Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘curriculum and standards’ Category

Digital notebook free inquiryI’m a huge advocate for collaboration in and out of the classroom. Too often, teachers work in isolation behind closed doors, missing out on opportunities to share ideas with colleagues, get feedback, and grow professionally. Even if teachers reach out within their own school to collaborate, many are missing the chance to collaborate on a worldwide scale. Early on in my teaching career I was inspired by the likes of Dan Myer (math blogger extraordinaire) who not only blogged thoughtfully about teaching, but also published his lessons and videos freely- for anyone to use in their own classroom. It begged the question: Why doesn’t everyone do this? Especially in an age where teachers are just as likely to turn to the internet for lesson ideas as they are to the textbook, I firmly believe all teachers should simply share more of what they do.

In that spirit, I’m sharing all of my digital documents for my 6th grade science units, starting with the scientific inquiry unit in this post. Hopefully you’ll find a few things that are useful for you to use in your own classroom, or at least get a better idea of how documents can work in digital notebooks. I’ve organized them by categories so it’s easier to find what you want: the study guide, lessons, homework, and assessments. Each lesson document is a notes document for students intended for a different day (we have 80-minute blocks, so they are pretty involved), and they are in a “scaffolded notes” style (which I wrote about earlier). Although they are designed for 6th grade science, most notes and lessons could easily be adapted to Upper Elementary or 7th/8th grades.  (more…)

Read Full Post »

do-it-yourselfA problem I’ve been kicking around for a while is how to give my students clearer feedback on their learning progress. In a standards-based system this can be a challenge, because feedback is more detailed than a single percentage grade; a single assignment often covers more than one learning goal and therefore is given multiple grades. This detail can be very useful to the student for guiding their learning, but only if they are able to take it all in and manage the feedback in a positive way.

Unfortunately, most grade books out there haven’t mastered standards-based grading, making it difficult for both teachers to enter grades and students to access and understand them. I know this from first-hand experience: the past two years my middle school has been struggling to use Perason’s PowerTeacher Gradebook for our standards-based grading (and to think they claim it’s the “next level in classroom technology”- ha!). There may be some helpful updates on the way at some point- I haven’t fired up this year’s version up yet- but instead of waiting around for Pearson to solve your problems, how about taking matters into your own hands? (more…)

Read Full Post »

Back in April, we hosted a Science Collaborative Workshop with 21 PreK-8 science teachers from 5 international schools. (Check out these previous posts if you’re interested in the planning process or my take-aways from organizing the event.)  Since we all use the same AERO science standards, one of our goals was to work together to create standards-based science units that could be used as exemplars for other international schools. We nearly accomplished that in the span of the 3-day workshop, but making these units accessible (and legible) on a website took over a month of continued collaboration remotely (and a little bit of arm twisting on my part!)

I’m happy to announce that these exemplar science units are now published and freely available on our website www.AERO-Science.org. The seven units are:

Please take a look and let me know what you think of our work! Each of the units was designed using the Understanding by Design approach and was a collaborative effort between teachers from different schools.

Next fall we will be holding a follow-up workshop at the NESA Fall Training Institute to continue and expand this collaborative project, so if you also teach at an AERO school, please join us!

Read Full Post »

After months of delays it’s finally here! On Friday the draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was released, open for public feedback until June 1st. Since these standards could become the equivalent of a US national science curriculum (similar to the Common Core for Math and Language Arts)- it’s kind of a big deal. And yet I haven’t found much of anything out there on the internets in the way of reactions or discussion, positive or negative, about the new standards. So if you teach K-12 science, go check them out and let’s start the conversation now instead of grumbling for years after about what we don’t like. Here’s my initial reactions on the elementary school portion, both the good and the bad:

Good intentions

The Next Gen standards are based on the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education. If you’ve read any of the NRC’s outstanding books on science education and learning in general, then you know that their work synthesizes the huge body of decades of research on learning. So they know what they are talking about! The NRC’s Framework proposed that new science standards have to include 3 elements: core content, scientific practices, and cross-cutting concepts. In other words, they recommended that the standards be focused on only the most important scientific content (to avoid the “mile wide and inch deep” curriculum), and put this content on equal footing with learning skills and big, interdisciplinary ideas that cut across different fields (such as patterns and cycles). Since past standards usually get caught up in the content (and lots of it), this is a big shift.

