ( different representations ) we use to try to help them understand difficult concepts. This particular question is about where the stars, are located. The majority of the students assessed believe the stars they see at night are located in our solar system. I am wondering if their solar system instruction included learning about stars? Did it include models? What were those models? Now i am thinking about other concepts that are often taught or that I taught using a model e.g. the water cycle. For many years, I used the popular poster of the water cycle. I wonder how y students might respond today to the formative assessment called "Wet Jeans" In that probe, students are asked where does the water go after it evaporates. I am realizing that just using models isn't enough , we need to make sure that our students are understanding what we want them to understand from our use of models in instruction. What other models are people using in their instruction and what strategies are you using to make sure students are understanding the concepts? Kathy

Revital Curtis Revital Curtis 925 Points

Kathy, I agree with you that Models aren't enough to teach students difficult concept but I do believe that building things that children can see visually and be apart of can really help them understand better the concepts. There is a great article called Minds, Models and Maps by Kenneth Wesson which actually talks about this subject and gives easy to implement strategies for incorporating models and illustrations. As for other models, we just had to finish a project where we had to build an alien at home and in class build from toilet paper the solar system. I thought that this tactic was good to promote the knowledge of the planets. Also, there is an article that talks about "Take a Planet Walk" which is another way of explaining to children difficult concept when talking about the solar system. There is also an article about students taking part of NASA research on the topic of clouds and weather.This is maybe another way children can understand and engage in subjects that are difficult to explain( Hope this will help you get some ideas. Good luck

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92326 Points

Hi Kathy and Revital,
Thank you for that resource, Revital. I found another resource, Kathy, that I think is a nice overview of the different types of models used to teach science concepts and how to use them to increase student learning and understanding. It is a book chapter called 'Models and Simulations'.
Page 153 addresses potential student difficulties and misconceptions about some models.
Kathy, when you asked, 'What other models are people using in their instruction and what strategies are you using to make sure students are understanding the concepts?' I was excited for the potential discussion to follow. I hope others will chime in here. Here is a modeling technique I use a lot:
Models in the form of graphs, charts and tables to represent my data collections. These models help me (and my students) make sense of the numbers and make it easier to find patterns to analyze.

Kathy Renfrew Kathy Renfrew 37248 Points

Adah, You are correct. Asking students about limitations of models is a definite Depth of Knowledge 2 question, maybe a 3 depending on how the question is asked. There is real potential in a constructed response question. I wonder if there is an activity or questions we could do with our students to scaffold their learning before they face a model question on the assessment. Note: Depth of Knowledge Norman Webb Kathy

Jason Pittman Jason Pittman 3435 Points

This is a tough topic. I'm often very discouraged by this same misconception of models, and I prefer not to use an abstraction of a concept whenever possible. Especially with elementary students. However, we're limited, especially in certain topics to the use of models. My approach in this situation has been to use a variety of models, videos and visualizations, so that a misunderstanding created by one model can be eradicated by another. On a related note: I use "Starry Night Backyard" with an interactive whiteboard to give students a great model of their place in the solar system. I used this software for a college astronomy course, and met the vendor in New Orleans. Great model!

Kathy Renfrew Kathy Renfrew 37248 Points

Jason, I think you are onto something. We need to use more models, give more examples so our students so that out of it all students will be able to glean the correct understanding in spite of us and the limitations of many of our models. Kathy

Jacqueline Nuha-Tabernero Jacqueline Nuha 2320 Points

Models are perfect for the visual learners. They are able to grasp the difficult concepts when it is presented in a way that allows them to visualize the product in a 3-D manner. However, I agree that models alone do not "paint the whole picture" so to speak. The classroom is filled with different types of learners, and providing background knowledge is a necessity that should be presented in a variety of methods. I feel that models and manipulatives assist ELL students and gives them a picture that matches a difficult concept.

Michael Leslie Michael Leslie 2110 Points

I also agree that models can be a double-edged sword sometimes. For examples I was demonstrating why there is day and night and season on earth with a globe and a flashlight. I turned the lights of and kept the flashlight in one place and rotated the globe. All of my students got it right away and it was a success. Later on in the school year, I tried explaining how hereditary, works with signs I had the students hold and show who would get what trait, well to put it nicely I think my students understood it more before we did it and that's when they when we just started. But as long as we learn what works and what doesn't our students will benefit from our experiments with models.

Kathy Renfrew Kathy Renfrew 37248 Points

Models are very necessary to help students understand concepts that are well beyond our ability to talk with them or read with them and have them understand. Models of the solar system help us make learning about abstract concepts more possible. Sometimes even using models is not enough. Sometimes we try to teach an abstract concept before students are cognitively ready to understand, then we need to wait until they are developmentally ready. Kathy

Joachim Huber Joachim Huber 2080 Points

I also think students need to draw and label models. I have found it helpful to have them actually make something when possible eg. we make the water cycle in a jar. We also go outside whenever possible to observe and journal about what we see that is part of the water cycle. (condensation on windows, fog, clouds, rain, snow, puddles, snowbanks. These all get drawn in their notebook and labeled as to how they fit into the water cycle. When I apply all these strategies, after a pretest post test water cycle unit I find student learning to be very strong. I do find it helps to give a pretest/post test to show students their growth.

Kathy Renfrew Kathy Renfrew 37248 Points

Joachim, Sounds you are on the right track using a combination of science notebooks and models helping students understand the concepts. I am curious about the age of your students when you are working on concepts such as evaporation and condensation. Kathy

Joachim Huber Joachim Huber 2080 Points

Hi Kathy, I teach 5th grade in St. Paul Public, MN. I teach these and other 5th grade science concepts as part of my content reading during the day. My schedule looks like this. (just an outline) 9:30 Reading skills 10:00 Silent reading/small group reading/conferencing with students 11:10 Science or Social Studies (Content reading) 12:00 Math 1:20 Lunch/Recess 2:10 Prep 3:05 Math Review/ Writer's Workshop. I find I can get a lot more growth in reading when I teach content areas, Social Studies and Science. Hope this helps. (We have a requirement of reading minutes instruction per day which is why I use science and social studies as part of my reading instruction minutes. The kids love it and it really helps boost their reading comprehension, especially nonfiction.

Joachim Huber Joachim Huber 2080 Points

Kathy, Since it had snowed yesterday and was melting today, we went outside to do some observations of the water cycle. The kids did quantitative and qualitative observations in their notebooks of collection, condesation (clouds) and will notice evidence of evaporation tomorrow when we go out and some of the puddles we observed have evaportated. We did also talk about precipitation and the forms it can take. this was a short 10 minute silent walk around the block with a 5 minute in class follow up to debrief their observations.

Cristey Kagawa Cristey Kagawa 2980 Points

I'm not sure how much help this will be but my school has a subscription to Brainpop ( It is an online website that provides student/kid friendly videos about any and almost every topic out there. I use it all the time when I introduce a new topic to my 6th grade students. I did go on the website and there is one about the water cycle. My students are always entertained by the videos. There are also quizzes and other helpful note taking worksheets that can be printed out. Hope you get a chance to take a look at the website and use the free trial.

Joachim Huber Joachim Huber 2080 Points

I love the Brain pop videos. I especially love how they repeat vocabulary. Thanks.

Rose Dawson Rose Dawson 10 Points

I need help on my science homework. It says that I have to use models to help explain scientific concepts. I don't get it. Can you please help me. Thank you.

Elizabeth Docteroff Elizabeth Docteroff 4200 Points

I think it is important to bring in models to your science lesson but I also think you have to also bring other elements into a lesson to get students engaged and motivated to learn about the concept. Thanks for some of the ideas on how to get students engaged and learning to understand about different science concepts.

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