Advice STEM education 

The power of exploration in science teaching

Education experts Patrick Brown and Janice Koch explain the benefits of the explore-before-explain approach to teaching, which allows students to learn science through exploration.

Today’s school age children have experiences with digital technology that stimulate them and engage them in seeking solutions to specific problems on the Internet. They engage regularly with visual stimuli; they solve problems by seeking information online and they have keen visual spatial skills, a by-product of digital gaming and ever-changing online trends and challenges. Further, they are accustomed to collaborating with others to solve problems and they are developing many of the skills necessary for global competitiveness in an evolving workforce landscape.

Because of the revolution in digital technology, we are witnessing a surge of educational reforms that gain momentum each year. We are seeing something new: a growing commitment to the idea that learning about the content requires students to simultaneously use the skills, practices, and habitats of mind that are valued in science.

New rigorous national standards in the US by the Next Generation Science Standards are evidence of this growing commitment (NGSS Lead States, 2013). The NGSS, however, is a set of learning standards and not a prescribed instructional approach. While many advocate the importance of the NGSS because they promote active, constructivist learning, standards alone cannot change instructional practices that are rooted in passive models of recitation and memorisation. We need to help students make sense of the natural world through engaging them in it.

Shifting roles of teachers and students

When we think of the typical classroom, we hope that students are doing the hard intellectual work. Importantly we must ask, “who is doing the critical thinking”, “who is making the evidence-based claims” and “who is constructing knowledge.”

The answer to these questions and many others like it are inherent to who is doing the hard intellectual work in the classroom. However, a look into typical classrooms shows that activities have a standard script where teacher explanation comes first, followed by verification and practice-type activities (Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004).

Being on the receiving end of information in a classroom does not prepare students to be success-ready in a knowledge-driven society that requires critical thinking and problem-solving.”

This type of approach fails to promote logical and critical thinking about data and evidence used to explain science. This sequence does little to help students overcome inaccurate ideas and misconceptions that may be grounded in what could seem reasonable, but is unsubstantiated by empirical evidence and not an accurate depiction of science (Duschl, Schweingruber, and Shouse, 2007). Finally, this sequence leaves students at the receiving end of information with the primary intellectual challenge of confirmation and practicing ideas rather than constructing knowledge from first-hand experiences.

Arguably, being on the receiving end of information in a classroom does not prepare students to be success-ready in a knowledge-driven society that requires critical thinking and problem-solving, not solely the acquisition of data.

A new mindset for science teaching

We can have success ensuring that students engage in thinking deeply by making simple shifts in the instructional sequences we use to teach. Our approach is called explore-before-explain teaching and creates conceptual coherence for students by allowing them to construct knowledge using scientific practices.

Before delving into the particulars of the approach, an explore-before-explain mindset is a set of beliefs that the best learning environments tap into students’ prior knowledge and experiences and offer them hands-on experiences with data and evidence before teacher explanations. Explore-before-explain teaching is all about situating student learning in science phenomena that is understandable through the collection of data and evidence.

The mindset acknowledges that explorations and explanations are equally crucial for learners.”

Students’ first-hand scientific experiences allow them to construct scientific claims. Once students have some accurate scientific knowledge based on explorations, teachers help student elaborate on their understanding. Explore-before-explain teaching realises that at the nexus of the explore and explain types of instruction is where students construct ideas and generate more sophisticated understanding.

The mindset acknowledges that explorations and explanations are equally crucial for learners and are particularly potent experiences if offered at the right time for students.

What are the considerations for planning?

Becoming an explore-before-explain teacher requires us to think about teaching and learning in new ways. We have found from working with teachers and students that beginning planning with specific outcomes in mind brings greater leverage to the overall lesson, unit, and curriculum design. Our planning considerations are somewhat rank ordered, meaning that while we prioritise specific considerations in the overall lesson design, they all build on each other to create greater conceptual coherence for students.

Consideration 1: identify evidence-based claim

As teachers, we start our instructional design by identifying an evidence-based claim that students can make about the science they are addressing. This planning stage melds content with practice and allows students to construct knowledge through an active process. The importance of this planning stage cannot be overstated and is the fundamental idea behind the NGSS.

The process of identifying an evidence-based claim is a key aspect of the learner-centred classroom, calling upon innate intellectual abilities that students employ to know their world (supported by developmental psychology). It also provides the knowledge structure for which to develop understanding and incorporate new ideas (an emerging idea in the neurosciences). The outcome of the exploration is that students build an evidence-based claim. Depending on the age of the student, they either create a written artefact or communicate their scientific claim verbally or through pictures (a connection to contemporary standards in English language arts).

