Educational Underpinnings of Backwards Faded Scaffolding and Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

Students’ Personal Theories of Learning

It’s all too easy to forget that what students hold as their personal definition of learning. In other words, theories of learning teachers hold isn’t the only thing that matters; what also matters are the theories of learning astronomy students hold themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, theories of learning students hold can be an influential consideration on the part of teachers when making instructional decisions.  If students and teachers have very different views on what it means to learn astronomy, then conflict is certain to exist. If this theoretical conflict isn’t resolved, then the practice of teaching and learning astronomy is likely to fail.  Moreover, because students’ theories of learning are often hard earned through years of taking and being graded on tests, they are likely to be deeply entrenched.  In addition, students’ theories of learning are often culturally-based, and sometimes even gender-based, giving considerable inertia to their definitions of what it means to learn resulting in something arduously difficult, if not impossible, to move.

On one hand, students may have come to believe that learning is synonymous with memorization.  In other words, if students can repeat word-for-word the definitions given to them by their astronomy teacher, then they have learned astronomy.  Award winning secondary level astronomy teacher Keith Goering from the Midwestern US, is famously known for joking, “if you can says it, then you must knows it.”  Students who have adopted this definition of learning are characterized by making flash-cards on small pieces of two-sided paper with bold-faced vocabulary words on one side and text-book definitions on the other side.  If they were to fail a test, the only reasons could be that the instructor asked purposefully tricky or deceptive questions or that the students themselves simply didn’t work hard enough to memorize a sufficient number of details.  Many students have become convinced that memorization is equivalent to learning because such a factual perspective has been represented to them on test after test after test over their broad school experience.

On the other hand, students may believe that learning requires much more than memorization, but requires deep understanding.  For most students, the notion of understanding is probably somewhat ill-defined. For scholars, there are a variety of ways to characterize understanding.  The most common description of understanding used in the US is that of thinking about understanding ranging from having a shallow and superficial knowledge of an idea to that of holding deep understanding.  Widely attributed to University of Chicago Professor Benjamin Bloom and known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, this decades-old hierarchical description of understanding is a six-level description ranging from shallow learning (i) knowledge and (ii) comprehension to a more moderate understanding of (iii) application and (iv) analysis to the deepest levels of understanding  of (v) synthesis and (iv) evaluation.    In contrast, more recently scholars have been describing understanding as being flexible and multi-faceted—a horizontal view rather than a vertical view if you will. Widely popularized in the US by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) in their Understanding by Design work, a complete understanding of an idea can be also described as having six different facets: Explanation, Interpretation, Application, Perspective, Empathy, and Self-Knowledge.  In the end, whichever scholarly description of understanding students adopt implicitly or explicitly, the stark distinction between understanding and memorization is pronounced and strongly poised to influence how students approach the learning of astronomy.  Most importantly, students’ views and their teachers’ theories of what it means to learn astronomy—and what their grades mean—benefit greatly from being aligned.

Astronomy by Inquiry: A Highly Student-Centered Instructional Strategy.  For many years, it has been common practice to ask students to complete astronomy assignments and astronomy laboratory exercises in the process of learning astronomy that look absolutely nothing like what astronomers actually do.  For example, countless astronomy students have used pencils to trace out ellipses with loose string on small square-box graph paper and count tiny squares to “prove” Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.  Perhaps even more students have carefully plotted the precise right ascension and declination positions of hundreds of stars to re-create the constellations and asterism of the night sky on small square-box graph paper to make their own star maps—star maps that are rarely ever used. If a teacher believes, instead, that students learning astronomy should actually be doing astronomy, then the traditional activities need to be discarded.  Undoubtedly, this is not the creative and imaginative work that characterizes astronomy.

moving-from-teacher-centered-to-learner-centered-versionARecently, work by Stephanie Slater and colleagues (2010, 2013) at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research in the USA has focused on developing learning experiences purposefully designed to mimic that daily work of a research astronomer. Known awkwardly as BACKWARDS FADED SCAFFOLDING LABS for historical reasons, this approach uses an underlying learning theory that states that novice students need extended and repeated engagements with scientific investigations in order to develop skills at participating in scientific inquiry (These are published by Stephanie Slater and colleagues under the name ENGAGING IN ASTRONOMICAL INQUIRY).  To leverage this idea of the importance of repeated intellectual engagements, the backwards faded scaffolding labs ask students to complete five shorter scientific investigations on a topic, as opposed to the conventional approach pursuing a single, longer scientific investigation.

The reason that these BFS labs are referred to as scaffolded, is that students are led through a specific instructional sequence where students are initially provided substantial amounts of support.  The instructor-supplied student support is slowly removed over the course of the laboratory learning experience—such that the lessons scaffolds are faded.  By the end of each lesson, students are able to devise and complete a scientific investigation in astronomy all on their own.  In this way, students gain confidence in their ability to conduct scientific inquiry in astronomy by gaining more responsibility for the learning from the beginning to the end of instruction.

The BFS labs are also known for being backwards because of how the scaffolds are carefully faded.  In the most common instructional approaches where students are taught how to conduct scientific inquiry, teachers teach scientific inquiry in three phases.  The first phase is to teach students how to ask scientifically fruitful questions. Second, students are taught to design experiments and observations to pursue evidence.  Finally, students are typically taught how to extract evidence from data and create an evidence-based astronomy conclusion.