How well do the Next Gen standards realize the Framework‘s vision? On the surface- very well! Each performance expectation in the standards is written with the practices, content, and cross-cutting concepts included in the sentence itself. For example, here’s a performance expectation for a 1st grade about plants and animals: “Obtain and share information to explain that patterns of behaviors between parents and offspring promote survival“. The skills (obtaining and sharing information) and the cross-cutting concept (patterns of behaviors) is right there, being used to describe the core content. In this way, teachers can go ahead and get myopic about the standards wording, because everything is already built into the standard itself. Very clever!

Age appropriate

A clear effort was made to ensure the standards are age-appropriate (unfortunately it looks like this was taken to a fault, but more on that later!) The focus is mostly on macroscopic, observable phenomenon that are easy for kids to investigate in a hands-on way. Often the data to be collected is explicitly qualitative, so that younger students don’t get bogged down in excessive measurement or needless precision. Many of the standards include “boundary statements” which are intended to give a clear idea of what is NOT included in the standard. There are a few items in the elementary standards that will raise your eyebrows about age-appropriateness, but for the most part it seems spot on.

Engineering gets to join the party

As a former engineering student I know I”m biased, but I think it’s great that engineering is finally being included in science standards- and in fact given almost equal weight with science itself! Throughout the standards their are explicit performance expectations for designing, modeling, and applying scientific knowledge to an engineering problem. I’ve always thought of engineering (and used it in my teaching) as the perfect tool for getting students to apply their knowledge and gain a deeper understanding, so it’s wonderful to see someone else agree!

…So far so good, but there are also some major flaws these draft standards that I hope are addressed:

Over-prescriptive performance expectations

The elementary school standards are not banded, but grade-level specific, meaning the standards give specific performance expectations for Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it is going to make the standards difficult for schools to adopt- and this could even de-rail adoption at a larger national scale. What if your school doesn’t currently teach about sound and light in 1st grade? What if you teach it in 2nd grade or Kindergarten instead? According to the way the standards are written now, schools would have to fall in line with a very specific progression. But why is this level of specificity necessary? It’s difficult to see why some topics must be addressed in one grade but not in another. Since many of the topics are very independent, there’s no obvious or perfect learning progression,so I don’t see why the elementary expectations can just be banded to allow for more flexibility.

Tricky topics

When you read through the Next Gen standards they are organized by “topics”. There are 3 or 4 topics per grade level in elementary, so it’s very easy to think of them as units of study. However, in the introduction to how to read the standards, it states that:  The performance expectations were initially written in topical groupings, but can also be viewed independently.  Topical groupings of performance expectations do not imply a preferred ordering for instruction—nor should all performance expectations under one topic necessarily be taught in one course. 

This is hogwash. Trying to re-imagine the elementary performance expectations in any way other then topic units is like trying to re-create the wheel. Why would anyone bother when it’s already done for you? At first this might seem like a good thing- hey, the standards are finally telling us what units to teach in each grade! But the closer you look at these topics the more you realize that they fall short of good units. Some topics (like the 1st grade Patterns and Cycles) are weak and devoid of enough content to even merit a unit of study. Other topics start out with strong core ideas, but then the list of performance indicators keeps on straying further and further from the main focus. (like the 2nd grade Interdependence topic that tacks on bits random expectations about fossils). If the standards are going to be organized into independent topics that teachers will obviously treat like units, then they need to lend themselves to rich units of study. Which brings me to my last critique…

Still half a mile wide

The Next Gen standards made an attempt to reduce the overwhelming amount of scientific content that most current standards contain and focus on core ideas. But the draft only half achieves this. Many of the topics still read like laundry lists with too much content to be able to investigate and explore topics in depth. This is readily apparent when you start thinking of the topics as units. After 1st grade there are 4 topics per grade level, basically meaning 4 units a year, which is already one more unit that I currently teach each year. There is evidence of a lot of “tacking on” in many of the topics, with performance expectations that don’t fit with the core ideas of the topic. These need to be cut. If the standards are truly going to focus on core ideas, then only core ideas should make the cut. Otherwise the Next Gen standards will only be one step in the right direction, and not the bounding leap that we need instead!

Read Full Post »

I know I’ve failed to blog much of anything the second half of this school year- but at least recently I’ve had a good excuse! Last weekend I organized a Science Collaborative Workshop at my school, which brought together 21 science teachers (elementary and middle school) from 5 international schools. For 3 days we shared ideas, exchanged resources, and collaborated on science units we had in common. It was an invigorating and intense experience, but when the dust settled we had collaboratively created seven standards-based units that we will be able use ourselves and share with other international schools on our website (still under construction, but you can check out the Electricity unit for a preview of what’s to come). 

