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Professional Development & Materials - Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When students walk into your room, what do they see? What do they hear? Try the tips below for setting up a student-centered classroom!

In an inquiry-based classroom, the roles of the teacher and student and the classroom environment influence its community of learners. At its core, inquiry fosters a student-centered learning environment, focused on deep learning of ideas and offers students opportunities to explain and hone their new thinking (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000).

Mix it up!

Consider the benefits of arranging your desks, tables, and chairs in small groups so that students can share and exchange their emerging ideas. Research has shown that for many of our young learners, the amount of time spent listening in class is not appropriate for learning (Cameron, 2003). Learners begin to check-out and disengage at specific times relative to their age. Their brains are wired this way! (The same goes for adults too!)

Get in gear with a Learning Cycle!

Creating a classroom environment conducive for collaboration is the first step. What are students doing in these collaborative groups then? A great model for designing learning experiences for students is the 5 E’s Learning Cycle (Bybee, et al., 2006).

Through a learning cycle, teachers intentionally facilitate learning so that students can engage in a phenomenon or question to motivate and activate prior knowledge

Explore intriguing concepts and phenomena; hands-on, minds-on

Explain their understanding in a variety of collaborative approaches

Elaborate, extend and apply their thinking within new contexts

Evaluate their own knowledge, skills and abilities

There are many learning cycles that stem from the learning sciences. Education has a long line of research in understanding how students learn best, and what kinds of learning environments best impact students (Bransford, et al., 2000). Essentially, a learning cycle guides the educator to be intentional about providing opportunities for students to question, engage in tricky concepts (whether it’s math, science, history, or any engaging topic), reconcile ideas, and talk.

Talk the Talk

Many of tomorrow’s jobs have not even been created yet. Just as quickly as technology is advancing, our classrooms should reflect such diversity, and provide students opportunities to learn more complex concepts and skills that are directly applicable for their future. What does this look like?

Communicating ideas is one of the most important aspects of learning. When students work collaboratively, it’s more than just helping one another, or completing a task together. It’s an opportunity to wrestle with ideas together and come to understandings collaboratively (Bransford, et al., 2000). Students are better able to reconcile inaccuracies in their thinking AFTER they engage in first-hand experiences with a concept or phenomenon, usually with others. It is only then that students are better able to take in second-hand and symbolic information, such as pictoral representations and informational text. First-hand experiences and supporting representations and texts go hand-in-hand to help students generate rich, connected understandings.

This thinking has been the foundation behind inquiry-based modules, such as FOSS, which have been developed through the Lawrence Hall of Science

As students move along the learning progression of school, and into society as functioning, decision-making individuals, the demands become greater for skills to process information more quickly and critically, engage with others, and solve novel problems.

As you create your lessons, it may be helpful to think about how well your students discuss an issue, explain their thinking, engage in argumentation, and provide evidence to support their thinking? What kind of supports will you need to provide? Beginning with physical structures (like desk arrangements) and frameworks for your lessons (like a learning cycle) may allow for students to practice and hone these skills on a daily basis! 

Sarah Chesney is a professional development specialist and coordinator for middle school professional development at ASSET STEM Education™. She focuses her professional development design and facilitation in inquiry-based teaching and learning, and supporting teachers in their vision and planning of holistic approaches to STEM education. With 9 years’ experience at ASSET and 16 years in education, Sarah is currently working toward her Doctorate of Education at the University of Pittsburgh.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn.

Bybee, R. W., Taylor, J. A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Powell, J. C., Westbrook, A., & Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS5, 88-98.

Cameron, C. (2003). Self-assessment: Slowing down to the speed of learning. Classroom Connections International Online Journal.

Olson, S., & Loucks-Horsley, S. (Eds.). (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A guide for teaching and learning. National Academies Press.