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  • Michelle Brown

What does learning sound like?

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

What can a second-grade classroom sound like? This is a question I took up by listening to classroom conversations during a long-term investigation about evaporation. Lori Zimmerman’s second-grade students were pondering why a container of water that had been left out without a lid on was at a lower level than when it started, while comparing it to a container of water that had plastic wrap over it. This low-budget experiment led to new questions and tests.

Sometimes video can be overwhelming. There is so much to see and hear at the same time. To better understand what was happening during this lesson, I decided to close my eyes and listen to a recording taken during class. I heard so many interesting aspects of the classroom. You can too! Click on the link below to hear an excerpt from class of students talking about why the water was lower and where the water went:



S1: The cloud goes out - it goes far out that window, then through the holes, and then through the clouds and- and- and it has too many droplets of water in the clouds it rains.

Lori: It went through the holes and the windows, and then into the droplets in the clouds- and then it rained

Michelle: in the clouds and when there’s too many drops of water it rains?

S1: Yeah.

Lori: Kevin, what’s your idea?

Kevin: Around how I said the clouds can go through anything? Actually it was like it was through the window, and then it went down and it like sucked in some of the water from the one without a lid, so the one- the lid didn’t get sucked in cause it had like a lid on, but the one that didn’t have a lid on - the one, it went down so the clouds sucked it in, and then I think it was black outside and so it started raining.

S3: What?

S4: It rained - there’s a cloud water— it rained.

Kevin: So the cloud sucked it in, and then It went outside and then it’s like, it had more rain, so it started raining because it had too much water in the cloud.

Lori: Roberto what was your idea?

S5: (inaudible) Too much rain ]

What did you hear? Specifically, whose voices did you hear? What were they saying? How were they talking to each other? How were the teachers talking? How were the students talking? How does this conversation compare to how your students talk during science or other parts of class?

A powerful aspect of science sensemaking is testing students’ questions. Often when we take up students’ ideas that are generated in the discussion and test them, it leads to more questions, deeper understanding, engagement, and excitement. Listen to this next clip where we created a test of pouring hot and cold water into containers to try to better understand where the water in the open container went.



Lori: Do you think you know?

S1: yeah. I think it goes up in the sky, goes down the window, throught the holes, and then goes up to the clouds.

S2: Like octopus.

Michelle: Can I test some hot water to see if there’s a difference? Should we do a test?

Students: Yes!

Michelle: Should I pour some water in a container so we can see which way it goes?

Students: Yes.

Michelle: What kind of water should I do?

Students: hot water

Michelle: Hot water?

Students: Yeah.

Michelle: Maybe, if we wanted to do a fair test, if we want to do a real test, should I do just hot water?

Studetns: yes - no.

Michelle: What should I compare it to?

Students: (inaudible) cold water.

Michelle: Cold water? Should I do a hot water, cold water?

Students: Yes!

Michelle: What are we trying to figure out?

S3: How does it disappear?

Michelle: How does it disappear? That’s what we’re trying to figure out. How does it disappear. Ooh. I’m getting excited. I’m going to get some cold water, adn my hot water is getting hot [water runnning]. Okay this is some cold water.

S4: Wait, how will we know which one is which?

Michelle: That’s a great question! Let me write - cold. Cold and hot.

S5: Oh my God!

Michelle: Okay! Ready?

Students: Yeah!

Michelle: Here comes cold!

Students: [various sounds] Woah- there’s water going down.

Michelle: Do you see anything happening?

Studnets; Yes… No!

S6: It’s going!

Michelle: Here come’s hot!

Students: Woooo, yelling, “Oh my Gosh!” “smoky”

Michelle: What do you see?

S4: It disappeared! (Other student voices)

Michelle: Where is it going? Is it going to the vent? Is it going over here like we thought it would?

Students: NO!

Michelle: Where’s it going?

Students: (various responses) Up.

Lori: Where’s it going?

Students: Up! UP! It’s going up!]


What kinds of sounds did you hear? How were students feeling? Did it make you nervous how noisy the class was? Is it okay to be noisy in class? When is it okay and when is it not okay? What would an administrator think if they walked into your room at this time? If they would be excited and happy, why? If they would be concerned, why?

Having a loud classroom can feel wrong, or as if I’m a “bad” teacher – it goes against most norms of most classrooms. However, when I listened to the noisiness in the classroom, it was full of learning and excitement, and don’t we want our students to be engaged and excited about learning? Research shows that when students are engaged and excited about the phenomenon they are learning about, they are more likely to stay focused, and this can lead to rich opportunities to write, read, speak, and listen about science.

Also, there is plenty to question and critique in these sound clips which can help us further improve how we teach science. For example, a lot of the test to pour hot and cold water was set up by me. Here I was trying to model how to create fair tests, and over time, I would expect students to be creating more and more of the test designs. When students are able to decide what to test and how to test it, we are giving them more agency in their own learning, which leads to more engagement, thinking, and opportunities for meaningful language learning practices.

When students are bilingual or emergent bilingual, such as those in Lori Zimmerman’s class, practices highlighted in these clips: having students discuss ideas with each other, and letting them design and carry out investigations, provides them with more time immersed in effective language practices. Think back to the first audio clip about students talking with each other. Think about how much more time students are spending talking and listening, compared to a classroom where students are expected to be silent and listening to the teacher for longer stretches of time. Although different tasks require different ways to engage, having a space where students can be excited and talk to each other and decide what experiments to do, allows students to practice thinking out loud and listening to each other’s ideas.


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