Theories and Laws in Science
Oct 25th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Definition for theory:

From: wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; “theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses”;

From: Merriam-Webster.com Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Theory in Science

a scientific theory comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with rules (called scientific laws) that express relationships between observations of such concepts. A scientific theory is constructed to conform to available empirical data about such observations, and is put forth as a principle or body of principles for explaining a class of phenomena

Some important theories in science:

  • kinetic molecular theory
  • evoluion theory
  • theory of relativity
  • plate techtonics theory

I often hear those who talk about proving a theory.  An inevitable contradiction because:

Prove is an absolute

I prefer:

  • make plausible
  • draw conclusions
  • make inferences
  • verify
  • determine validity
  • interpret
  • confirm
  • demonstrate
  • provide evidence
  • authenticate

Therefore, I really do not like reading about the word ‘prove,’ especially in student work.  How do we effectively inform students about theories, most importantly that they are NOT conjecture, but are unifying concepts supported by FACT?

Balancing instructional strategies
Oct 12th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

from: uic.edu

One of the challenges in teaching is to keep students engaged throughout a class period. In science during a lab period, this is fairly straight-forward, as hands-on inquiry experiences tend to take more extended time.  However, when there is an extended period for which there is no lab activity planned, it is important to keep students engaged by varying the activities so students maintain high levels of active engagement.

from: gallerynucleus.com

In my biology class today, we were working on solving pedigrees – a clear problem solving, lateral thinking inquiry activity. 

However, solving pedigrees for an hour and a half is probably too much.  To keep students engaged, I read the third paragraph from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, [full text] which specifically discusses an inbreeding situation – gets kids attention, you can make a pedigree, and connects literature to science:

 Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch ; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other – it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher” – an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.

We then continued with some additional problems, and later I showed a 4-minute video about Huntington’s Disease.  We paused and mapped the pedigree based on the speaker’s comments.  

I was attempting to access different learning style preferences to help students understand the concepts.  The period was over before the students and I realized.  We’ll see how well the skills have developed!

Reflective properties of open inquiry
Sep 30th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Though I spend my days working with high school students, I have a deep passion for open inquiry research and am lucky to have the opportunity to work with doctoral candidates in the Ed.D. Instructional Leadership Program at Western Connecticut State University.  This semester (and for the next 5,) I will be providing secondary advisement to two students and primary advisement to one. 


Yesterday, one of my secondary advisees had her proposal defense.  A proposal defense occurs when the student has identified and defined his or her study (problem finding).  First, the student provides the advisors with a ~20-page document for review a few weeks prior.  We provide feedback, the proposal is modified, and then a presentation is conducted to share the design with the committee.   Yesterday was that presentation.  As we listened and subsequently discussed, I couldn’t help but consider some of the important behaviors and actions the student had undertaken.  My colleague, Krista Ritchie, and I are working on a paper about promoting  problem finding and our recent email discussions synthesizing our research have lead us to generate a teacher and student list of strategies.  Here are the student strategies, which I clearly saw on display yesterday (and part of our working list for the paper):

  1. Identify and work with an authentic audience
  2. Excellent written and oral communication skills
  3. Know there is value
  4. Novel approach
  5. Focus on areas of personal interest.
  6. Be a critical consumer of information.
  7. Create a support system. 

We are going to elaborate on each of these as well as provide a “teacher list.”


After the defense, in the adjacent lounge, the professors then gathered for one-on-one meetings with primary advisees.  This was a great time for each professor (4 of us) to meet individually to discuss ideas, goals, and progress.  What was more striking to me, though, was the culture.  Student sitting with advisor, advisors and students sharing information both between the two and among the group.  Meeting dynamics that went from one-on-one, briefly to small group, back to one-on-one.  There was an underlying sensation of inquiry permeating the room.  Deep, specialized learning occurring without the traditional walls, desks, or blackboards.  Learning for learning’s sake, bidirectional knowledge flow, challenging ideas – wow!  This is what learning is supposed to be like.  As we constantly consider educational reform we really need to think of ways to make authentic inquiry the bedrock of learning.  This is where growth really occurs.

An interview which describes my early professional influences
Jul 25th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Earlier this year, I was asked to participate (as a subject) in a research study examining teacher’s expertise as it relates to pedagogy, subject expertise, and inquiry (research) skills.  During an interview, I was asked to recall a meaningful experience that influenced my teaching.  I have orally told this story many times, but the researcher was recording and transcribing.  I was fortunate to receive a copy of the transcript and am sharing it below:

Question:  Can you recall what experiences informed your understanding of science teaching?

