A TOPS Teaching Model

If science were only a collection of explanations and facts, you could teach it with blackboard and chalk. You could require students to read chapters in a textbook, assign questions at the end of each chapter, and set periodic written exams to determine what they remember. In fact, science is traditionally taught this way, often to its detriment. Students all study the same information at the same time. Class togetherness is the model, even when some students are struggling with boredom while others are struggling to keep up.

But science is more than facts. It is also a process, a dynamic interaction of rational inquiry and creative play. Scientists probe, handle, observe, question, hypothesize, test ideas, jump to conclusions, make mistakes, revise, synthesize, communicate, disagree and discover. Students can understand science as process only if they are free to think and act like scientists, in an environment that recognizes and respects individual differences.

Science is both a traditional body of knowledge and an individualized process of creative inquiry. Science as process cannot ignore tradition. We build upon the achievements of those who have gone before. If each generation had to reinvent the wheel, there would be no time to discover the stars. Nor can traditional science move forward without new inquiry. Without this moving boundary, science would be static, dry and dead.

So here is a teaching model that combines both the content and process of science into an integrated whole, always available for change. We encourage your to use it in your own teaching practice, to adapt it so it works best for you.

TOPS Teaching Model

1: Selection

Students will usually select lab pages in sequence, since new concepts generally build on previous ones. But allow for variations: students might skip a lesson that is not challenging, or repeat a lab with doubtful results, or design an experiment to answer their own questions.

2: Orientation

Any student with basic reading skills can successfully interpret our thoughtfully designed instructions. If your class is new to TOPS, your students may not be accustomed to following directions by themselves or trusting their own problem-solving ability. When students ask you for help, first ask them to read what they don't understand. If they didn't read carefully the first time, this will usually clear up the confusion. Identify poor readers; when they ask, "What does this mean?" they may be asking in reality, "Will you please read these directions aloud?" Creating lab teams with at least one good reader is one way to boost independent work.

Certain other concepts and skills may also be needed to complete some labs. Measuring length, for example, requires that students be able to use a ruler. Preview the lessons you'll use so you can anticipate and teach requisite concept and skills (if any) at the start of each class period. Primary students will need the most introductory support. Secondary students may need none at all.

3: Investigation

Students work through the labs independently and cooperatively. If lessons are open-ended, they may decide upon their own experimental strategies. Encourage independence by helping your students only after they have tried to help themselves. You work as a resource, staying out of the center of attention, responding to questions rather than asking them.

To help students pace themselves as part of a cohesive group, announce well in advance when individualized study will end. Expect a frenzy of activity as the deadline approaches. While slower students finish the core activities you specify, challenge more advanced students with extension activities, or suggest they design original experiments.

4: Write-up

Activity pages ask students to explain the how and why of things. Answers may be brief and to the point, with the exception of those that require creative writing. Students may accelerate their pace by completing these reports outside of class.

Whether students are working alone or in teams, each should prepare an original write-up, and bring it to you for approval. Avoid an avalanche of written work near the end of the unit by following a simple rule: each write-up must be approved before starting the next activity.

5: Check Point

Student and teacher together evaluate each write-up on a pass/no-pass basis. No time is wasted haggling over grades. If effort is consistent with individual ability, check off the lab on a progress chart. Students can keep these in notebooks, or in individual assignment folders kept on file in class.

Face-to-face evaluations are efficient and effective. A few moments of your personal time has a greater impact than tedious margin notes that devour your evenings, and that kids may neither understand nor heed. You don't have to point out every error. Focus on particular weaknesses. If reasonable effort is not evident, request specific improvements and a follow-up check.

A responsible lab assistant can double the amount of personal attention each student receives. A respected assistant might check even-numbered write-ups, while you check odd ones. This assures equal treatment while easing your workload.

6: Science Conference

Individualized study has ended. This is a time for students to come together, to discuss experimental results, to debate and draw conclusions. Slower students learn about the enrichment activities of faster classmates. Those who did original investigations or made unusual discoveries share this information with their peers, just like scientists at a real conference.

This conference is an opportunity to expand ideas, explore relevancy, and integrate subject areas. Consider bringing in films, news articles, and community speakers. This is a meaningful time to investigate the technological and social implications of the topic you are studying. Make it an event to remember.

7: Review

Does your school have an adopted science textbook? Do parts of your science syllabus still need to be covered? Now is the time to integrate traditional science resources into your overall program. Your students already share a common background of hands-on investigation, and can now read the text with greater understanding, think and problem-solve more successfully, communicate more effectively.

You might dedicate just a day to review, or an entire week. Finish with a review of major concepts in preparation for the final exam. Our review/test questions are a fine platform for discussion and study.

8: Exam

Use any combination of our review/test questions and questions of your own to determine how well students have mastered the concepts they've been learning.

Now that your class has completed a TOPS learning cycle, it's time to start a new topic. Those who messed up or fell behind don't have to stay there. Everyone begins again on an equal footing.


The day before:

Tomorrow school starts. I feel anxiety, but a nice sense of anticipation as I check that everything in my classroom is in good order. I've duplicated 32 copies each of the first few lessons in this TOPS unit. Each lesson sits in a numbered manilla folder on my desk. Hmm, I'll remember to bring a big box and a brick tomorrow — a "filing cabinet" for these and my students' work folders.

What did I ever do before I discovered this organizing trick? Now I staple a page of graph paper inside the cover of each folder, and label it with a student's name. It's so easy to check off labs as we work through each unit. Their folders will become portfolios of the work they've completed.

Tomorrow I'll surprise the kids with their first lab page, and their folders. I'll show them the simple supplies laid out on the table in back, and suggest they get busy! This feels good. I haven't ever been quite so prepared.

Day 10:

My class is humming along. Or maybe buzzing better describes this state of orderly confusion. I'm thrilled (and maybe a little exhausted) staying ahead of all the activity. Students have questions and problems — not all of them have learned yet to actually read the instructions before thinking they're stuck. Still, the lab pages set them in a clear direction. They know where they are and where they need to go.

It's exciting to see the kids come into the room and get straight to work where they left off the day before. Sometimes I have to pry them away from their investigations, even after calling for cleanup time. And when I ask the slower kids to assign themselves homework to catch up, some of them actually do it!

The assignment folders are working well, too. Kids point with pride at the growing list of check points on their progress charts, at the deepening layers of lab pages, data and write-ups. They are genuinely taking responsibility for their own accomplishments, and feeling more confident daily.

Day 15:

Two lab teams have been competing. Today they have completed all 20 labs. Most of the others have at least a few labs to go. Since we have only three more days to devote to individualized activity, I'll choose three "key concept" labs for the slower students to complete. A couple of my most capable students asked if they could devise some experiments of their own. The others who have finished early can work on a few extensions suggested in the TOPS book. I'll ask whether any are interested in becoming coaches for the kids who are straggling.

The whole class is working hard to complete the labs. They know how much they finish will determine part of their grades, which will be weighted equally on number of lessons completed, attitude, and the exam.

Day 18:

An easy day! Several students will report on their original investigations, then I've scheduled a video on the broader implications (practical applications) of this topic. On Friday we'll finish with an exam.

Kids are really involved — and so far, nobody has gotten bored, slacked off, or stirred up trouble. They're already bugging me about their grades. And asking what topic we'll be doing next! I have a couple of tempting topics in mind. Maybe I'll let them decide!

I'm smiling as I write. Four weeks into the school year, and I'm eager for more. The students keep me hopping, for sure, but they are so engaged! Activity-centered teaching seems natural, effective. I respond to student questions, not the other way around. I've never had a teaching experience this satisfying.