We present a class discussion that took place in the second author's high school biology class. Working from video data that we transcribed, studied, and analyzed closely, we recount how the question "Is air matter?" posed at the beginning of a unit on photosynthesis led to student-driven inquiry and learning. This case study illustrates what we argue is important in effective science teaching and learning: attending and responding to the substance of student thinking. We use it to articulate two reasons for attentive and responsive teaching: to help students understand science concepts, and to help students learn how to learn.

Prominent journals for secondary science teachers, such as ABT and The Science Teacher, provide many useful activities and approaches that can help teachers plan instruction. In our experience of teaching science, however, things don’t always go as planned, in particular when the plans include student input. Students have their own ideas, and we don’t always know what those ideas will be. This article is about what happened in Terry’s biology class, when he was surprised to find out what his students had – and hadn’t – learned about matter.

The class took place at an all-girls Episcopal school in an East Coast suburb, which is not a typical context for readers of this journal. The single-sex, smaller class – and the school’s independence from the constraints of public school curriculum and instruction – allowed Terry the flexibility and discretion to veer from his plans in ways that might have been more difficult in other contexts (Rop, 2002; Settlage & Meadows, 2002). At the same time, there is little reason to expect that these students’ fundamental needs as learners are different from other students’, and examining their understanding and reasoning, we argue later, can provide insight into what is important for students in other contexts. We have more to say about this later in the article; for now, we hope readers will focus on the substance of what took place in Terry’s class.

As the classroom teacher, Terry’s voice is central. In what follows, we switch from our collective voice to his personal writing, which we indicate with inset italics.

Terry’s Class: Is Air Matter?

Terry’s 9th graders were about to begin a unit on the chemistry of life.

I thought it would be a good idea to review concepts of matter and atomic structure before starting on new material. It’s important for students to understand matter, because difficulties in understanding chemistry of life (and photosynthesis in particular) often arise from students’ trouble in distinguishing matter and energy.

To begin, the students discussed what matter is, and students said that matter “takes up space” and “has mass.” Terry asked them to say a little more about what that meant, and students explained: Having mass means that “something could be weighed,” and occupying space means that “something could be seen and touched.”

“Seen and touched”? I wondered about that and decided to probe a little more.

Terry asked, “Is air matter?” and the class was split on the answer; half the students thought the answer was “no.” One student, Beth (all student names are pseudonyms), suggested putting air into a balloon and weighing it, predicting that would show that air has mass. There wasn’t a scale in the room, but there were balloons, and they blew one up. Terry asked if there’s a difference in the amount of matter or “stuff” in the two balloons, and the students weren’t sure. Beth jumped in to claim, “You can’t put something inside that balloon with air in it – like water,” and Terry responded.

  1. 1. Terry: OK. What would happen to the air in the balloon, if I put water in it too?

  2. 2. Beth: There wouldn’t be as much air.

  3. 3. Terry: Because?

  4. 4. Asia: The water’s taking up space.

  5. 5. Terry: OK, so…

  6. 6. Leslie: The air is the space.

  7. 7. Terry: Say it again.

  8. 8. Leslie: The air is the space.

  9. 9. Terry: So air is the space. Are you saying it takes up space? Is that the idea?

  10. 10. Amy: The air is the space that gets taken up.

I expected a quick review of ideas the students understood, but it seemed that half the students did not understand that air is matter. In this moment, I had to decide what to do. Should I say that Beth’s and Asia’s ideas were right, and correct Leslie and Amy? It wasn’t part of my plan to spend time debating whether air is matter. This was a biology class, after all, and there was a great deal of material in the new unit.

At the time of this conversation, though, I was trying to remake my practice to be more attentive and responsive to students’ thinking. To this point, my thinking about my teaching usually tended to focus on what I should do, how I should plan, and how I should correct students’ misconceptions. But I was starting to think about what should come first, before I made instructional decisions: how could I understand what students were thinking, in particular moments? I was learning to listen.

Would it serve the students, in this moment, for Terry to tell them that air is matter? Maybe. A lesson on photosynthesis is of no value to students who do not understand that air is matter. But were they ready to understand that information? Some seemed to have reasons for believing that air is “the space that gets taken up,” and they may have needed to talk about those reasons.

What are the students thinking? That is the first question to ask before deciding what would help them learn. Terry wasn’t sure what they meant, at the outset, when they said that matter “has mass” and “takes up space.” That was how this conversation got started, and once it did he heard more, including Beth’s clear articulation of the ideas he’d expected, but also including Leslie’s and Amy’s thinking that air and space are the same things.

