Reforming Cookbook Labs

By Peters, Erin | Science Scope, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Reforming Cookbook Labs


Peters, Erin, Science Scope


Byline: Erin Peters

The majority of ancillary materials provided with any textbook includes a large quantity of labs that have step-by-step instructions. Although it is important in science for students to learn how to follow directions, offering only cookbook labs limits students' access to exploration. A worthwhile goal of a science teacher is to allow students to think and behave like scientists rather than to solely learn or replicate what other scientists have already done. "Recipe-like activities often short circuit opportunities to stimulate thinking by students"(Germann, Haskins, and Auls 1996). Students often do not see the big concept that a cookbook lab is trying to convey. Students read each step discretely and do not connect the steps to see the bigger intention of the laboratory experience. Students have difficulty constructing meaning from cookbook labs, but inquiry-based labs require ongoing intellectual engagement of the students. Cookbook labs do not give the students an authentic sense of the nature of science (Cox 1972). If inquiry-based learning provides such valuable opportunities, why don't more teachers provide for open-ended exploration?

Management tends to be the biggest issue for classroom teachers when it comes to inquiry-based labs. The amount and types of required materials available are limiting factors. The possibility of a large number of student-generated procedures introduces an unknown factor that many teachers are not comfortable with. Teachers may not have direct access to laboratory materials during the class, which introduces a lag time between the students' request for materials and the delivery of materials to the lab.

Deconstructing cookbook labs to require the students to be more thoughtful could break down perceived teacher barriers to inquiry learning. Simple steps that remove or disrupt the direct transfer of step-by-step procedures in cookbook labs make students think more critically about their process. Through trials in my middle school physical science classes, my high school physics classes, and my high school Earth science classes, I have developed 11 different ways of altering cookbook labs so that students understand the intention of the procedure. The altered labs do not fully achieve the status of inquiry lab, but they are a step toward allowing more open-ended discovery. The changes to the labs described below progress from most structured to least structured. From my experience of sharing these techniques at national teacher conferences, I believe that teachers who reform cookbook labs are more likely to adopt inquiry-based labs in the future. Reforming cookbook labs into critical-thinking labs could be the intermediate step that helps teachers reach the goal of providing inquiry-based opportunities for their students.

Students take on roles

The easiest adaptation that can be done to cookbook labs is assigning roles to each student. Students use the step-by-step procedure to accomplish the lab goals, but they become interdependent on each other because the tasks required to complete the lab are split up among the group members. Each student in a group of four takes on the role of Principal Investigator, Reporter, Recorder, or Materials Manager. The Principal Investigator is responsible for overseeing the lab, for keeping all members on task, and for assuring that all members participate equally. The Reporter is responsible for asking the teacher questions that the group cannot answer themselves and for reporting the results of the experiment to the class. The Recorder is responsible for ensuring all members of the group write the correct data gathered during the lab. The Materials Manager is responsible for gathering the materials and for ensuring all members of the group take turns measuring or making observations. By creating a system of interdependence within the lab group, the teacher requires students to think aloud about their ideas regarding the activity. …

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