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Thinking Tasks: Ensuring MLLs Understand STEM Content

by Darlyne de Haan |

I read a tremendous number of books, articles, and blogs on topics that cover math, science, STEM, and general content instruction, to name a few. Although many of these books are not specific to multilingual language learners (MLLs), I am always asking myself: “Can this be applicable to MLLs, and, if so, how would it look?”

Sometimes, I run across a book that makes me say to myself, “There it is! This can easily be applied to MLLs.” The most recent book I read like this is Peter Liljedahl’s Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K–12In the book, Mr. Liljedahl thinks about tasks in terms of “not what a task is, but rather what it does. And what a task needs to do to get students to think.” All students can think, even those whose first language is not English. So for today’s blog, I am going to talk about the power of using tasks to help you plan lessons with the understanding that MLLs can think in STEM and other STEM content classes.

Learning vs Mimicking

One of the first takeaways in the book that struck me was about tasks that really let you know if the students understand the topic being taught. This is especially important in teaching MLLs because it can be done in a way that retains rigor but with minimum language. Peter Liljedahl’s approach does not require a lot of additional educator preparation, but the information gained is tremendous.

We as teachers have a tendency to believe that we can state quite firmly that our students understand a concept, and we can move on to the next lesson or topic, if

  • we model a problem for the class,
  • provide students with multiple problems to practice that must be solved exactly like the problem that was modeled, and
  • students solve the practice problems correctly.

But, in reality, all that really occurred was that the students simply mimicked what we did. Liljedahl defined mimicking as when students try to re-create the pattern of solutions that has just been demonstrated by the teacher. In light of this definition, consider your classroom, where you don’t speak your MLLs’ language and they cannot express themselves well to you. You might assume that your MLL understands a concept if they are getting practice problems correct. (This can be said for every student in the classroom as well.)

Tasks for Understanding

So, how can we determine if an MLL truly understood the lesson and what was explained to them? The answer is not having them practice problems just modeled, but providing them with a task that requires them to use the same skills but in a different way. Here is an example from the book using factoring quadratics. The teacher puts the following problem on the board, after modeling one to the class, and tells the students to solve the problem.

Factoring quadratic problem for the students to solve: (x+2)(x+3)?

Using their whiteboards, students show the teacher their answers, which are all correct:

Student response: x2 + 5x + 6

The teacher writes her answer to the problem on the board, which is the same as theirs. The teacher tells the students, “Great job! But what if my answer were x2 + 7x +7? What would the question be, then?” To assist her MLLs in understanding what she is asking, she writes the following on the board:

( ?   ?)(?   ?) = x2 + 7x +7

THIS IS THE TASK! THE THINKING TASK! This allows the teacher to maintain the rigor and also have students think about whether they know and understand how to factor quadratics—or if they were just mimicking.

Thinking Tasks in the STEM Classroom

In the STEM classroom, thinking tasks should be commonplace; they are often called “STEM challenges.” STEM challenges provide students with a problem that they are to solve using their previous knowledge both academically and, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, their “funds of knowledge.”

Let us use one of my favorite STEM challenges, the gravity-powered race car. For this challenge, the students need to determine how to make the most friction-efficient paper car from an index card, using a marble as the force. This challenge involves scientific concepts of gravity, friction, and inertia.

STEM teachers might have their own reservations on teaching such a topic; they might assume that the MLLs can’t think at this level in English. However, by creating thinking tasks, as done above in the math problem, the STEM teacher can determine what the MLL knows and teach the vocabulary visually through the short thinking tasks. By using short thinking tasks, the students can demonstrate their understanding instead of mimicking. (I do want to say that for STEM challenges, the teacher should never model the entire process or set up because the students will mimic what they see. By using thinking tasks to help explain the science, the students should then be able to work on the STEM challenge on their own or with their group).

For the gravity-powered race car STEM challenge, here are some recommended mini-thinking tasks for students to demonstrate their background knowledge:

Gravity and inertia: Use a manila folder to create a ramp. Place the marble on the groove of the folder, and let it roll down to the floor. The marble rolling down the ramp is due to gravity.

Once the marble starts to roll, it tends to continue to roll. This is inertia (an object in motion stays in motion unless a force is applied to it). To explain force, have the students place an object in front of the marble to stop it. Have them explain what happened to the marble or ask them, “what happened to the marble when you placed your hand in front of it?”

Friction: Place the ramp on a floor and roll the marble down the ramp, and then do the same on a carpet; this will help demonstrate friction. You can ask questions using body motions and visuals: “What stopped the moving marble?” “On which surface did the marble roll farther?”

These mini-thinking tasks give students the information that they will need to complete the gravity-powered race car STEM challenge.

I found that understanding the difference between mimicking and learning made a huge difference in my approach to teaching STEM to MLLs. What do you think? Do you have any tasks for thinking and learning that you like to use? Please share in the comments, below!

If you want to learn more about the gravity-powered race car, click here. There are multiple versions of the this challenge that you can find with a quick online search. 

About the author

Darlyne de Haan

Dr. Darlyne de Haan, a former forensic scientist and chemist with more than 20 years of experience in STEM, is a recipient and participant of the coveted Fulbright Administrator Program for Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is a strong advocate for changing the face of STEM to reflect the population and is fluent in English and advanced in Spanish.

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