Why might they be thinking that? Why would Leslie and Amy (and probably others) think that air is space? Did they not know that scuba divers carry air in tanks they carry on their backs? Did they not know what suffocation is, or did they somehow think it is a matter of running out of space? Or did they know those things but weren’t thinking of them in this moment?

There’s much more to wonder about what and how the students were reasoning. What did they think could settle this question of whether air is matter? Did they think of it as a matter of personal opinion, or as a matter of the teacher’s or scientists’ authority; as something they could reason about, based on what they know, or as something they could investigate? Did they expect that science should fit with what they experience, or did they consider it information to memorize?

The Need for Responsive Teaching, Part 1: Understanding Science Concepts

We call it “responsive” – teaching that genuinely attends and responds to the substance of student thinking. It’s different from what most people expect should happen in a science class, which has more to do with the teacher presenting information for students to understand and retain. In reformed classes, the objective may be similar, but the methods shift from teacher presentation to students learning the concepts “by inquiry.” So, rather than presenting information, the teacher tries to arrange things such that students construct the concept for themselves.

By “responsive teaching” we mean something that goes beyond this methodological dichotomy. We mean something closely connected to assessment, not just in the sense of exams and scores but also in the sense of teachers’ ongoing awareness of what and how their students are doing. Research on “everyday assessment” highlights this, that teachers’ awareness of student thinking leads to better student learning (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

Responsive teaching is part of what we expert teachers to do regardless of the curriculum. They pay attention to what students say, catching fleeting clues to their reasoning, and seize opportunities to hear more. If the lesson is about presenting information, they pause in the presentation to hear from students what sense they are making of that information; if the lesson is a guided inquiry, they monitor students’ reasoning along the way. What they find out informs how they proceed, and it’s the nature of the profession that they often discover student ideas they hadn’t expected. Responsive teaching is important not only in science teaching, but in all subject areas. There is a considerable body of research in both mathematics and social studies education, for example, that discusses the importance of attending and responding to students’ thinking (e.g., Ball, 1993; Franke & Kazemi, 2001; Van Sledright, 2002; Monte-Sano, 2011).

Terry had planned a quick review before starting the new unit, but what he noticed suggested that the students didn’t really understand that air is matter. Here is an example of why we need responsive teaching. If the goal is for students really to understand the concepts in science, and it turns out that they haven’t yet understood a prerequisite idea, we need teachers to notice and address the need. As he discovered that half the class did not think that air is matter, Terry shifted his agenda in response.

“There’s something in there”

We pick up Terry’s thinking and the conversation where we left off.

I was struck by the disagreement and decided to lean into the students’ thinking.

  1. 10. Amy: The air is the space that gets taken up.

  2. 11. Terry: So it’s an empty space until I put water in it? I’m trying, I’m trying to work your way…I’m not trying to say you’re right or wrong, I’m asking. This is not a graded assignment or anything.

  3. 12. Amy: Yes.

  4. 13. Terry: Yes? How many people agree with that? Air is empty space that the water is taking up.

  5. 14. Belinda and Leslie (simultaneously): There’s something in there.

  6. 15. Terry: OK, what’s the something?

  7. 16. Students: Air! Air!

  8. 17. Terry: So, does it take up space?

  9. 18. Students: Yes!

Now it seemed as though the students agreed that air takes up space, including Leslie and Belinda, who said “there’s something in there.” I didn’t find out what Amy was thinking, but Leslie seemed to have changed her mind. Asia captured the gist of the conversation at this point.

  1. 24. Asia: Or like it is matter I guess, but…’cause if you were to put something in there, the same amount of air wouldn’t still be in there because something else would have taken up the space.

With apparent consensus that air takes up space, Terry brought the students back to whether it has mass, which the students had operationalized as the question: Can you weigh air?

  1. 30. Belinda: I don’t know…um…you can’t weigh it…you can weigh the balloon with the air in it.

  2. 31. Terry: OK, weigh the balloon…OK, go ahead Heather.

  3. 32. Heather: Air is not meant to be weighed.

  4. 33. Terry: Not meant to be weighed? Tell me what you’re thinking.

  5. 34. Heather: Like you can weigh the balloon with the air in there.

  6. 35. Terry: I can weigh this? (holds up the blown-up balloon).

  7. 36. Belinda: Yeah.

  8. 37. Asia: But first you would have to weigh the balloon without the air, and then subtract it.

  9. 38. Terry: If I subtracted it?

  10. 39 Asia: It would be the same. Because it doesn’t have a…

  11. 40. Leslie: Confused!

While the students seemed to agree that air takes up space, they seemed torn over whether it weighed anything. Belinda suggested that air can’t be weighed by itself, but it could be weighed inside the balloon. Heather’s statement was odd. I wondered what she meant by “Air is not meant to be weighed” (line 32)? I repeated what she said and asked her to tell me what she was thinking. When she clarified, it sounded as though she was thinking something like Belinda, that we can’t weigh air by itself.

