How to Encourage Scientific Thinking and Exploration in the Second Plane (From the Spring 2022 issue of Montessori Life magazine)
This article was featured in our 2022 Spring edition of Montessori Life magazine. Read the full issue online (AMS members only).
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Science is the study of the world around us, and a scientist’s job is to ask questions about the world and then experiment to find the answers. There is not a more natural scientist than the Elementary child, whose reasoning mind is eager to ask questions, investigate, and discuss and compare findings with their peers. These children in the second plane of development are starting to ask, “Who am I?” and “What is my role in society?” They are our future problem-solvers and innovators, and the way in which they are introduced to science will influence their interest in the subject. It will also shape their sense of place in the world, their understanding of interdependencies, and their ability to reason through difficult situations and make ethical decisions when solving problems.
The Montessori classroom offers a prepared environment for students not only to watch scientific demonstrations but also to experiment independently and in collaboration with their peers. Giving Elementary children the opportunity to engage in scientific exploration and experimentation on their own is an essential component of a well-rounded Montessori education; it promotes scientific thinking and fosters second-plane development.
Despite the variety of enriching science lessons offered throughout the Montessori curriculum, Elementary teachers may not always feel confident setting up an environment that supports further exploration through science experiments or relating science lessons to society and global understanding.
In this article, we’ll discuss some ideas that can take your science offerings beyond the common lessons and use of nomenclature and into the realm of deep investigation. We’ll also discuss the importance of equity in science education and talk about some of the ways that your environment and the topics you address can help foster critical thinking around science and ethics and support the Elementary child in using their skills to ultimately improve their immediate communities and the broader world.
USING NOMENCLATURE CARDS
While it can be tempting to fill your science shelves with beautiful nomenclature cards, consider that the repetition inherent in the use of these cards will likely not appeal to an Elementary child in the same way it did when that child was 6 or younger. The nomenclature cards were designed as a starting point for further research, and for Elementary children, this research comes through books or Internet searches. Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is to have only the basic nomenclature cards and maybe a few special sets beyond the basics that are relevant to deep interests or the culture of your classroom. Nomenclature cards should not become a device to keep the children busy, nor should they become a substitute for lessons and follow-up work.
For the nomenclature cards you may already have in your environment, here are some extension ideas that offer the variety that second-plane children seek:
- Younger Elementary children who are beginning writers can make their favorite nomenclature card into a poster. Invite them to copy the text onto a small piece of lined paper, attach that onto a larger piece of paper, and then create an illustration.
- Make it into a game. Invite children to work in groups of two. Have them first match up the nomenclature cards. Then one child picks up the cards, reading the text from one card, and the other child tries to identify which label goes with the text. When they’ve gone through all the cards, they can switch roles.
- Invite children to create their own nomenclature cards, using a favorite mammal, a fruit they like, their latest geological or extraterrestrial interest, etc. Students enjoy making their own cards, and you can invite them to place their created cards on the shelf for others to use! To generate interest, you can set out special paints or pens for this activity, along with research books on the topics your class has been showing interest in.
OLDER ELEMENTARY STUDENTS: GOING BEYOND NOMENCLATURE CARDS
While the younger Elementary child will typically be exploring the nomenclature material as well as completing short reports and experiments connected to lessons in their albums, the older Elementary child is ready for some deeper investigations. The short reports of the Elementary I years transform into lengthier reports on specific topics that may or may not be in the original biology or geography albums. While the younger Elementary child is accustomed to selecting a topic, researching information, and writing a short report, the writing of the older Elementary child involves citing sources, outlining and preparation work, and creating drafts, revisions, and a final draft. When one thinks of science, writing doesn’t immediately come to mind, but learning how to write technical pieces is an important area of writing fluency that can be developed when delving into science topics.