I blogged about the preparations back in December, mostly to think out-loud about my ideas for the workshop. Now that the workshop has come and gone (and I have my life back!) I’d like to share a few of my reflections on organizing a professional development experience for my fellow teachers:

If you build it, they will come

Not only is this true for magical baseball fields, it’s also true for teacher collaboration. Too often in education we teachers toil alone behind closed doors, when a conversation with a colleague would make all the difference. But collaborating can be challenging- you need to find the time to do it, you need to find the right person with something to offer, and it needs to be mutually beneficial to make the collaboration last. For our workshop we gathered teachers from 5 select schools where we knew they were experienced with aligning to the AERO science standards and also shared a similar philosophy for designing units with backwards design. So we all shared a common language about teaching and unit planning, and everyone had something to offer. We also put teachers in teams where they all taught similar grades and had a unit in common that they could work on together. So everyone was invested in the work because it was something they could actually use with their own students. Just getting this right group of people together in the same room was probably the most significant factor for the workshop’s success- with the right playing field set up the game happens naturally.

Throw away your ice breakers

One of my main goals for the workshop was to build collaborative relationships between teachers and schools, in other words I wanted to make sure people hit it off with teachers from other schools. So why not start off the workshop with a couple “ice breaker” activities? Because ice breakers have always annoyed me- I don’t know why exactly- but something about their contrived content and obvious purpose always makes me want to rebel and complete the silly activity without actually getting to know anyone. Can you tell I’m an introvert?? 🙂 However, I knew I couldn’t expect teams to dive into curriculum design work comfortably with complete strangers, so the compromise we came up with was science conversation starters. These were based on one of the best PD experiences I’ve ever had: the Summer Science Workshop at Dana Hall. The entire week of that workshop basically consisted of teachers engaging in hands-on inquiry activities with other teachers, and then reflecting on how the activities could be used with students. It was incredibly fun and thought-provoking, and the experience seeing through the eyes of a student and working side-by-side with my peers made a huge impression on me. (Side note- their brochure still has a picture of me in it, so maybe I made an impression on them too!) So each time we began work with a new group of teachers, we had them first do a short hands-on activity for about 30 minutes with minimal instructions: build a sail car powered by a fan from recycled materials, figure out how much water a carrot is made of, investigate whether ice melts faster in tap water or salt water. These activities sparked discussion, demanded creative thinking, and were just plain fun. By the end of the 30 minutes the mood was lively and the ice was broken- but best of all we were doing and thinking about science the whole time.

Sustainability is not just for the Earth

How many times have you gone to a great presentation at a conference, filled up pages of notes with new ideas that you’re excited about trying with your students, and then promptly forgotten them all when Real Life runs you over like a truck when you get home? It happens all the time for me- if I don’t have a concrete plan or reason for using something immediately, it usually gets buried in the pile of good intentions. To avoid this fate for our collaborative workshop, we made sustaining collaboration one of our key goals and spent time during the workshop brainstorming and discussing ways to keep it going. Wheels are already in motion planning a second collaborative workshop for next fall, and each unit team is continuing to work together remotely to finish and publish their units online. Of course it remains to be seen how successful we are at this, but having a sustainability plan of action gives us a fighting chance.

Read Full Post »

The discussion about educational value from my previous post has me thinking like a teacher-economist lately, analyzing the cost benefit of all the kinds of choices teachers have to make every day. One of the most important choices we make is what to include (and exclude) in the curriculum (although the amount of choice teachers have in this matter varies greatly depending on the school system!). Since today I held a kick-off event for our 5th grade science fair, I’d like to put that classic bastion of science education on the chopping block, and explain why, for all its flaws, I think it should be saved.

“Science fair” conjures up many familiar images: tri-fold posters, plants grown in different kinds of light, judges peering over clipboards, and anxious students (and parents) milling about a gymnasium. Science fairs have been around for ages (according to a science fair poster manufacturer, since 1921!) and in a lot of schools I bet today’s students’ science fairs look strikingly similar to their parents’ science fairs (except with fewer experiments about nuclear radiation). In other words, the traditional science fair has become too… traditional, and as teachers we know we shouldn’t just keep on doing something because that’s the way we did it last year. What’s wrong with the good ‘ole science fair? Here are a few of the faults the pose the most trouble:

