Three Act Science – Alternative approaches to Science Teaching

Three act science is based on the work of Dan Meyer see his TED Talk here  who created three act maths in order to get students to think about and engage in maths – rather than simply follow sets of processes in order to get the ‘right’ answer.

Dan felt that his students had the following issues

Meyer students lack


Any science teacher will recognise these as the same problems we face. Students wait for us to help them and give up if we don’t,  We think they’ve nailed it at the end of the lesson only to find that at the start of the next lesson they are mystified when you mention the concept again. If an exam  question is worded slightly differently to the ones they have practiced they are completely flummoxed. They ask us to prepare them for exactly what will come up in the exam and blame us if it doesn’t.

Professor Guy Claxton in his latest book Educating Ruby   has the idea of seven Cs that give us a good starting point on what we want to our students to be enterprising, friendly, moral and imaginitive. These are :

Curious – Have a natural interest

Collaborative – Be able to be part of a team

Communicators – Effectively put their point across

Creative – Produce new and interesting ideas and material

Committed – Not need any external drivers or rewards

Confident – Be prepared to present and defend opinions

Craftmanship – Pride in their work and being the best that they can be

Three act science aims to help develop these skills  not just exam decoding. Irrespective of your teaching style – be it traditional or progressive these ideas add value to learning. It also fits in perfectly to strategies such as the South Australian Learning to Learn  which I feel hits all the things I’d want an education system to be

The principles of three act science are:

Act 1: the hook

This is a demonstration or video that is either counter intuitive or creates curiosity. The aim is to get the students engaged in deep thinking either in order to explain what they think will happen or why it happened.

An example is this one. What order will the cartons fall over in?

To take this a stage further we can ask students to make a prediction – The work of Professor Mazur implies this is essential.  We also should  create a degree of confusion  – see another blog I wrote  here  or the original here 

An effective way of assessing learning and ideas is to ask students to put their left right or both hands up to indicate their choice. So for example for the cartons above. If you think the last carton to fall over is the full one on your left, raise your left hand. If you think its the half full in the middle raise both hands. If its the empty one on your right raise your right hand. Now keep your hand/s up , go and find someone who disagrees with you and tell them why they are wrong.

We now go and listen to the ideas and misconceptions and articulate them to the class. What we are trying to do here is to use visible thinking  . The simple premise being that if we want our students to think like scientists we need to model that thinking for them. We are also drawing attention to misconceptions and getting students to think about them. The effectiveness of this strategy is outlined in the Dr Derek Muller aka Veritasium in his doctorate research – Full research papers here

Another strategy to add thinking at this point is  WMHI?  This is simply asking the question What Might Happen If …. ?  and get the students to continue – the boxes were lighter/heavier , sand was used instead of water ….  then they can work it out or try it out.

Act 2: The explore

So we have started an engaging activity, now is the time to explore and develop problem solving skills. What do we need to know in order to find out. What information have I got?  How might this link to other things I have learned or seen before?  (You could link this to SOLO taxonomy  here though David Didau has some advice on using it more for planning than the students here ) What value if any do the other student ideas have ? Could my initial beliefs be wrong? (surely not – confirmation bias is very powerful!)

We can also take it a step further – So for the cartons  if they all think the half full is the most stable – at what stage does reducing the amount of fluid from half full make it become less stable ie what is the point of maximum stability ?

Act 3: The reveal

We might want to use the Zeigarnik effect – basically  we lose interest in the cartons when we know what the answer is. We continue to think about incomplete activities so dont rush to do the reveal.

Want to know the answer to the cartons? Try it yourself = or look for the clue in the first video

There will be a whole series of three act science activities launched on a new youtube channel threeactscience and coolscistuff – So please watch this space

Please contribute any ideas or thoughts in the comments section




One thought on “Three Act Science – Alternative approaches to Science Teaching

  1. Pingback: Intervention strategies for A-level physics | Ramblings of a physics teacher…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s