Older students will also enjoy conducting Internet searches to find new and unfamiliar experiments to replicate. These experiments will involve following multistep procedures, taking measurements, and/or performing technical tasks. Students will also have the opportunity to take the information gathered from research and create visual representations, such as diagrams, models, flowcharts, graphs, and tables. In addition, students will utilize various multimedia sources when creating presentations to demonstrate their knowledge of scientific concepts they have studied, which will give them an opportunity to compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading about the same topic. As the critical-thinking mind develops in the later Elementary years, students will be better able to describe their research findings through writing, speaking, and providing visuals.
In addition, older students will be able to design their own science experiments, based upon both observations and the wonderings of their own imaginations. While younger Elementary students will generally be following science experiments as laid out in command cards, older Elementary students can often be seen creating their own command cards or science experiment write-ups, using scientific practices as guides.
OBSTACLES (AND SOLUTIONS!) TO SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION
Crucial indicators of a successfully implemented science program in the Montessori classroom are the mindset, confidence, and beliefs held by the Montessori guide. When we ask teachers why they may cast the important work of science experimentation to the side in favor of other subjects, many of the same reasons come up:
- Science experiments can be messy.
- The students aren’t normalized enough to carry out experiments independently.
- The materials needed for experiments are expensive and/or difficult to find.
- Experiments devolve into play.
- There is so much that has to be covered in other subjects./We don’t have time for something that isn’t covered on a standardized test.
- Parents want to see evidence of work, and experiments aren’t something that can easily be sent home.
- We don’t have enough classroom space.
Let’s expand on each of these concerns and identify some solutions.
Science experiments can be messy:
Science experiments involve water, ingredients, and sometimes even chemicals, which can create messes. An Elementary classroom is a place where learning comes alive, and this does not happen without a bit of mess; it is important that guides become comfortable with this part of the classroom experience. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate a frighteningly messy space! Teaching children appropriate setup and cleanup procedures (explained later) will help maximize the discoveries while minimizing the mess.
The students aren’t normalized enough to carry out these presentations independently:
Children do not become normalized without practicing and making mistakes along the way. Just as in any other curriculum area, giving children opportunities (with support and scaffolding) and then releasing them to work independently are important parts of the process. A barrier to your comfort with children doing independent work in the sciences may be safety. With clear instructions, opportunities to practice with support and supervision, and proper safety measures, independent experimenting will be perfectly safe. We will talk more about safety later on, when we discuss preparing the environment for science experiments.
The materials needed for experiments are expensive and/or difficult to find.
Most materials can be sourced fairly inexpensively from your local supermarket. Substitutions are available for some difficult-to-find materials.
Experiments devolve into play:
Setting expectations before allowing children to conduct experiments is key. The classroom environment operates on the notions of freedom and responsibility. Some children may not yet possess the responsibility part of the equation, and they may need more supervised practice before they can work on experiments independently. That’s okay! At the same time, take a step back to observe the “play.” Is it taking away from the learning process, or could it be enhancing it and/or contributing to the child’s socialization and collaboration skills?
There is so much that has to be covered in other subjects./We don’t have time for something that isn’t covered on a standardized test:
Research has shown that students who participate in enriching learning activities beyond math and language actually score better on their math and language standardized tests (Scott, 2012). Can children calculate their weight on different planets while talking about the force of gravity? Or practice their language skills by writing up a formal experiment report?
Parents want to see evidence of work, and experiments aren’t something that can easily be sent home:
Taking photos of children conducting experiments can be a very exciting gift for a parent to receive or for a child to place in their portfolio of work—especially if the photo comes with a small description.
We don’t have enough classroom space:
Can you use the outdoors? A kitchen? Can you combine art and experiments in one area? Can you have a separate storage area outside of the classroom that houses the materials and instruct the children on how to take them out, use them, and then put them away? Creative problem-solving is key here!
A FINAL UNSPOKEN OBSTACLE: FEAR
When it comes to science, adults sometimes struggle more with the concept of doing the unfamiliar than children do. Perhaps their teacher education programs placed more emphasis on other subjects or focused only on using nomenclature cards for science, so they have little to no firsthand experience with science experiments. As a result, a teacher may feel a couple of types of fear when it comes to science:
Fear of coming across as unknowledgeable about the content:
Many guides are hesitant to give presentations unless they have the content down cold. This is why practicing a few times before giving the demonstration is important. That way, if you forget a step or two, you will at least have shared the big picture with the children, which is more important than having every step in a sequence exactly right. And if you realize you made a mistake in the middle of a presentation, you will be able to offer an example of being “friendly with error.”