  • Conflict with the standards-based shift: Since students in a traditional science fair have the choice to pursue all different kinds of experiments, doing the science fair as a unit doesn’t check off any content from your standards. And in our age of bloated science standards, we barely have enough time as it is to “cover” everything, so how can time be wasted on something devoid of content?
  • Competition gets ugly : The student’s main goal in the classic science fair is to win, and often there’s a big deal made of the winners: ribbons, trophies, going on to regionals, etc. With that kind of competition, the pressure to succeed is high, causing stress for students and causing some parents to become  way too involved in their “child’s” project.
  • Same experiments every year: I’m willing to bet money that if I went back in time and attended a 1950’s science fair the experiments would be nearly identical to the experiments kids come up with today. Why so uncreative? Because conducting original research is hard for students who have been told what to do year after year. So they turn to books and websites for guidance and end up shopping around for something to do from the same tired list of experiments.

With these flaws, why bother doing a science fair at all? Does a science fair have enough education value to justify the large amount of time teachers and students must invest in it? I think it does, and here’s why:

  • Open-ended inquiry opportunity: You can’t pick up a current book on science education without being bombarded with the word “inquiry”. And yet, for all the talk about inquiry, from what I can tell, the amount of actual inquiry taking place in science classrooms today is pretty small. When inquiry does occur in the classroom, it’s almost always on the “guided” or “structure” end of the spectrum. Truly open-ended inquiry is a scary prospect for most teachers- because God knows what the students will do! How will I plan my lessons every day? What does a lesson even look like with open-ended inquiry? This is one of the saving graces of the science fair: in their ideal form, science fairs are meant to be open-ended, a chance for students to decide to investigate something that they are curious about, and figure out how to do it. Of cours it takes work to avoid the temptations of http://www.LameScienceFairProjects.com, but with the right amount of support and emphasis on creativity, student can come up with something better than moldy bread. As long as the teacher makes sure to stay true to the ideal of student choice and originality, science fairs can be the perfect piece of open-ended inquiry that’s missing from so many current curricula.
  • Scientific skills, the long lost standard: If your science standards document is like mine used to be, you will find at the end of it something like a “scientific inquiry skills” standard, along with a few generalities about drawing conclusions and thinking critically. One unfortunate side-effect of the standards-based movement was a hyper focus on content knowledge, to the detriment of skills. As I discussed earlier, scientific skills are in some ways more important than factual content. When my students are 40 they may not remember that carbon dioxide insulates the earth by trapping radiated heat, but if they can weigh the evidence presented in a scientific piece of journalism and draw a reasonable conclusion, I’m a happy teacher. This is another plus for science fairs, they offer teachers and students a chance to focus on these often-ignored skills. Even if everyone in your class is experimenting with different content, the scientific skills will be the same. So a science fair allows us the freedom to actually put content aside for the moment and emphasize skills.
  • Collaboration, not competition: Science fairs don’t have to become an ugly my-kid-is-smarter-than-yours fest. There are many ways to save the science fair from this terrible fate by emphasizing collaboration instead of competition. Have students work in teams instead of on their own. Have teams create a website for their project, so others can collaborate virtually like high school student mentors, or even students from another school. If you do things like this, your student’s experience will be a lot more like real scientific research, and they will learn more of the kinds of collaborative skills they will need in the future.

This post is hopefully the first of many as I navigate the waters of what will be now my 8th science fair as a teacher. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about the opportunities and pitfalls of doing a science fair, but I’m always eager to learn more. If you have experience with science fairs- bad or good, please join in the discussion, I’d love to hear from you!

Read Full Post »

After splurging on Christmas gifts for the family, I was in a thrifty mood when surfing Amazon to find some new reading material for the break. So I checked out the free options in the Kindle store for science education books. Unfortunately there’s not much out there besides a few textbooks and Ontario school manuals, but one gem I discovered was Science and Education by Thomas Henry Huxley. To save you the trouble of checking Wikipedia: Huxley was an English biologist in the 19th century and is known for being a fierce advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, earning him the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog”. He also coined the term “agnostic” to describe his views on the existence of God, and thanks in part to his efforts science became part of the British school curriculum.