What is particularly unique about these learning astronomy BFS laboratory learning experiences is the recognition that teaching students to ask scientifically fruitful questions is by far the most difficult aspect.  In response, the BFS astronomy lessons teach students to create and defend evidence-based conclusions first from a given research question and given data.  Then, students are taught to devise strategies to pursue data that can be used in an evidenced-based conclusion for a new research question, which is also provided for them.  Only when students have had considerable experience designing observations and defending conclusions from a number of research questions, are students then taught to create fruitful research questions—now that they have considerable experience doing the processes of scientific inquiry in astronomy.

An instructional sequence in scientific inquiry might be to ask students to use an online database of solar system planets showing the planet and moon positions and motions to pursue a series of investigations.  An example series of investigations might be to (i) determine the length of time our Sun spins by monitoring sunspots moving across the surface, (ii) determine how long it takes Jupiter to spin by monitoring the reappearance of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, (iii) determine how long it take Io to spin, (iv) determine how long it takes Io to orbit Jupiter, and (v) create your own research project on motions of the solar system. Two consistently great resources for this can be found by searching the Internet for NASA EYES ON THE SKY and JPL SOLAR SYSTEM SIMULATOR. But what is vitally important here is that in each case, students are deeply engaged in a progressive series of questions, where the teacher gives substantively less support with each following investigation.

Several thousand astronomy students have used these Backwards Faded Scaffolding inquiry materials with varying degrees of success.  By and large, our experience is that most people who have used them, continue to use them course after course.  At the same time, talented teachers are creating their own BFS labs to cover concepts across the domain of astronomy, and even moving into other disciplines.  For one, there is an online discussion group e-community for BFS-Labs that you can join by heading over to  There is even a YouTube video on backwards faded scaffolding Many of these new and community created BFS-Labs are archived and freely available at the Astronomy Faculty Lounge which can be accessed through a portal at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research website at (Slater & Slater, 2013).

Concluding Thoughts about Influences of Theory and Practice in Teaching Astronomy

In moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a learner-centered classroom, teachers need to sometimes make dramatic changes in their adopted underlying philosophies of teaching astronomy and guiding theories of learning.  In particular, classrooms that greatly value respect students thinking, start where the students are cognitively, and move all students as individuals are learner-centered.  In contrast, in a teacher-centered classroom, all students learn the same facts and the goal is to get them all to the same ending place.  How one decides to teach relies heavily on what the end goal is.  Teachers have different end goals, and as a result, should have different teaching approaches (see Slater & Zeilik, (2003) for numerous examples of various astronomy teaching approaches).

There are undoubtedly some teachers who loudly state they hold a particular teaching philosophy and use specific theories of learning that are actually in direct conflict with what is observed in their classroom.  In other words, there can be large differences between stated theory and actual classroom teaching practice.  Sometimes this is completely unintentional in that a single teacher cannot themselves know all of the possible teaching strategies and it does happen that a teacher doesn’t know how to teach in a way that is consistent with their stated theory.  More often, though, teachers know what the culturally accepted theory of teaching is, and purposefully use something different in the practice of teaching.  This conflict can lead to tremendous challenges between different teachers of similar topics.

As we look toward the evolving future, it is perhaps the concept of “The Flipped Classroom” that has the greatest potential for making classroom’s more learner-centered.  A far too brief description of flipping the astronomy classroom is a classroom in which the students do homework assignments and activities in the classroom in front of the teacher and students hear lectures and receive new astronomy information outside of class, usually being given information through Internet videos (Slater, 2013).  In other words, the process is flipped about where students do homework and where students listen to lectures.  This approach hold the best promise so far for helping teachers become learning coaches rather than information dispensers and moving toward being more learner-centered.

Mike Bennett, Previous Director of Astronomical Society of the Pacific

A recent beloved Executive Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Mike Bennett, the well-respected astronomy and planetarium educator was well known for the quip, “You know what the difference between theory and practice is?  In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.  However, in practice, there is!”  If you understand why you make the teaching decisions you make, then you are much better positioned to make consistent decisions about which of the many teaching innovations available will best fit into your continuous effort at improving your teaching and your students learning in astronomy.


Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Bailey, J.M. (2011). Discipline-Based Science Education Research: A Scientists’ Guide, 2011. W.H. Freeman Publishing and Company, New York. ISBN 1429265868.

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Lyons, D.J. (2010). Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry. W.H. Freeman Publishing and Company, New York. ISBN 1429258608.

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Lyons, D.J. (2011) Teaching Scientific Inquiry with GalaxyZoo. The Physics Teacher, 49(2), 94-96.

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F., and Shaner, A. (2008).  Impact of Backwards Faded Scaffolding in an Astronomy Course for Pre-service Elementary Teachers based on Inquiry.  Journal of Geoscience Education, 56(5), 408-416.

Slater, T.F. (2013). Would a Cognitive Scientist Recommend a Flipped Classroom? – Ramblings about Flipping the Astronomy Classroom, Over Easy.  An online blogged essay at the Astronomy Faculty Lounge Blog at URL:

Slater, T.F. & Slater, S.J. (2013).  Next Generation Astronomy Faculty Lounge.  Online teaching resource library and community forum hosted by CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, URL:

Slater, T.F. & Zeilik, M. (2003). Insights Into the Universe:  Effective Ways to Teach Astronomy, American Association of Physics Teachers Press: College Park, MD (160 pages).  ISBN:  1-931024-04-9

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, Publishers.

Waller, W.H. & Slater, T.F. (2011) Improving Introductory Astronomy Education in American Colleges and Universities: A Review of Recent Progress. Journal of Geoscience Education, 59, 176-183.


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One response to “Educational Underpinnings of Backwards Faded Scaffolding and Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry

  1. Pingback: Should Your Astronomy Students Do Telescope Observing Online? | Astronomy Faculty Lounge Blog

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