Academic journal article Science Scope

What's the Matter? Looking beyond the Macroscopic

Academic journal article Science Scope

What's the Matter? Looking beyond the Macroscopic

Article excerpt

Because of its abstract nature, the structure and properties of matter can be challenging for middle school students to understand at a conceptual level. Entering middle school, students typically have limited exposure to concepts such as physical properties, solutions and mixtures, and phase changes, so multiple opportunities are necessary to build their foundational knowledge regarding the structure and properties of matter. In addition to having limited content knowledge, middle school students often lack experience conducting investigations on the structure and properties of matter needed to build solid conceptual understanding. If depending solely on their own everyday experiences, students can develop significant misconceptions regarding scientific phenomena such as the structure of matter (Aydeniz and Kotowski 2012).


Part of the difficulty arises because the phenomenon surrounding atomic interactions resides at the nanoscale; therefore, middle school students have often expressed misconceptions about the structure of matter. For example, students typically explain that a cell is the smallest part of an organism without realizing that the cell is made up of various molecules and compounds. These concepts/performance expectations are introduced at grade 5 in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (5-PS11: Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to be seen; NGSS Lead States 2013).

Lesson overview and the 4E x 2 instructional model

To give students an opportunity to explore this topic in more depth, this lesson was developed using the 4E x 2 instructional model (Marshall 2007). This learning-cycle-based model combines formative assessment, inquiry instruction, and reflective practice in order to foster conceptual understanding. The 4E x 2 model builds upon previous research on existing models of learning that propose creating disequilibrium experiences for students in order to resolve misconceptions and promote full understanding. Many of these existing models, however, do not integrate other essential components identified by learning theorists as needed to foster strong conceptual understanding and process-skill development among students (Marshall, Horton, and Smart 2009). The implementation of the 4E x 2 instructional model gives teachers a concrete approach to routinely incorporate inquiry-based methods into their daily instruction.

The first step in the model is Engage, during which learners' prior knowledge is activated and misconceptions are uncovered about the big ideas presented in the lesson. The next step within the model, Explore, involves giving learners opportunities to investigate their ideas and conceptions uncovered in the previous phase in order to construct their own understandings. In the following step, Explain, both the student and the teacher work to construct meaning of the ideas formulated in the previous step. The final step is Extend, which involves students applying their recently constructed conceptions in new situations. In comparison to other learning models, such as the 5E instructional model (Bybee 2002), the 4E x 2 model incorporates the essential components of formative assessment and reflection at all four stages of inquiry-based learning rather than at the conclusion of the model (Dong, Marshall, and Wang 2009).

This lesson design is closely identified with guided-inquiry instruction, which is distinctly different from prescriptive or directed-inquiry instruction, where the teacher tells and then students confirm. In a typical prescriptive approach, students are given key vocabulary terms such as atom, molecule, and mixture before any experience or investigation takes place. This content is typically presented by viewing a PowerPoint, note taking, or reading from the text. Students may also be asked to color or label a diagram depicting various states of matter. Finally, students may be asked to label the state of matter depicted in various examples. …

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