Fear of failure:
You may be afraid that an experiment you’re presenting won’t be successful. And if that happens to you . . . congratulations! You have just demonstrated to your students that even when all conditions are optimal, sometimes an experiment fails. Helping them understand early on that failed experiments are part of the scientific process will give them more confidence to try things without feeling like they have to get it “perfect” or “right” the first time. By overcoming fears regarding your own demonstrations, as well as fears about turning experiments over to children, you have set the stage for an environment with internal and external obstacles to scientific exploration removed.
PREPARING THE ENVIRONMENT
Fear about science experiments can also be alleviated—and student engagement with the experiment heightened—by setting up the environment for success. At the Elementary level, students are no longer content with doing (and repeating) activities on a tray. They want to understand their projects from beginning to end. But they are still interested in working independently. Instead of the guide preparing a tray of materials for student experiments, your students prepare the tray or the project themselves!
Whether an experiment or demonstration needs to be student-led or guide-led will be determined by your group, your school, and your comfort level. Here are some ideas for setting up an optimal environment for student-led experiments:
- Offer command cards for children to choose from that give clear instructions for each experiment (at an appropriate reading level)—including necessary materials, steps or procedure, and cleanup directions. For Elementary II children, you could also include project idea cards that prompt them to create their own experiment!
- Organize materials on the shelf (or in a storage space) in a way that makes it obvious where everything belongs—beakers in one place, mixers in another, solid and liquid components clearly labeled in another, etc.
- Make your expectations around independent experimenting and safety known.
In addition to telling students your expectations, let them learn experientially. The next time you give a science demonstration to a group, do a follow-up lesson where you go through the steps for them to set up that same demonstration themselves. This could include:
- Asking for sign-off from a guide to start, if needed
- Knowing what to do in case of a mishap or an emergency
- Gathering materials
- Wearing proper safety equipment (this will mean different things depending on the experiment options you offer, but a good place to start is with goggles and aprons)
- Going to an appropriate and safe space for the experiment
- Washing up and storing or disposing of any materials appropriately
- Putting everything back in its place
Once group members have seen this demonstration, they can then give lessons on experiment setup to other groups in the class.
Another strategy that you may already be using in other subject areas is to have returning children (who already know the expectations) lead lessons on how to safely and effectively set up an activity for newer children. This serves a few purposes: teaching the new children, giving a refresher to the returning children, and giving those returning children a sense of responsibility and independence. It also gives the returning children a chance to demonstrate how responsible they can be with the freedom to experiment independently (and it can give you confidence in their ability to conduct experiments with minimal supervision).
USING SCIENCE TO NURTURE SOFT SKILLS
Just as they are in other parts of the classroom, communication and modeling of expectations are key. Children who have learned how to gather materials, execute an experiment with a group of peers, and put everything away at the end of the day make for a peaceful, self-directed classroom community. But even more than that, they start to develop and refine what are often referred to as the “soft skills” needed to function in our dynamic world—skills like executive functioning, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
Montessori classrooms offer numerous opportunities to practice the essential skills of executive functioning—planning, self-monitoring, self-control, time management, organization, and more—and there’s no better place to observe this in action than when a child is engaged in scientific experimentation.
- Making plans (What experiment should I do? What will I need in order to perform this experiment?)
- Practicing self-control (developing precision when measuring substances and mixtures)
- Developing organizational skills (retrieving materials needed for the experiment from various parts of the room, returning the materials, following the command cards step-by-step)
Critical thinking and problem-solving require children (and adults) to analyze facts, conceptualize abstract concepts, determine cause and effect, and put skills together.
