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science pedagogy

Five Direct Instruction Strategies to Spice Up Your Science Lessons

direct instruction strategy using interactive notebook and doc cam

Up until recently (I’m in my 30’s), I kept a few of my middle and high school notebooks that I really loved. Why did I feel the need to hold onto some and not others? I realized, I liked learning from those teachers. They weren’t boring. As I reminisced and looked at specific pages, I could remember what was going on in class that day or what the teacher said. 

Here’s the thing about my notebooks. Most of the time, my notes came from direct instruction. It makes perfect sense looking at it as a teacher now. Each notebook I kept was from a teacher who used direct instruction strategies that kept me engaged and continuing to learn. 

NGSS & The Resistance of Direct Instruction

The rise of NGSS has emphasized inquiry and student exploration in science classes. I’m not against it. Inquiry and investigative skills are critical. 

In this push for inquiry-based learning, it seems as though direct instruction is almost demonized. Teachers are discouraged from using direct instruction strategies and encouraged to let students draw their own conclusions. 

In my professional opinion, there is a need for both. 

Sometimes, kids just don’t get it. I’ve sat with so many groups of kids who are totally picking up the information and can make connections with inquiry. 

I’ve also sat with kids who look at me with blank stares, or pretend to get it when I can see on their face that they’re just trying to make me go away. 

Most of the time, I talk to kids who get about 90% of what they needed out of inquiry, and they just need a little more information to clear the rest up. 

Using solid, direct instruction teaching strategies is the best way to get all your students on the same page, and accommodate those who don’t have strong inquiry skills, yet.

The Reason Direct Instruction Is Important in Science Class

Don’t be boring. These direct instruction teaching strategies are pulled from my personal vault, and hopefully will keep you from reading directly off a Powerpoint and keep kids hands from aching while they panic-write. Yes… panic-writing is a thing. 

Remember, there is a purpose for including direct instruction in your classroom. Direct instruction is an accommodation! Just like you include group work, inquiry, discussion, and reading into your lessons, listening is just as important. 

Direct instruction in science class gives every kid a basic foundation of knowledge to work from. Every year, I have a student who legitimately tries to convince me the Earth is flat. After some pointed direct instruction they can construct a basic argument with correct information, even if they don’t believe it. 

Here are five direct instructions strategies you can use to increase engagement

1. Investigate first, not only

NGSS discourages direct instruction and pushes inquiry based learning, a little disproportionately in my opinion. By following up an investigation with a little bit of direct instruction, you’ll be sure every student is on the same page as far as what they should have gleaned from the investigation. 

When I do this, students engage with me and ask why their data is a certain way or they try to talk out and question what happened in their group. These conversations are learning experiences. 

We want kids to build their investigative skills. We also want them to walk away with the knowledge they were supposed to have after that investigation. Direct instruction helps. 1.

2. Make your prep less time intensive

We all know Google is forever, so kids have information at their fingertips. Don’t spend hours making the perfect Powerpoint for note taking. It’s likely that your students will get overwhelmed, ask you to go back, and have a hand cramp halfway through. 

If you do decide to use Powerpoints, I’d suggest guided or fill-in-the-blank notes to go along with it. Not only does this help accommodate students, but everyone can focus on what you’re saying instead of making sure they scribble down what’s on the slide. 

3. Incorporate drawing

I remember sitting in 6th grade science with neon gel pens, drawing fault lines that my science teacher was drawing on the board. When I was fed up making Powerpoints and watching my students fight for their life to copy every word, I remembered this simple strategy. Drawing.

I figured I had nothing to lose, opened up my notebook under a doc cam and started drawing, talking, and teaching my students. The engagement was incredible! 

I used this strategy when I taught tides to my 7th graders.

We drew pictures and wrote less words.

In 8th grade, many of those students went on a science trip to San Diego. The 8th grade chaperone came back and told me that he and the instructor were impressed at how well the kids understood and could explain how tides worked. All we did was draw! 

Edutopia has an amazing article I share with parents every year called The Science of Drawing and Memory. The gist is that if students are drawing, regardless of artistic ability, more areas of the brain are engaged and students remember more.  

4. Frontload quick topics

Another one of my direct instruction strategies is frontloading. While some topics are amazing to investigate straight away, others need a little bit of background information.

For example, when I begin my Earth, Moon, Sun Systems unit, I always frontload rotation and revolution with quick direct science instruction. It’s foundational to what students will learn in the coming weeks, but there’s no need to investigate. 

On the other hand, I spend more time frontloading vocabulary with my heredity unit. Heredity vocabulary is hard, so I teach them the words in context to each other before we really dive into heredity. It helps so much! 

Frontloading is a very simple direct instruction teaching strategy, but so effective in keeping kids from being confused when it’s used right

5. Know what you’re talking about! 

Of all the direct instruction strategies I’ve talked about so far, I think this is the most important for engaging students. 

Actually learn what you’re talking about! So often, it’s tempting to buy a powerpoint off of TPT and present it.

But by spending a little bit of time learning about your topic, you can have authentic conversations with kids. Those conversations and answers to their questions are what they remember and make learning more than scribbling down some information. 

This comes with time, and generally comes topic by topic as you teach more. If you don’t feel comfortable with one content area, that’s okay! I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about Newton’s laws as I am about eclipses, and that’s okay! 

BONUS: Keep students organized

I started this post by telling you that until recently, I still had notebooks from middle school. I’m sure the reason I kept these notebooks was because they were more than a collection of scribbles. 

They were meticulous. I was proud of them. They were neat. Each one was organized differently. 

Helping your students organize their notebook as you’re teaching is incredibly helpful to how they feel when they open it. You want them to be proud. 

Whether or not you have them cut and glue in note pages, draw, or a combination, find a way to keep them organized. 

Inquiry-based learning is great. But it needs to be paired with purposeful and solid direct instruction. By utilizing these five direct instruction strategies, say goodbye to students scribbling something just to get it down and hello to a reengaged class who doesn’t hate notes.

Best Teaching Practice, Middle School, Science Pedagogy