My response:

Yes! I can very much pinpoint the event that really helped focus and change my perception of myself as a science teacher. And it took place in March 1998. I was working with a teacher and he said, Frank you would really like this event, is called the Junior Science and Humanities symposium.  It takes place at UConn and I really encourage you to go. I think you are going to get a lot out of it.  Take a couple of students if you would like, and by the way, can you take my son too.  He’s at the right age and I think it would be good for him to go. So I went to this symposium at the University of Connecticut.  What I found were students presenting results from their research. It took place in 15-minute platforms: they did 15 minute talks followed by questions and answers from the audience.  I was sitting in the audience utterly mesmerized by these students – how well they were presenting.  I sat back and said what a fool I had been. As a neophyte teacher, I was teaching the way I was taught.  Here I had my mind opened to remind me what really made a very positive influence in my development as a scientist and that was working in a research laboratory.  Watching those students I realized what was meaningful to me – what made me a good student of science.  It was not the didactic book knowledge but rather the meaningful exploration of science as a way to develop knowledge. So I walked away from that event saying this (authentic, applied research) is what I should be doing.  From that point, I really started to shape my philosophy of education.  At that point I did not know what inquiry meant or perhaps I had not defined it as well as I do today, but I understood the value of doing authentic research.  The Junior Science and Humanities Symposium really shaped my whole philosophy of teaching – that we needed to move students towards the individualization and the authentic opportunities for them to do meaningful science. So I can confidently say that was the most important experience in my professional career to date.

There is so much more to the story too.  At that symposium there were also students presenting posters.  I went up to one of the students who has developed this device and it was basically a homemade spectrophotometer:  it’s a device used to measure interference of light.  He was using it for photosynthesis or some whatever reason. He was very proud of himself and I was chatting with him and his teacher happened to be there. The students was from Greenwich High School, which was the next town from where I was teaching.  I met this teacher, we really got on very well, and he became a mentor for me to inculcate me to doing science research process with students.  He really was a wonderful teacher and it was an amazing experience in the sense that I recognized what I valued in my education and also I met someone who shared the same values as I did.  We both had extremely positive experiences doing research with students.  He became a mentor for me.

Observing Effective Questioning in the Science Classroom
Apr 28th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Note: This article is cross-posted in the CSSA Newsletter.  Be a part of the discussion, join my personal learning network, and leave a comment on its contents here.


n March 13, 2010, the Obama Administration released its strategy for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind.  The blueprint, in part, focuses on the development of effective teachers and leaders.  The plan requires states to define an effective teacher, effective principal, highly effective teacher, and highly effective principal. Definitions are to be developed in collaboration with teachers and leaders, based in significant part on student growth and other measures such as classroom observations of practice.


he ESEA contains expectations that district level evaluation systems

  • meaningfully differentiate teachers and principals by effectiveness across at least three performance levels
  • are consistent with their state’s definition of effective teacher and highly effective teacher and principal 
  • provide meaningful feedback to teachers and principals to improve their practice and inform professional development
  • are developed in collaboration with teachers, principals, and other education stakeholders



ow do we, as science education leaders operationalize these broad statements and translate them into meaningful methods to assist in teacher growth and improvement?  I think at times, it is necessary to step back and examine how we can compartmentalize the instructional process for the purpose of identifying an area to focus efforts to help teachers improve.  Certainly instruction is a very holistic process, but targeting specific teaching skills in the instructional toolbag can give teachers meaningful feedback to improve their craft.  My focus here is on effective oral questioning. 


uestioning in the classroom is vital to help students develop problem solving and critical thinking skills.  To frame this discussion, it is important to consider the different types of questions that a science teacher might ask students (or students might ask teachers).  I would classify them into three major categories:

  • Factual
  •  Conceptual
  •  Analytical

Factual questions are just that:  checking facts.  Factual questions are composed of isolated information that stands alone and is generally much lower on Bloom’s Taxonomy (knowledge/comprehension).  Conceptual and analytical questions, though, would fall under higher order thinking skills questions.  Conceptual questions are ill-defined, allowing students to connect ideas together and draw on knowledge to formulate an answer, while analytical are well-defined, challenging students to interpret information or data, and make calculations. Both are more inquiry-based but a conceptual question can have multiple possibilities (i.e., the BEST answer), where a well-defined analytical question has one right answer (i.e., the CORRECT answer).  Of course, all types of questions are necessary, especially to scaffold student learning, but are a variety used effectively and judiciously?



s I observe teaching and learning, I often find myself asking many of the following questions: Who (teacher/students) are asking the questions?  Are a variety of students participating?  Does the teacher answer student questions or does the teacher turn them back to the class for a response?  Is appropriate wait time utilized?  If a HOTS question is too difficult to answer, does the teacher rephrase or scaffold to provide a structure for student success?  What types, in what frequency, and in what proportion are questions being asked by students and teachers?