As early as infancy, children begin to think scientifically, which is the basis for future problem-solving and critical thinking. Children in the first plane of development understand how to test their hypothesis about which hole their Knobbed Cylinder might fit into, and they eventually learn to make the conclusion that the smallest cylinder goes into the smallest hole. They already have the roots needed to become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and innovators, and with supportive adults in the Montessori environment available to scaffold scientific thinking, they will become increasingly more skilled in these areas. How do you guide students from tinkering with Knobbed Cylinders to building their own electric cars? Ask open-ended questions that spark curiosity:
- What do you think will happen if we mix these two liquids?
- Why do thunderstorms usually happen in the afternoon?
- How could you power an electric car without a battery?
- What are the differences and similarities between erosion by wind and erosion by water?
- What chemical reaction occurs in glow sticks?
- What are electrical charges, and how do they affect each other?
These types of questions promote critical thinking by requiring children to combine, integrate, and synthesize information in order to answer. Rather than serving as simple tests of knowledge, the questions serve as springboards to passion projects, experiments, research, social action, and in-depth explanations.
Seek answers together:
If a child asks you a question about science, you have a wonderful opportunity to guide them through the process of answering it for themselves—even if you don’t know the answer! Follow up with another open-ended question, lead them to materials that might help, and work with them to find the answer. Guiding a student through the critical thinking process instead of feeding them the information helps them learn how to find answers to questions they will have in the future.
Encourage project-based learning:
There are many wonderful things that happen during a science project. One of them is that children start to understand the difference between a science experiment and a science demonstration. Letting children mix vinegar and baking soda to see what happens is a demonstration. Sending a child off to determine exactly what ratio of vinegar to baking soda creates the biggest reaction, or if and why baking soda will react with any other liquids, are experiments.
In a demonstration, students are able to work hands on with scientific phenomena. In an experiment, they are able to test the unknown and come to their own conclusions. Both are valuable in learning about scientific concepts and in developing executive functioning skills like focus and following directions. It is experimenting, however, that requires the use of critical thinking and problem-solving to get from question to answer.
Foster continual use of the scientific method by introducing it more formally:
Children naturally use an informal version of the scientific method from a young age. For example, they observe other children on the playground throwing rocks in the air, and they wonder if the same thing will happen if they throw the one in their hand. They might form a hypothesis that their rock will hit the ground too since everyone else’s did, but they still experiment by throwing it so they can see for themselves. They retest and retest and retest . . . until they finally come to the conclusion that the rock will in fact hit the ground each time.
During the Elementary years, Montessori guides have the opportunity to formally introduce the scientific method, as children are now at the age of imagination and abstraction and have the intellectual capacity to understand the method’s steps. The importance of introducing the scientific method formally lies in its purpose: to gather knowledge with minimal influence from bias. Knowing the steps, and continually using them correctly, helps to prevent bias from creeping into our conclusions about experiments, research, and even everyday situations.
You can start simply by introducing children to the terms for the steps as they naturally come up:
Child: “I already know what’s going to happen in this demonstration; when you mix the baking soda and vinegar together, they are going to fizz up.”
Guide: “Hmmmm, you might be right. Is that your hypothesis? Your guess based on an observation you had from before?”
As children become more interested in doing their own research or making up their own experiments, you can emphasize where they can apply the scientific method by giving a science demonstration where you formally cover the steps (students will be more likely to remember the steps when they’re applied to a real situation). From there, you can help them understand the steps by asking them to notice when they use them while experimenting independently in the classroom.
While some argue against teaching the scientific method entirely (Cutraro, 2012), and instead suggest replacing it with scientific practices, we think that there is still a place for the scientific method as a tangible checklist that children can refer back to. The scientific method is something that can help promote scientific thinking and does not need to be a rigid rubric that must be followed stepwise on each and every scientific occasion. In order to use it effectively and fluidly, you must introduce it with discussion and application rather than memorization, and talk about how scientists sometimes skip, repeat, or rearrange steps.
