Being “Smart” in Science Class

It’s observation/evaluation time at my school. This year is my 3rd at this school, and that means I have a bigger process this year than I’ve had before. Four people will be visiting my classes over the next couple of weeks, and I have been thinking about what I want them to look at/for and what feedback I would find most valuable.

At last summer’s AAPT meeting, there was one talk in particular that really stuck with me. Rosemary Russ spoke about social justice/injustice and epistemological messages in the classroom—about how we communicate what counts as knowledge and what knowledge matters in our classes. I wrote this summary question in my notebook: “What does that teacher move tell you about how student ideas are valued in that class?” It had me immediately thinking about how that could be a frame for classroom observations.

I also recently read a pair of posts (see references at the bottom) from Ilana Horn that hit at some of the same ideas. One of the questions that she poses (for us to ask ourselves) is, “How much do students recognize the value and contributions of their peers?” I decided that one way I could get at that information was just by asking my students. I used her posts, including a list of mathematical competencies (outside of “quick and accurate calculation”) that I only edited and augmented slightly, to create a quick survey for my classes.

I started by having my Advanced Mechanics (mostly 11th grade students in a yearlong AP 1-ish physics class) fill it out. Here’s what I asked them:


At least one of my students had a physical reaction to reading that last question (because it was surprising to them). I realized that, even though these students reflect often at this school, we are almost always asking them to think about themselves (and maybe the teacher) in those moments. It’s so rare to ask them to speak about a classmate. And that’s an omission that I need to be careful to fix from here on out.

Before looking at the responses, I didn’t have time to really think at all about what I expected. I was still totally taken back by what I saw (in the best way). Here is what those physics students chose as their strengths:


I was astonished and delighted by the diversity of competencies that they saw in themselves. Looking through the individual answers, I also totally agreed with their ideas about what they do well as individuals. This pie chart really underscored the idea of the array of skills and strengths in my classroom (and reinforced the points that Ilana was making in her posts).

Here’s what those same students say they want to improve:


One thing I love about this chart is that it shows how they also value the whole spectrum of competencies. There isn’t just one that seems most important (otherwise wouldn’t most of them want to improve that one?).

And of course, what they wrote about their classmates’ strengths was one of the most inspirational parts of these responses. I had this group do the survey at the end of class (because I know them, and I know only a few would do it outside of class), and some of them even turned their computers to show another student what they had written about them. So amazing! So wonderful!

My 9th grade Chemistry students are filling these out for homework, and I’m eagerly reading them as they come in this afternoon (those two classes actually DO fill them out on their own—go figure!).

I shared the early results with my virtual chemistry PLC last night, and Heidi did a similar survey today with a slightly different list of skills.

The next steps are to see whether and how I am giving students opportunities in class to use and develop those competencies—and whether and how I am showing students that I value that entire range of skills. Am I having any effect on what students think about what it means to be “smart” in science class? I am looking forward to conversations about these ideas with the colleagues who are observing my classes in the coming days.

If you decide to give a similar survey or do similar work, I am interesting in hearing about it, too!


  1. Auditing Your Classrooms for Competence and Status
  2. What Does it Mean to be Smart in Mathematics?

9 thoughts on “Being “Smart” in Science Class

  1. Kelly,
    Thank you for the thoughtful post. You cause me to pause and really thing about what I am currently doing in the classroom and how I can improve upon my practice.

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