Productive Management of Uncertainty: Supporting science teachers to raise, maintain and reduce uncertainty toward student conceptual development in argumentation

Principal investigator

Ying-Chih Chen

Award start date


Award end date


Originating sponsor

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

The challenge

In their Framework for K–12 Science Standards, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine define scientific knowledge as “a particular kind of knowledge with its own sources, justifications, ways of dealing with uncertainties and agreed-on levels of certainty.” Yet traditional school science emphasizes discoveries in their final forms, with little opportunity for students to experience how knowledge is developed — including the importance of uncertainty. Teachers and students can find it difficult to manage uncertainty while constructing a mutual understanding, making uncertainty detrimental to learning. Argumentation, a dialogic practice pervaded by uncertainty, engages students in considering multiple and contradictory claims of varying degrees of uncertainty to resolve disagreement. Few studies have explored argumentation as an enterprise of uncertainty management: how uncertainty is raised, the resources for managing uncertainty, how uncertainty progresses discussion, and how uncertainty is resolved and reduced to contribute to conceptual development.

The approach

With this project, Assistant Professor Ying-Chih Chen will examine how teachers manage uncertainty when they implement an argument-based inquiry, called the Science Talk Writing Heuristic approach, to teach a unit on force and motion. The project will address two questions: 1) What are the characteristics of teachers’ knowledge of uncertainty management in argumentation, including declarative (knowledge for practice) and dynamic (knowledge in practice), and 2) How do teachers’ declarative and dynamic knowledge affect learning outcomes? This project will work with five fifth-grade science teachers, with another five in the same school district selected as a control group. Mixed-method research will collect qualitative and quantitative data in each classroom through nonparticipant observations, semi-structured interviews with teachers, lesson plans, instructional materials and reflection journals. Student data will be collected from content assessment results and classroom artifacts (e.g., written assignments, notebooks).

Findings and impact

Chen’s project will commence in July 2018, with evaluation in May/June 2019. Results will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education and the International Journal of Science Education; and practitioner-based journals such as Science and Children, Science Scope and Science Activities. The project will also provide empirical evidence for a project proposal to the National Science Foundation’s CAREER and Discovery Research PreK–12 programs, and for a small-grant proposal to the Spencer Foundation.