Allow work (and play) to happen in groups:
We say work and play because experimenting is in itself a form of play. It can be a place where imagination connects with reality. The astronauts huddled in the corner of your class, working carefully on mathematical projections for how much they will weigh when they travel to the moon and trying to figure out what materials to use to build their spaceships so that they withstand the extreme cold of outer space aren't just playing, they’re learning! If needed, you can guide them to information on insulators, conductors, and gravity and other forces, and help them divide tasks so that they can work as a team instead of in parallel.
Moments like these are special. They indicate a child’s interest in working for a purpose, their capacity to socialize and work within a group, and their ability to understand abstract concepts, like weight or gravity, that cannot be fully understood through using only a Sensorial material.
Learning is not linear; mistakes happen, and it is all part of the process. Being able to fail in the controlled environment of an Elementary classroom makes children much more confident when they approach new challenges, or simply even new information, later on. It is okay if they mix a little too much baking soda and vinegar for the size of the cup or forget to seal the balloon all the way and it flies off the bottle (as long as safety precautions are in place). Fun failures that result in enjoyable learning experiences make it easier for children to handle their emotions during the not-so-fun ones—and learn from those as well.
The benefits of encouraging scientific thinking and experimenting from a young age range from helping children understand complex topics to supporting the development of higher thinking, executive functioning, and problem-solving skills. And hopefully, today’s scientific thinkers can become tomorrow’s leaders and problem solvers.
THE DEEPER WORK: SCIENCE AND EQUITY
Arguably the greatest benefit of both science and Montessori education is their potential to give children a global view of the world based on knowledge, understanding, and respect. However, whether this potential is realized can be heavily influenced (intentionally or unintentionally) by the environment. Elementary children are natural community seekers and champions of justice and morality, but their experiences will shape the lens through which they see the world.
We often teach science as fact. More accurately, science is “the best explanation or solution based on our current understanding,” and although we strive to keep science free from bias, it is certainly not immune to it. In fact, there are examples of “science” being touted as a justification for bias (Harvard Library).
When discussing any topic, it is important to notice any biases that it can bring up, address any fallacies associated with it currently or in the past, and recognize that the way in which we as humans introduce the topic can affect what is taught and understood.
Equity in science education does not only mean discussing the topic with your students. It also means preparing an environment that is racially and culturally inclusive and caters to different learning needs. This may be an area in which you feel like you excel or one where you may be looking for ways to improve. Either way, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether your environment and the topics you address are reflecting your class’s needs and interests in an equitable and inclusive way.
Equitable Materials for Independent Work
When choosing materials to put on your shelves, paying attention to their inclusiveness and ability to support diverse learners is important. Does your research card on famous scientists include people who are not white European males? Do the botany nomenclature cards you’ve set out include plant life that isn’t centered only on North American biomes? Do you have any maps that give a more accurate depiction of the size of the continents than the Mercator projection, or do you address its visual inaccuracy? Do you offer a mixture of written, photographic, tactile, and audible materials that students can use for their learning? For example, in the study of the solar system, you may provide nomenclature cards, a 3D model, books, and access to audiobooks or videos.
Lesson Planning and the Narratives We Center
In Elementary science, there is a tendency to center mostly white, often wealthy, and usually North American or European narratives. These narratives may have been the ones centered in your training, or they may be what you learned in your own Elementary experience, or they might be the first things to show up when you search for materials. Over the course of centuries, there has been systemic inequality around science. It is important to address other narratives, talk about uncredited discoveries, and discuss why some groups are more represented in science than others.
In addition, traditional education has historically placed a focus on math and language in order for students to perform well on standardized exams. That is especially true for under-resourced schools, whereas schools in affluent areas often get a more holistic experience that includes science, history, the arts, etc. In many elementary schools, these things are often “extras,” easily relegated to the sidelines in favor of math and language.
Lessons on the ancient history of chemistry and physics often focus on the Greeks, like Democritus and Aristotle. Their contributions are not to be cast aside, but you can also tell the stories of Kanada (India), Jabir ibn Hayyan (Middle East), and Wei Boyang (ancient China).