The book Science and Education is really a collection of orations and essays that he gave discussing the nature of the sciences, its relationship with culture and relation, and why science should be taught in schools. A lot of the speeches seem dated (there are some cringe-worthy lines about race and intelligence in particular), but two stand out: one entitled “On the educational value of the natural history sciences” (the full text is available here), and “Science education: notes of an after-dinner speech” (full text). In regards to science education they are both so spot-on they could have almost been written today. So what did a guy in 1854 have to say about science education before it was even introduced into the school system? Check out these quotes…

“Science is, I believe, nothing but trained and organised common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only so far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club….The man of science, in fact, simply uses with scrupulous exactness the methods which we all, habitually and at every moment, use carelessly”

Putting aside the “savage” metaphor, Huxley makes clear that the method of scientific thinking is nothing extraordinary, it employs the same critical thinking and logic people use on an everyday basis, it is only the discipline and training through repeated use that makes scientific thinking so effective. In other words- scientific thinking is innate to all of us and can be taught to anyone.

On the issue of whether young children can or should learn about about science:

“I doubt whether any toy would be so acceptable to young children as a vivarium of the same kind as, but of course on a smaller scale than, those admirable devices in the Zoological Gardens.”

As I have already said, a child seeks for information about matters of physical science as soon as it begins to talk.”

“And  if not snubbed and stunted by being told not to ask foolish questions, there is no limit to the intellectual craving of a young child; nor any bounds to the slow, but solid, accretion of knowledge and development of the thinking faculty in this way.”

As an elementary science educator, is always surprising that even today there are those who don’t understand the appropriateness of science education for young children. So many people forget how utterly instinctive a child’s curiosity and urge to investigate is. A science education that taps into these instincts and develops them into knowledge and skills is obviously appropriate (and necessary) at any level.

OK- so far so good Mr. Huxley, but what exactly should be taught? What do you 19th century guys know about standards and benchmark?

“I do not mean that every schoolboy should be taught everything in science. That would be a very absurd thing to conceive, and a very mischievous thing to attempt. What I mean is, that no boy nor girl should leave school without possessing a grasp of the general character of science, and without having been disciplined, more or less, in the methods of all sciences; so that, when turned into the world to make their own way, they shall be prepared to face scientific problems, not by knowing at once the conditions of every problem, or by being able at once to solve it; but by being familiar with the general current of scientific thought, and by being able to apply the methods of science in the proper way, when they have acquainted themselves with the conditions of the special problem.”

Touche. Huxley goes on to describe an ideal scientific curriculum that begins in elementary with studying the phenomena of Nature (kind of like combined Earth and Life sciences) to deal with questions of the observable world. Then as students writing, reading, and mathematics skills improves with age he advocates for “physical sciences” to be introduced, including experimental physics and fields of biology such as botany, with a dash of chemistry and human physiology. Not too shabby.

And what about pedagogy? Surely someone writing over 150 years ago had a very different perspective than our enlightened educational understanding today… right??

“If the great benefits of scientific training are sought, it is essential that such training should be real: that is to say, that the mind of the scholar should be brought into direct relation with fact, that he should not merely be told a thing, but made to see by the use of his own intellect and  ability that the thing is so and no otherwise.”

“But if scientific training is to yield its most eminent results, it must, I repeat, be made practical. That is to say, in explaining to a child the general phænomena of Nature, you must, as far as possible, give reality to your teaching by object-lessons; in teaching him botany, he must handle the plants and dissect the flowers for himself; in teaching him physics and chemistry, you must not be solicitous to fill him with information, but you must be careful that what he learns he knows of his own knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with telling him that a magnet attracts iron. Let him see that it does; let him feel the pull of the one upon the other for himself. And, especially, tell him that it is his duty to doubt until he is compelled, by the absolute authority of Nature, to believe that which is written in books.”

Thud! **Jaw hits the floor** This was the icing on the cake for me- Huxley, in 1869 mind you, is literally describing constructive learning theory and advocating for an inquiry-based approach to science education. And this is of course, before there even was such a thing as science education. It was even taught in schools yet, and Huxley himself was basically self-educated. Perhaps that’s why he could see the issue so clearly- his opinion was clouded by any educational traditions or assumptions. In fact the traditional education of the time consisted entirely of rote learning and memorization via books, so he was well aware of the limitations of this.

It’s clear that Huxley was a man ahead of his time, but also the fact that his words resonate so well today underscores just how self-evident this approach to science education is. Yes, we have a body of educational research today that confirms best-practices, and we’ve invented a whole language of educational jargon to go along with it, but if the best approach to science education was obvious to someone 150 years ago, then it should be pretty freakin’ clear to us by now! So the next time someone starts waxing on about today’s educational reforms in inquiry-based science, you just tell ’em about Darwin’s bulldog, who figured it out before science education even existed.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »