The summary table is one of the most indispensable tools in ambitious science teaching. The first shown here is for a middle school unit about “Why are there no seasons if you live near the equator?”, the second is from a high school physical science class on whether ozone is helpful or harmful (we note that this is a good question, but not a phenomenon). Because a model is supposed to change over time, and in response to new evidence or arguments, students need to have some record of what they have done over the past few days, in order to draw upon different activities or readings. Without some representation of what they have done or read, they would have to depend on memory, and each student’s memory is different. So, just as scientists do, the teacher can help students keep a record of activities and ideas.
We have found that the best way to keep a record of activity and ideas is to create a table with four columns—1) Activities we did, 2) Patterns or observations, what happened?, 3) What do you think caused these patterns or observations?, 4) How do these patterns help us think about the essential question or puzzling phenomenon? As you can see in the figures included here, there are many variations created by our teachers. They are all adaptations that are useful for their particular classroom needs.
The table is placed on a wall in the classroom and it remains up throughout the unit. After each round of reading and activity, students are in charge of discussing how the activity helps them think about the phenomenon, and filling in one complete row. As the unit progresses, more and more rows get filled in and, ideally, students start to piece together a more coherent and complete explanation by looking “down” the fourth column.
Some teachers argue that they don’t have enough wall space to keep summary tables for every class period, however there are always ways around this by using a flip chart or simply making space on your walls.
Helpful advice from our teacher colleagues who have successfully used Summary Tables:
- Don’t put too many columns into your summary table, and don’t have more than five rows.
- The students should be in charge of negotiating what goes in each column after a reading or activity. At the elementary level the teacher would take more responsibility for crafting the sentences.
- Don’t wait until the end of a unit to fill in the rows (we’ve seen this happen), it is unhelpful and confusing for students. Fill in each row after each activity.