Asia filled out the idea a little further, explaining that we would have to “weigh the balloon without the air, and then subtract it.” Her response to my question “If I subtracted it?” was ambiguous. Was she saying, “It would be the same,” meaning that the blown-up balloon and the empty balloon would be the same, so she didn’t think air weighs anything? Or was she saying that the balloon’s weight would be the same, so you could measure the air’s weight? Either way, she seemed uncertain what she meant, leaving her last sentence unfinished. Leslie said the word that it seemed others in the class were feeling: “Confused!”

Why might the students be confused? Maybe it’s that on the one hand they believe – they can see – that air takes up space. After all, if you blow up a balloon, the balloon inflates. But on the other hand, air doesn’t feel like it weighs anything. A blown-up balloon doesn’t feel heavier than an empty one, does it? It might even seem lighter: an empty balloon falls much more quickly than an inflated one.

They might also feel confused because they’re not quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing. Most of their experience in science class has consisted of the teacher giving them information. Terry wasn’t doing that; he was throwing the questions back at them.

The Need for Responsive Teaching, Part 2: Learning to Learn Science

Everyone in science education cares about the goal that students genuinely understand the concepts. Sometimes educators lose sight of that goal; it can get displaced by goals of curricular coverage and test scores. Getting through the curriculum on schedule, which for Terry in this moment would mean starting the new unit, can be at odds with students really learning the ideas. Maybe worse, high test scores do not necessarily mean good understanding. There is consensus in science education that strategies for learning to get high tests scores are not necessarily the same strategies for learning to have a deep understanding (National Research Council, 2007).

That’s all part of our first reason for responsive practice, that it serves the objective of students coming to genuine understanding of scientific concepts. We don’t want students simply to have memorized the idea that air is matter, when they secretly don’t understand or believe it, even if they get that multiple choice question right. We want them to be able to explain why air is matter, and we want them to be able to apply this understanding to the mechanisms of photosynthesis and other biological processes.

But there’s another reason why we argue for responsive practice, another goal for science education that should have priority, especially in early science education: Students should learn how to learn. Today, many if not most high school and college students come to their science classes expecting to memorize information they don’t genuinely understand or believe. They learn to memorize reactions or repeat key phrases or follow protocols they have rehearsed without making sense of it all, without connecting it to their intuitions and experience.

It’s important to acknowledge that this goal is not the same as the first. Consider what Asia had to say in this last segment. Assessing her thinking with respect to the goal of correct understanding, a teacher might notice and respond to the possibility that she had the misconception that air doesn’t have mass. But in several important ways, she was behaving like a novice scientist. She was being open and honest about what she thought, and she was considering ideas other than her own. She was also trying to figure out how to get experimental evidence, helping to design a controlled experiment to find out whether air weighs anything. With respect to this second goal of her learning how to learn, the teacher should recognize and support the beginnings of good inquiry.

We define science as a pursuit and its results. The pursuit is of coherent, mechanistic accounts of the natural world – “coherent” meaning that evidence and ideas fit together and support each other, and “mechanistic” meaning that scientists look for explanations of phenomena in terms of familiar, established causes and effects (Hammer & van Zee, 2006). And the results of that pursuit include the accepted scientific knowledge, as well as the gaps in that knowledge and the questions it raises. Almost all science education focuses on the results, and in particular on the accepted knowledge. We argue that the pursuit itself needs priority, because for students as for scientists, it is through participating in the pursuit that they can achieve understanding.

Watching and listening to the students, we see the beginnings of that pursuit. Like Asia, Belinda and Heather were working on articulating their ideas clearly, and they were thinking about what it would mean to get information from the world – how is it possible to weigh air? The students seemed to be wrestling with conflicting ideas, struggling to articulate those ideas, and thinking about how they could get answers from experiments. The students had ideas, about air, about how to study whether air is matter. Instead of looking to Terry to provide the definitive information, they were trying to think it through for themselves.

For his part, Terry was paying attention to what they were doing, and he was trying to support it. We return to the class for one final look, starting again from where we left off.

“Can you weigh them?”

With students stalled on how to explain what confused them or why they thought air has no mass, Terry stopped the conversation and asked them to write down a prediction: If they were to weigh the empty balloon and the balloon with air in it, would the balloon with air in it weigh more?

The room was quiet for a few minutes as the students wrote. Caitlyn interrupted the silence to suggest that they actually find out: “Can you weigh them?” When Terry answered that he didn’t have a scale, Beth offered to get one from the chemistry lab. While she was doing that, Terry asked the students to “hypothesize.”