# HOTS questions # K/C questions
# HOTS questions # K/C questions


 If  inquiry is learning by questioning and investigation, then effective oral questioning in a science class is critical to the development of student inquiry skills.  Helping teachers develop their classroom questioning skills is a necessary and important part of professional mentoring for growth and development. 


Refining the definition and role of science in education
Jan 27th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
I recently read a post on Wes Fryer’s blog stating:

The Kennedy Center Teaching Artists define arts integration as:

an APPROACH to TEACHING in which students construct and demonstrate UNDERSTANDING through an ART FORM. Students engage in a CREATIVE PROCESS which CONNECTS an art form and another subject area and meets EVOLVING OBJECTIVES in both.

 We should review this statement carefully, because I really think it integrates concepts of 21st-century learning very well.  It also seems so relevant to science education as well.  Too often, I think students think they learn science, but infer that “they’ll never use this in real life,” unless they become an engineer or scientist.  What I try to stress with students is that the skills we teach in science are what is critical. The content is the medium to advance those skills.  I want students to be self-directed, motivated, critical thinkers who are capable of problem finding and solving.  The Kennedy Center definition also implies constructivist learning theory in their definition. 

from: http://www.ade.state.az.us/

from: http://www.ade.state.az.us/

To that end, and as a springboard point for me, I am going to modify this definition for science education integration.  What amazes me, is that it really doesn’t change very much from the art definition:

An APPROACH to TEACHING in which students construct and demonstrate UNDERSTANDING through INQUIRY-BASED QUESTIONS AND INVESTIGATION. Students engage in CREATIVE AND LOGICAL/ANALYTICAL PROCESSES which CONNECTS SCIENCE and another subject or skill domain and meets EVOLVING OBJECTIVES in both.

Defining Inquiry Literacy
Jan 7th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

My colleagues at McGill and I recently published an article in LEARNing Landscapes entitled, Inquiry Literacy: A Proposal for a Neologism. You can read the article here.ll-no5-dec2009

Let’s go fly a kite!
Nov 22nd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from www.babygadget.net

from www.babygadget.net

I am a strong advocate for authentic inquiry where we allow students to pursue interesting problems and determine innovative, creative solutions.  In order for a student to build a strong repertoire of problem finding and solving skills, they must develop the necessary prerequisite skills and have a positive disposition to learning.  I often think back to the expertise literature from the creativity domain.  (Below, from LaBanca, 2008):

Experts of a domain structure their knowledge differently from novices (Chase & Simon, 1973; Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982; Feldhusen , 2005; Larken, McDermott, Simon, & Simon, 1980; Sternberg, 2001). Expert knowledge is centered on conceptual understanding, with the use of specific domain-based strategies (Driscoll, 2005). Expert problem finding and solving, therefore, is a utilization of pattern recognition based on previous experience and matching those patterns to corresponding aspects of a problem. Novices generally do not possess the same understanding, and, in turn, utilize more general, non-domain specific, problem finding and solving strategies (Driscoll, 2005).

In an instructional setting, some teaching practices lead to the conveying of decontexualized information, whereby students are unable to transfer what they have learned to relevant situations (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989). Students, as novices, have difficulty solving complex, authentic problems because they “tend to memorize rules and algorithms” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 161). Experts would tend to use situational cues to solve problems. Because they have greater domain-specific content knowledge, experts approach finding and solving problems by recognizing and applying previously experienced patterns.

Simply put:

  • Experience matters.
  • Experience promotes higher levels of creativity.
  • Experience makes better problem finders and solvers.
from newenglandsite.com

from newenglandsite.com

As a parent, I feel that part of my responsibility is to provide opportunities for my children to have diverse experiences which expose them to authentic problem solving experiences.  Today was one of those days.  As I was cleaning out the back of my car, I came across several kites.  I enjoy flying kites, but have never done this with my children.  Spontaneously, I packed them up, took a drive to Seaside Park in Bridgeport (probably the nicest beach on the Connecticut coast), and we set up shop.

Although my younger daughter Maggie (5) was not as impressed, my older daughter Anna (7) really got into it.  She was trying to figure out how to get the kite to stay in the air without crashing back to the sand on the beach.  Once the thing was about 100 feet in the air, I asked her how she got it so high.  She was able to give me a detailed explanation of how it works and some of the tricks that were necessary to work the kite.  This was without really any advice from me.  She tackled the problem and devised a solution using a trial and error strategy.

