Three Act Science – Collaboration?

Before we start educating them, it makes sense to ask the question what makes a great scientist?


The ability to ask astute questions ?

Being able to consider innovative and divergent strategies for getting the answers?

Having the capability to create valid experiments and spotting flaws in techniques and patterns/ anomalies in results?

Have a sufficient depth of knowledge to connect concepts to reach the Extended Abstract level of SOLO Taxonomy?

To be able to evaluate and extend understanding with more investigations?

How well does our education system facilitate the development of great scientists?

Often very poorly. All too often we teach from the bottom up; tell stories where the answers are already known. In many lessons no conflict is created, nor curiosity excited; no creativity is allowed and students are limited by the outcome.

In short, often students are taught merely to decode exam questions and performance takes the place of real learning.

Teachers complain of students lacking:

  • Initiative
  • Independence
  • Resilience
  • Thinking skills
  • Communication skills

This is not entirely our students fault.  Our education system is not designed to encourage creativity and free thinking, but geared towards conformity and mass production. Complaining that our students lack these skills is the equivalent of moaning that cars don’t fly.

With an education system that is exam orientated and risk averse it is easy to see why students are spoon fed and a cycle of dependency created.

How can we break the cycle and move away from this sanitised science experience?

Using Dan Meyer’s inspirational @ddmeyer  Three Act Maths as a model, we can incorporate multimedia and digital tools to redefine the learning experience. This is one example of transformational practice

What might we do?

  • Use multimedia and digital tools
  • Let them use their intuition
  • Let the students build the problem by asking questions themselves
  • Have them share their discoveries and evaluate each others technique
  • Be less helpful

If you only do one of these do the last: as a teacher it is incredibly difficult to acheive. When delivering teacher training I often use a magic box that there is a strategy to open, which is difficult to discover. I use it to demonstrate that invoking curiosity as a starting point, is much more powerful than the ‘bottom up’ approach. We would normally teach this as ‘here is a box, here is how to open the box, then give it to them and they would be able to open it’. This completely removes the joy of discovery and makes it very boring. The interesting thing when doing this activity with teachers, is that when they learn to  open the box, most immediately feel compelled to tell other people how to do it, thus killing the learning experience. The box is only interesting when you can’t open it. No other group I have tried it with suffers this compulsion. In fact a group of bankers used it to prove their superiority and wouldn’t dream of helping others!

I would like to propose a Three Act model for improving the delivery of science and would welcome collaboration, comments and criticism in the development of this.

The Three Act structure is already used by Screenwriters who know lots about how to engage our interest:

It sounds horribly like the formulaic OFSTED three part lesson , but please bear with me. You break your lesson down intothree parts: Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Beginning, middle, end. Setup, problem solving, resolution.

Act One is the hook. The purpose of the first act is to engage the students. It must be unique, something they haven’t seen or considered before. They are then encouraged to ask questions and build the problem themselves; to make predictions and use their intuition. Most people understand far more physics than they realise – for example: they don’t fall over as they understand centre of mass. What many lack is the ability to communicate this understanding in a conventional scientific way.

An example is here: (The idea is stolen from one of the finest minds in physics I know: Dr  Lawrence Cattermole)


If you cannot see the video there are three cartons of juice: one full, one half full, one empty. The full one is pushed over until it falls.

So what questions does this invoke?

The questions can be narrowed. The highly talented Tom Harbour (a beacon for Teach First ) at a school in Leicester gets his classes to ask superb questions using his “What would happen if…?” format.

Some questions they may come up with:

Which is the most stable? (This then generates more questions – do we mean which falls at the greatest angle, or which needs the biggest force to push them over?)

In which order will they fall over when pushed, from the first to fall over to the last?

Which requires the biggest force to push it over?

How much juice will make it the most stable? (This is massively more complicated than you may think!)

Which is most likely to get knocked over – an empty , full or half full glass, if you knocked them in passing ? (real life example – that gets even more tricky as the shapes of glasses will affect this)

Act Two: Ideas are generated  towards a resolution of the problem. Engagement is increased as the key aspects of motivation are in place: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose – See Dan Pink here

This is the stage where they can explore their understanding and knowledge can be added if needed. Allow them to make mistakes and follow wrong lines of enquiry.

They can then plan and carry out their investigation into stability to find out answers.

Digital technology used to follow their learning journey can  be transformative. Videos used to show what they predicted, what they did and what they were thinking offer great insight.

Apps such as Socrative, Showbie and Nearpod allow questions from the students to be compiled and progress to be shown. I will be developing examples of these in the future

Act Three is the reveal, the resolution to the dilemma. This ideally should be shown, if possible through the video or demonstration, rather than simply being told the answer. This builds tension and often gets the release – “Yess!!” Though for some of the activities the “right” answer is unknown and there are no limits to what students can achieve.

So what is the solution to the juice carton stability problem?

Find out for yourself!

( Contact me if you haven’t access to a carton!)

Please add comments and feel free to share and collaborate, this is not a commercial product.

16 thoughts on “Three Act Science – Collaboration?

  1. Hi,

    thanks for starting this thread – I am excited to see where it leads. I came here via Dan Meyer, although I teach more science than math.

