Personal observations and experiences within a variety of school environments have reinforced my understanding of how a teacher can create an inclusive science classroom. Having a strong understanding of the material itself, linking the curriculum to current events, creating a supportive environment, capturing students’ interest and maintaining it through hands-on experiences, facilitating engaging reflection, and utilizing a variety of assessments; a teacher’s role is critical for the students’ success.
Initially, teachers should familiarize themselves with what an inclusive science classroom looks and feels like, and where possible, visit classrooms where the inquiry process is utilized. While observing a teacher completing a unit, I noticed that she prepared and planned thoroughly, and made independent advance discoveries. She identified a clear learning goal, and reinforced it throughout the lessons. Having this goal and knowing the topic well allowed her to guide the students’ learning, enforce key concepts, and support their knowledge as they progressed in their inquiry.
An engaging classroom is one where curriculum content is linked to current events. When the Olympics were underway and students were studying structures, the formative assessment activity was to design, build, and test a bobsled track using classroom materials to meet student-defined success criteria. Later, the focus shifted to the materials used, which led to discussions on recycling and conservation and, in turn, related to an upcoming school recycling initiative. Teaching lessons that are relevant and timely heightens students’ interest in the topics and increases their enthusiasm.
Maintaining an environment that is exciting and challenging is vital for an inclusive classroom. Students must feel that they are safe and supported. Mistakes should not be viewed as any sort of failure, but rather as a point of learning in the investigative process. During one class, students built boats using a variety of materials which the teacher discussed with them while asking thought provoking questions, but primarily allowed them to discover their own answers. No criticism or evaluative statements were made throughout the building process. Had the teacher been intrusive, the students may have refrained from creating their own versions of a boat. One of the greatest successes of the class was the number of times that they modified their designs, and were they not comfortable exploring and testing options, this would not have happened.
Establishing a classroom where all students are involved, using hooks to capture interest, and providing hands-on experiences allows everyone to become part of the lesson. Successful hooks range from exploration stations, pertinent books, relevant videos, and completing group activities relating to the particular unit. Once students are hooked, having hands-on experiences and active involvement becomes exciting, and they subsequently make their own discoveries. It is vital to use materials that are safe, age appropriate, and easy to find so that the students are not frustrated, and are challenged without being overwhelmed. Materials can be provided to the table groups in pre-arranged bins, both to avoid chaos, and also to promote student responsibility through maintaining and storing these bins themselves.
All students can benefit from a hands-on approach within a structured lesson, and this was demonstrated while working with a student with autism and another who was a non-English speaking newcomer to Canada. Having understood the goal of the lessons, they were able to thrive with hands-on experiments to a much greater degree than simply completing written or oral work. The non-English speaking student worked independently after being shown the goal, and observed other students completing their activities. Both students worked at their own pace, and continually refined their work. At the end of the boat building lesson, the student with autism was able to articulate why he thought his boat did not float and identify the necessary changes, specifically to remove the clay which weighed down his boat. The non-English speaking student did not articulate what should be changed, but demonstrated her understanding by adding a plate under the boat for balance, and removing several cups that caused it to capsize. Creating an inclusive science classroom provides opportunities for all students to succeed, and having a hands-on, structured approach facilitates this goal.
A critical component of a unit is taking the time to review work. This can be achieved by having students complete charts, worksheets, or design reports. Individual conferences and classroom discussions allow for further review of their findings. Gallery walks are useful, as when students are presenting their findings and explaining their thought processes, teachers can make additional notes to capture ideas that may not have been evident. Even if an explanation is not correct, understanding their rationale is beneficial. Students should be given the opportunity to modify their work based on class discussions to solidify their learning. Having the opportunity to individually consider their work, discuss results with the group, and continually improve, promotes a positive and open classroom environment.
Using a range of assessment techniques allows students to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. Teachers should not rely on a limited number of assessment methods based on their own comfort level. Supporting assessment techniques with individual conferences, group discussions, and gallery walks allows for a better understanding of students’ thinking. Additionally, having students complete success criteria checklists gives them the opportunity to recheck their work, confirming that they achieved their intended goals. Incorporating varied assessment techniques allows students to shine in a variety of ways, and gives teachers a comprehensive understanding of their learning.
By applying a hands-on approach within a structured environment, teachers can capture the students’ attention. Students have a strong innate desire to learn, and it is critical to teach lessons that are accessible to everyone. Having a solid understanding of the subject, linking it to current events, maintaining a supportive environment, providing hooks, hands-on and engaging activities and experiences, providing reflection time, and using varied assessments ensures that teachers create an inclusive science classroom, which in turn allows for the greatest possibility of success for every student.
Katy Paton is a 2014 Galbraith Science Education Award recipient