Responsive teaching refers to practices of attending and responding to the substance of students' thinking. It begins with eliciting students' engagement around some launching question, or sometimes with discovering its spontaneous emergence. From there, the teacher's role is to support that engagement and attend to it — watch and listen to the students' thinking, form a sense of what they are doing, and identify productive beginnings of scientific thinking. In this way the teacher may select and pursue a more specific target in a manner that recognizes and builds on what students have begun.

These practices differ from conventional practices of lesson planning and curriculum development that give attention first to the established body of knowledge. Designing a lesson means identifying some aspect of that body of knowledge that the designer expects students are ready to learn, and then organizing the experiences and instruction to guide students toward the target understanding. Thus, the target for the lesson is selected in advance and reaching that target defines the success of the lesson. In contrast, a responsive approach adapts plans and objectives within a particular lesson while still working toward larger learning goals.

Responsive teaching aligns with the essence of scientific practice. At the same time that children are learning science concepts, they are also learning about the kinds of activities that constitute science. Scientists work to figure out how phenomena in the natural world happen, i.e., they work to explain phenomena in terms of cause and effect. Explanations are always rooted in evidence and logical reasoning, and explaining the natural world frequently requires creativity and taking intellectual risks. In the process of developing explanations, scientists often develop models. Models are regularly based on the familiar, as the familiar can provide a starting place for new understandings. Sometimes more than one explanation or model for a phenomenon is proposed. Scientists use evidence and logical reasoning to determine which ones best account for the phenomenon. Sometimes this requires more experimentation. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2011) presents a comprehensive discussion of the practices of science.