In the modern history of chemistry and physics, white men dominate the field. Many of their works were very valuable to science, but this can prompt a discussion question: Why were there not more women or nonwhite men contributing to the field at the time? Research Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to the discovery of the double helix DNA structure, and talk about why her work was not given attention for years. Or learn about Edward Bouchet, the first Black man to receive a PhD in physics, who was unable to find a university teaching position, or Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used for medical research without her knowledge and consent. Whose stories are we not telling? How have past and present injustices shaped the STEM field today?
Having conversations about the role of society and history in science will develop students’ understanding of the biases that can influence research. Topics that address how ethics, politics, and racism influence scientific practices can become topics of interest to Elementary students, particularly older Elementary students. Second-plane children are eager to discuss and come to an understanding of what is just and right in their world.
Science and Social Justice
As Elementary students are learning to engage in scientific practices that guide scientific discovery, it is critical that they begin to take a closer look at how science has impacted our past, is impacting the current day, and will impact the future. This approach allows the second-plane child’s keen sense of justice and budding skills of advocacy (and self-advocacy) to take flight. We often begin our Elementary-level science with lessons in taxonomy that highlight how we name, define, and classify groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics. This is a great time to bring the child’s awareness to the pitfalls of this scientific study. As they learn about classification and Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of taxonomy, it is critical that they are allowed and encouraged to unpack vocabulary, such as stereotypes and bias, and to talk about the ways that Linnaeus’s work created and perpetuated racism (The Linnean Society of London; Hawthorne, 2019). In fact, as we teach children about the classification of living things, we must challenge them to grapple with what happens to living things that don’t share similar characteristics, which may cause them to be considered outliers. What happens when things don’t seem to fit, and who gets to make that determination? A healthy discussion about stereotypes and bias can support the child’s understanding of how science can be and has historically been used to justify discrimination and essentially cause harm. This critical lens will set the stage for deeper work as they look at the ethics of scientific experimentation. Principles such as informed consent, a right to privacy, the importance of honesty in research, and proper care for animals during testing are all concepts relatable and important to the Montessori child.
In Montessori schools around the world, and surely in your classroom, scientific thinking is well regarded and encouraged. We may sometimes get caught up in the beautiful nomenclature cards or have hesitations about making a mess. But at the end of the day, we must remember that the hands are the instruments of intelligence and that the only way for children to grow up and think like ethical scientists(whether they enter a scientific field or not) is to start experimenting and diving into the deeper work of how science influences and is influenced by human bias.
Foil pan, tealight candle, 1 beaker filled with water (add a color if you want), 1 empty beaker, match
Ask an adult if it is okay to do an experiment with fire. Get your safety equipment, and gather your materials on a tray. Find a safe place where you can work with fire to do the experiment.
1. Put the candle in the foil pan. Pour water into the pan until it reaches halfway up the side of the candle.
2. Turn the empty beaker upside down, covering the unlit candle. What happened?
3. Remove the empty beaker, and light the candle.(Put the match in a glass of water when you are done lighting the candle.)
4. Turn the empty beaker upside down, and cover the lit candle. What happened?
- What happened when you covered the unlit candle with the empty beaker?
- What happened when you covered the lit candle with the empty beaker? Can you explain why it happened?
Hint: It has to do with the law of cooling you learned about in the First Great Lesson.
- Throw the match away.
- Dump the water into the sink.
- Wash and dry the beaker and the foil pan.
- Wipe and dry the sides of the candle.
- Put everything back where it came from.
About the Authors
- Cutraro, J. (July 5, 2012.) Problems with “the scientific method.” Science News for Students. https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/problems-scientific-method
- Harvard Library. (n.d.). Scientific Racism. https://library.harvard.edu/confronting-anti-black-racism/scientific-racism
- Hawthorne, B. (2019). Dr. Montessori’s racism. Montessori Life, 31(1). The Linnean Society of London. Linnaeus and Race. https://www.linnean.org/learning/who-was-linnaeus/linnaeus-and-race
- Scott, C. (October–December 2012.) An investigation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) focused high schools in the U.S. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 13(5).https://www.jstem.org/jstem/index.php/JSTEM/article/download/1629/1493.