Tool IH-3: Comparing approaches

For this tool you will need the following resources:

  • IH-3 PowerPoint
  • Handout: Comparing approaches

The aim of this tool is to explore different approaches to teaching science using structured download_powerpointand unstructured tasks. In most science classrooms, students are provided with structured tasks and are told precisely which techniques to deploy. Students are expected to learn by following instructions. Problems and situations that arise in the world are not usually like this. Rather than being exercises in the use of a particular skill or concept, real-world problems require students to make simplifications, model situations, choose appropriate knowledge and processes from their ‘toolkit’, and test whether their solution is ‘good enough’ for the purpose in hand. It seems logical that if students are to learn to use their skills autonomously in their future lives, they will need some opportunities to work on less structured problems in their classrooms.


Ask the teachers to work in pairs (or threes). Provide them with copies of the Handout: Comparing approaches, which shows both structured and unstructured versions of two science tasks. Ask them to consider the following questions:

  • What decisions have been left to the students?
  • Which task do you think may be perceived as more challenging or motivating for the students?
  • Which task promotes students’ autonomy and decision making?
  • What pedagogical issues will arise when you start to use unstructured problems like this?

teamworkBring the group together and ask each pair (or three) to share their thoughts. Make a list of the points they make.

Some immediate issues that teachers are likely to raise are:

  • unstructured problems are more difficult;
  • it is more difficult to plan a lesson with these problems;
  • students may not even know how to get started on them;
  • students will not necessarily use what we have taught them;
  • if we offer help too quickly, students will simply do what we say and not think for themselves;
  • students will generate a greater variety of approaches and solutions;
  • students may need reassurance that it is OK to try a different approach or reach a different conclusion.

Discuss what kind of strategies can be used to lead students’ inquiry using unstructured tasks. These might include:

  • Use scaffolding.
  • Pose questions that promote reasoning.
  • Promote constructive interactions through students’ debate.
  • Build on students’ previous knowledge.
  • Consider wrong answers and mistakes as opportunities for learning.
  • Use self and peer assessments in a formative way.

nextstepsTeachers should try to focus on one strategy that has been discussed and plan to use this with one of their classes. They should be ready to report back at the next session on how this worked with the group and whether it helped develop student inquiry.