  1. 57. Terry: So hypothesize – oh, yes ma’am?

  2. 58. Asia: But doesn’t it, shouldn’t it weigh something because like if you put helium in it then it’s lighter than the air and so it like rises.

  3. 59. Terry: Ooh. OK, yes ma’am?

  4. 60. Belinda: If you were like to like let both of them go, the first balloon, like the empty balloon would probably hit the ground first, and that one would go slower.

They tried it, and Belinda was correct. Terry asked if that meant the blown-up balloon is lighter than the empty balloon, and the students weren’t sure. Asia said that the air outside was “bigger” and was “holding [the balloon] up.”

At this point, Beth walked in with the scale and the class weighed both balloons. To their surprise, the balloons weighed the same whether they were blown up or not.

  1. 84. Caitlyn: Oooh. What? Not fair! How can that happen? What? Air is everywhere…If I put air in my mouth like…[laughter]…I’d weigh more.

  2. 85. Terry: Thank you, so –

  3. 86. Heather: Well then there would be a difference. Like if I stuck my hand on there then…[inaudible].

  4. Terry: So you’re saying that they’re not heavy? Oh, go ahead.

  5. 87. Leslie: Air is like surrounding everything. So like the un-blown balloon would also have air.

  6. 88. Terry: Around it?

  7. 89. Leslie: Yes, around it.

  8. 90. Terry: OK.

  9. 91. Leslie: And a little inside, so…

  10. 92. Terry: OK. So the experiment showed that they’re the same. Are you happy with that?

Many students were not happy. They claimed that it was not a “fair” test, citing several concerns. Someone argued that the filled-up balloon was “held up” by the air, because Terry had dropped the balloons from a small height (“That one fell first, and that one was dragging along”), and so the full balloon, slowed by the air, recorded less weight than it should have. Another student suggested that the weight should be measured by a person holding a full balloon and then holding an empty balloon. Another suggested that the scale wasn’t sensitive enough to measure the difference.

Here, I saw students’ motivation to go try the experiment – they had an idea for how, and they wanted to start now! Asia was now clearly arguing that air must have mass, because of what she knew about helium. Was she thinking that people wouldn’t say “lighter than air” if air doesn’t have weight? Or was she thinking that the mass of air in a balloon would hold it down, in contrast to the helium?

Belinda was connecting the question of weight to the evidence of how quickly things fall, which drew out other ideas about the effects of the air surrounding the balloon. I noticed the students’ surprise at the results, which many of them had earlier been predicting, that the weights were the same for the inflated and empty balloons, and I was pleased to see them trying to reconcile that result with their now apparently convincing sense that air must have weight.

That is all we have space to recount; the conversation and inquiry continued for the rest of the period and into class the next day, when the students designed and conducted a more careful experiment showing the inflated balloon weighed more.

Toward Responsive Teaching Practice

This is an example of what we mean by a teacher attending and responding to student thinking. Terry had not planned any of this, but when he recognized a need he adapted. More to the point, in facilitating this episode of student inquiry, he focused closely on the meanings students were trying to convey and develop. Rather than provide the “right” answer, either about whether air is matter or about the results of their experiment, Terry supported their efforts to decide for themselves. In these ways, he was attending and responding to the students’ thinking, with respect to both their ideas and to how the students were taking up the pursuit.

This case highlights the beginning of a form of teaching practice that we argue is important and relevant for all teachers. That Terry was working at an independent school gave him and his students an advantage: He was afforded the flexibility and professional discretion to respond, both to the students’ missing important prerequisite knowledge and to the beginnings of scientific thinking that they showed in their work to resolve the question of whether air is matter. The constraints of the public school system, however, do not preclude responsive teaching. We provide evidence elsewhere of the ways in which public school teachers, even novice teachers, create space for students to share their ideas and reasoning, and attend and respond to those ideas, even in shorter classroom exchanges (Levin et al., 2009).

To be effective in these ways, teachers need to be able to use judgment as Terry did here, to decide how to proceed on the basis of what we see and hear in our students. This has implications for teacher education, which should include intensive training in attending and responding to student thinking, as it appears in class discussions or in written assignments. And it has implications for the professional practices supported by schools and school policies, which should be designed to give teachers the autonomy and responsibility that we need to make use of that training. This would include changes in how policy makers think about the pacing of curriculum in public schools. Policy change that emphasizes “depth over breadth” would allow teachers greater space to attend and respond to students’ thinking and encourage scientific practices (National Research Council, 2007).


We’d like to acknowledge Janet Coffey and Sandra Honda. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant ESI 0455711. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.


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