In a responsive teaching environment, students will propose lots of ideas. Teachers attend to these ideas and then must decide how to respond. How does a teacher decide her next move? That is, which ideas should she follow up with? How does she decide which ideas are worth pursuing?

We suggest teachers make their next move decisions based on their assessment of the scientific merit of the students’ ideas. By scientific merit, we do not mean how well the idea aligns with a specific content standard, or how fruitful the idea might be in leading to students to an understanding of that content. By scientific merit, we mean how productive would this question be for leading the students towards substantive engagement in scientific inquiry. So, what kinds of ideas might be productive in this way? We suggest to teachers who are just beginning to engage in responsive teaching that they might focus on three basic criteria: clarity, causality, and consistency.

The three criteria, clarity, causality (mechanism), and consistency (argumentation) do overlap with each other. When a teacher listens to her students’ ideas and wants to assess their scientific merit in order to guide her next move decisions, she should think of the ideas in terms of one or more of these criteria. Responsive teaching has less to do with guiding students toward correct answers (as many science educators traditionally expect) and much more to do with guiding students toward good inquiry. Attending and responding to students’ thinking does not mean anything they say is wonderful! The idea is to guide them toward being clear, causal, and consistent in their understanding of the natural world. Those are the core criteria by which scientists assess the quality of their ideas, and so they should be the core criteria by which we assess children’s ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, the criteria by which they learn to assess their own and each others’ ideas.