    The 3-act structure has the potential to work particularly well in Science (compared to math) because it is easier to setup cognitive dissonance (or a discrepant event).

    In Dan’s approach, the ‘conflict’ or ‘complication’ is generally structural – “I don’t yet have the tools to solve this problem. How do I get them?”

    In Science, even though most people have strong intuitions about the physical sciences, it is still possible to setup a true ‘complication.’ “Whoa! This is not going in the direction my prior knowledge/intuition/stereotypes suggested it would.” If done well, this no longer leads to just “How do I get the tools to solve this problem?” but rather “How do I rearrange my schema to accommodate these new observations.”

    1. Thanks for your very insightful comment. I have a lot of ideas that I will start putting up in the next few weeks.
      It seems to me we teach from the bottom up (like teaching a mechanic how to use tools, but not showing them a car) and our students cant see where the information fits in to their world. By starting with the hook and creating dissonance we have them searching for the tools to solve the problems.
      The more collaboration we can get on this the better so please pass on and add ideas

  2. I have been thinking for some time about what effective 3 act tasks would look like in Science. I think Physics definitely lends itself to such tasks. Chemistry, which is what I predominately teach, is a bit more difficult (or maybe I don’t have enough imagination). Definitely interested in seeing where this can go.

    1. Hi Trent
      Physics is probably the easiest as it’s easy to find things that cause dissonance. Very keen to extend it across all three sciences though so please stay in touch

  3. Really nice post, Neil.

    I also wonder about spinning science classes around to get them constructing models for what they observe and testing them. While I took science in middle and high school and did well, using the scientific method to create, test, and revise mental models for what is observed was never a focus on those courses. They tended instead to be a list of things to learn to do. If you don’t understand a concept…wait, and it will be explained to you, followed by a series of practice problems.

    I’ve been really enjoying the philosophy of Modeling Instruction ( which doesn’t fit exactly into the three act structure, but has the same guiding principle as what you described above. Students make decisions about what they could measure or figure out in order to investigate a phenomenon, and then actually carry out those measurements to come up with an answer. Check out the link for a much more detailed description, and take a look at Kelly O’Shea’s blog for detailed descriptions of what this looks like.

    It’s very possible you’re already aware of all of these things, in which case you should just take comfort in the fact that you are getting a lot of heavy nods of agreement from my direction.

    1. Thanks Evan. This is an awesome addition , also this is the power of the internet to collaborate and build something amazing. Will look into this and add to the model which I set up simply as a starting point. The reaction has been fantastic

  4. I was just introduced to the Three Act approach by a colleague today during a lunch conversation. My jaw hung open. What she described and what you so eloquently explain is more or less the approach we have developed for our Fusion Science Theater (FST) shows. Fusion Science Theater is an NSF-funded project that creates science shows that, unlike most chemistry demonstration shows, actually teach chemistry concepts. How do we do it? You guessed it– we hijack the dramatic structure of a play to create an investigative, curiosity-driven learning experience.

    For example, our show about conductivity (“Will It Light?”) is launched by the question, “Will the bulb in the conductivity apparatus light in pure water?” We offer the definition that, “electricity is. . . moving charges”. Kids vote for their prediction/answer to the question (Yes, No, I don’t know) using paper ballots. But of course we don’t answer their question right away. Instead, we show them what happens when we put the conductivity apparatus in solutions of pure water and salt and then sugar. (There are drum rolls preceding all these tests, BTW). Then we take up the question “WHY does the salt solution light the bulb but the sugar solution doesn’t? Now we need a model. We show them little lab models, but they are too small for the audience to see clearly and they are static. So we bring up volunteers from the audience and hang H2O, C12H22O11, Na+, and Cl- signs around their neck and then, with the appropriate explanations of charges and solids and dissolution, model the movement of ions (not molecules) to oppositely charged electrodes represented by big pieces of cardboard. (It’s a performance, complete with music.) We ask kids in the audience to explain the results of the salt and sugar solution. Then ask them to vote a second time to predict, once again– Will the bulb of the conductivity apparatus light in pure water? Then it’s time for the climax. Drum roll and. . .test and. . .no light. It takes the kids about 6 seconds to absorb this, and then they jump up (literally), high five each other, and yell out, “I KNEW it!”

    We measure concept understand and application by the increase in correct answers from the first vote to the second. And, this amazing form (which you are well acquainted with) produces significant gains for children 5-11 years in a 30 minute show.
    So there you have it. It does work quite wonderfully for chemistry. So well that I’ve adapted it in my community college classroom. .

    You can watch “Will It Light?” if you search for Fusion Science Theater on Vimeo. You can also watch another street-theater style show at

    SO GLAD to find others who have developed and practice this method. We got it from the discipline of playwriting, but learning games do something very similar.


    1. Love this! The only thing I would add to it is to find someone who disagrees with you and argue your case with them as in my latest blog post here
      What we need now is a collaborative wiki or google doc to set this up – will try to do one at the weekend

  5. The model of inquiry developed for years at the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry and now expanded on by the Institute for Scientist & Engineer Educators at UCSC is very reminiscent of the 3-Act structure (though we call it “starters, investigations, synthesis”).

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