I think sometimes in science education, some get stuck in the mess of using only a hypothesis-based problem solving strategy.  That’s a shame because there are so many other ways to solve problems.  For example (from Wikipedia:)

  1. Divide and conquer
  2. Hill-climbing strategy, (also called gradient descent/ascent, difference reduction, greedy algorithm)
  3. Means-ends analysis
  4. Trial-and-error
  5. Brainstorming
  6. Morphological analysis
  7. Method of focal objects
  8. Lateral thinking
  9. George Pólya‘s techniques in How to Solve It
  10. Research
  11. Assumption reversal
  12. Analogy
  13. Reduction (complexity)
  14. Hypothesis testing
  15. Constraint examination
  16. Incubation
  17. Build (or write) one or more abstract models of the problem
  18. Try to prove that the problem cannot be solved.
  19. Get help from friends or online problem solving community
  20. Delegation: delegating the problem to others.
  21. Root Cause Analysis
  22. Working Backwards
  23. Forward-Looking Strategy
  24. Simplification
  25. Generalization
  26. Specialization
  27. Random Search
  28. Split-Half Method
  29. The GROW model
  30. TRIZ
  31. Eight Disciplines Problem Solving
  32. Southbeach Notation
  33. The WWXXD Method:

Let’s really strategize to provide students with DIVERSE opportunities for problem solving in our classroom.  If I can do it unplanned with my children on a sunny, chilly, fall day at a beautiful beach, we can certainly find ways to to it in our classrooms.

Describing a continuum for inquiry
Sep 8th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.
from philipmartin.info

from philipmartin.info

I began teaching a new graduate class last Thursday and have been remiss to post about the experience.  I will be using this blog as a reflective medium after class, open to my students, so we can communicate about teaching and learning.  I continue to consider this blog an important Web 2.0 tool to allow asnchronous discussion, discourse, and learning to take place.

I spent time talking about my view of the so-called “scientific method,” a philosophy, I feel is riddled with fallacies about the way science is actually done.  Below is a sample that I have written regarding it and applications in the science classroom in terms of problem finding.  I think it illustrates my disdain:

An underlying problem with the Osborne-Parnes and Firestien and Treffinger creative problem solving models is the assumed linearity. Although Firestien and Treffinger do not support linearity of their model, it has previously been presented that way, and the flexibility of the model is therefore often obscured in classroom application. In fact only recently has an alternative more open model been presented (Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 2005). Similar to the so-called scientific method taught irresponsibly in many science classrooms, these models purport a starting and endpoint with a clear step-by-step progression. However, the idiosyncratic nature of science and creativity suggest that such a methodology might only serve the misplaced pedagogical needs of a teacher, and not be truly representative of the actual asynchronous routes that individuals traverse during the problem finding process.

I think, as thoughtful educators we need to consider entry points to learning and how we can develop many aspects of student strategies to (a) problem finding (i.e., creative thinking) and (b) problem solving (i.e., logical/analytical thinking).  When we are more open to varied and diverse thinking strategies, we provide our students with better learning opportunities.

Nurturing an environment that promotes inquiry and a creative mind.
Aug 4th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This past week, I have had the pleasure of staying on a 52,000-tree orange farm in the state of Sao Paulo in Brazil.  The farm is quite isolated, and has no means of communication with the “outside world.”  In fact, a 14-km dirt road car ride was necessary to get to the farm’s property.  The orange tree farm is surrounded by other farms, primarily that of sugar cane.  Each day I take my daughters for a hike around the farm and onto adjacent properties for some exercise and to appreciate the wonderful environment we are privileged to be in.

Today’s hike took us to a “reservoir”- three large terraced ponds connected by underground pipes. The reservoir is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.  After crawling under the fence, we found that the top pond was connected to the second pond by a 4î PVC pipe running as a slough into a waterwheel that has some sort of turbine attached to it.  I asked the girls what they thought was happening and we discussed how the wheel worked.  We weren’t exactly sure that it was powering, but the girls made a few guesses.

Afterwards, we headed to a field of sugar cane and the girls asked if they could taste it.  I cut a stalk and cut off the outer husks to expose the cane.  They enjoyed sucking on the heart of the cane, and my older daughter Anna commented that it tasted like a lollipop, only that it was made by nature.   We meandered back to the villa we were staying in and they reiterated their adventures to my wife as I snuggled into a hammock for a rest.

While we were returning, I began thinking about some of the results of my research which suggests that students that are great, independent, self-directed student inquirers come from environments where parents nurture and promote the creative mind by offering their children unique opportunities to engage in varied different experiences throughout their young lives.  I have often heard others talk about problem finding and offer that, in fact, problem finding is not owned by the child but rather the parent.  As the subjects in my study demonstrated, parents need almost be absent during problem finding, but rather provide the culture that promotes the childís independence.

After all, perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the sense of wonder in the natural world ñ one that they want to explore and learn about through direct experience and inquiry.

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