Consideration 2: pinpoint phenomena that can hook students into learning

Once teachers have pinpointed evidence-based experience students can have, they use the context provided by the exploration to ground learning in a phenomenon. Teachers can elicit students’ prior knowledge, experiences, and ideas as well as have them make predictions about what they think will happen during their explorations.

Children’s lived experiences provide them insights about how the world works; an essential component of constructivist theory is that all learning builds on existing ideas. In addition, having students make predictions in a non-threatening way releases a flood of pleasure-seeking neurobiological processes.

Students’ prior knowledge and experiences are a checkpoint for both the teacher and the students and help in evaluating and developing understanding throughout the lesson. This motivates and focuses student learning at the beginning of a new unit of study.

For example, in our units on thermal energy, we begin by asking students which way they think thermal energy transfers in a glass of ice-cold lemonade (from Keeley, Tugel, and Eberle 2007 p. 83). Students can select whether they think thermal energy transfers from the ice to the lemonade, from the lemonade to the ice, or between the ice and the lemonade simultaneously. This pre-assessment addresses students’ prior knowledge of content and seamlessly translates into first-hand explorations.

Such explorations require students to use science practices and think logically about trends in data to construct an accurate evidence-based claim.

Consideration 3: use explanations to extend learning

Next, teachers can plan for the essential scientific vocabulary, terms, and concepts they will provide to name students’ first-hand experiences. Scientists call this academic language; the language of the discipline that helps in communicating an understanding of the concept. Investigating computer simulations and models, textbook readings, and discussions and lectures are credible ways to develop formal ideas. Here teachers are sophisticating student understanding by helping them understand the underlying scientific principles that may be inaccessible from hands-on alone.

Consideration 4: provide transfer practice

Finally, teachers can give students the chance to test ideas in new and different contexts. This gives students practice in applying their ideas in different situations and it allows them to evaluate the generalisability of science content, knowledge and methods. Being able to test ideas in new conditions helps transition novices to experts. In this way, the planning consideration creates further branches to student’s knowledge structures, allows students to evaluate their developing understanding, and is a natural way that students understand diverse surroundings and encounters (supported by neurosciences).

Supporting educators for change

The skills, strategies and behaviours that explore-before-explain teachers must develop may take some time and they might not be perfect right at the start. The most accessible place to start is to find a tried-and-true, hands-on activity that leads to accurate science understanding.

Teachers can shift their instructional script and move the exploration before an explanation of scientific content. Once this change is in place, teachers can use the planning considerations to help create greater conceptual coherence by adding pre-assessments, grounding the unit in phenomena, offering explanations that introduce fundamental ideas, and providing transfer practice.

Students gain higher levels of science literacy because understanding from both explorations and explanations combine to create meaningful learning experiences.”

What many teachers have come to find once they have adopted an explore-before-explain mindset is that this is a powerful classroom approach. Teachers find the context that explorations provide engages students in science and cultivates their beliefs that they are essential agents in the creation of classroom knowledge. Context affects learning and motivation.

Situating all learning in students’ explorations and the resulting evidence-based claims gives meaning and purpose to all activities, including lectures and textbook readings. The result is that students gain higher levels of science literacy because understanding from both explorations and explanations combine to create meaningful learning experiences.

About the authors

Patrick Brown, PhD is executive director of STEM at Fort Zumwalt School District. Dr. Brown makes frequent presentations at international, regional, and state conferences and is known for his scholarship on instructional sequences to teach science. His science teaching ideas have appeared in Science and Children, Science Scope, The Science Teacher, and Science Activities. His research in science education has been published in Science Education, the Journal of Science Teacher Education, and the International Journal of Science Education.

Janice Koch, PhD is Professor Emerita of Science Education. She is the author of Science Stories: A Science Methods Book for Elementary and Middle School Teachers, published by Wadsworth/Cengage. Dr. Koch is the former director of the IDEAS institute, an outreach arm of the School of Education Health, and Human Services.


Duschl, R. A., H. A. Schweingruber, and A. W. Shouse, eds. 2007. Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Hofstein A., and V.N. Lunetta V.N 2004. The laboratory in science education: foundation for the 21st century, Science Education, 88, 28-54.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and J. Tugel. 2007. Uncovering student ideas in science, Vol. 2: 25 more formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

More to explore:

Blakemore, S.-J. 2010. The developing social brain: Implications for education. Neuron 65 (6): 744–747.

Gopnik, A., A. Meltzoff, and P. K. Kuhl. 1999. The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. New York: William Morrow.

McTighe, J, J. Willis 2019. Upgrade your teaching, understanding by design meets neuroscience. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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