Archive for the ‘life-long learning’ Category

This is not a joke. Today in the faculty room I discovered the secret to science teaching success. There on the front page of The International Educator’s monthly newspaper was an article celebrating a school presentation of a science show called Brainiac Live! In the presentation (which is based on a British television show) a guy who goes by the name Dr. Bunhead (not a joke either) lights his head on fire to inspire students about the wonders of science. So there you have it- being a great science teacher is simple. All you need to do is blow things up, create giant ballons, shoot lightning bolts out of your fingertips, but most importantly- light your head on fire!

I hope you notice a slight hint of sarcasm here. It actually seemed highly ironic that this newspaper which celebrates best practices in education would be highlighting something that I consider worst practice. Don’t get my drift? Read on…

Science shows like these are intended to get students excited about science, right? And there’s no question that they’re exciting- who doesn’t want to watch Dr. Bunhead nearly sear his scalp?? But what exactly are the students getting excited about? As teachers we would hope they’re getting excited about scientific ideas, scientific thinking, in short- excited about learning more science. But that’s not the case- instead students are only focused on the awesome scientific phenomenon in front of them (in this case Bunhead’s flaming head). They’re excited about the explosions, the noise, the surprising result, but not about the scientific explanation that usually comes afterwards.

Using a show like this to inspire your students in science is kind of like coaching your high school basketball team by showing them the NBA slam dunk contest. Are they going to be excited? Sure! Inspired? You bet- they can’t wait to start practice the next day and spend an hour on… dribbling drills. NOT! In fact it could be argued that this approach to coaching or teaching could even be detrimental- because kids will come to expect the flash-boom-bang and never develop an appreciation for the less obvious excitements that take place inside one’s own head (as opposed to in a fiery ball above it).

Example: Last week my 4th grade students were super pumped when they discovered by themselves how to create an electromagnet with a set of materials I gave them without further instruction. The fact that their simple electromagnets were so weak they could only lift up a few metal washers did not dampen their excitement one bit- because it wasn’t the phenomenon they were focused on, but the idea they had come up with. Imagine if instead I had started the lesson with a wow me demonstration of electromagnets- say lifting up a car with a giant electromagnetic crane and letting it  come crashing down when I turned it off, and then follow that up with some lecture or reading about electromagnets or even a hands-on activity building a smaller model of the one I demonstrated. What would students remember a week later? Of course they could all recall in detail how Mr. Mitchell totaled a car, but very few of them would remember much of anything about the scientific explanation afterwards, or the version they made that paled in comparison. They’d be stuck on the awesome phenomenon, and the idea behind it would be merely a forgotten afterthought.

For all you literalists out there, I’m not advocating that demonstrations be banished from current teaching practice, I just think we need to be more thoughtful about how we use them and what they will cause students to think about. We need to go beyond “whoa!” and get to “why?”. Going back to my actual 4th grade electromagnets lesson (which I should say was based on the great FOSS unit Electricity and Magnetism), I did actually start out with a demonstration: I showed students a video clip of magician Jean Robert-Houdin’s famous “Light and Heavy Chest trick“. In the trick, Houdin secretly used a hidden electromagnet to attract the small chest to the floor so that a burly audience member couldn’t pick it up, then he turned off the electromagnet so it could be picked up easily by a child. After showing the video I didn’t try to explain the trick (that would get me kicked out of the Alliance!), instead I had students think about it themselves. As a class they were able to figure out that some sort of special magnet must be involved that could turn on and off- viola- electromagnets. I then told them they could use their knowledge about circuits to try and turn a steel rivet into a magnet that could be turned on and off, gave them the materials, and let them have at it. Using a demonstration in this way, as a teaser to introduce a problem/question/challenge, is in my opinion much more effective. (The parallels with narrative are striking- you would never start a story with a resolved climax, so why would you start your lesson with the most interesting part first?)

So go ahead and enjoy Dr. Bunhead’s pyrotechnics, just don’t expect this approach to inspire the next generation of scientists, or expect it to work well in the classroom. Students (and adults) are already amazed by fiery explosions, and a bunch of wow me science demonstrations are going to result in excitement about more fiery explosions, but not kindle much learning. Our real challenge as teachers is to figure out how to get students amazed by their own observations, their own thinking, to spark that fire in their mind- not on their head.

(Short disclaimer: I have not seen Dr. Bunhead’s particular science show, but I have seen others which I believe are very similar. Perhaps while Dr. Bunhead’s head burns down he also engage his large student audience in hands-on inquiry-based activities that inspire scientific thought and discovery… but I doubt it.)


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and no teacher hears it, what’s the point of putting together the workshop in the first place?

Or at least that’s how I felt last week when a grand total of 1 teacher showed up for my after school PLOT (Professional Learning Opportunities for Teachers) workshop about revising the scientific method. But even if the workshop didn’t happen quite as I had imagined it- with lively dialogue and moments of hands-on discovery- at least I can share it here, on the blog I’ve been neglecting so badly the past month. Here’s how the Scientific Method Makeover workshop was supposed to go down…

I’ve already detailed my thoughts behind revising and updating the tired and unrealistic scientific method on this post, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the scientific method we learned as kids needs a makeover, but I do believe in teaching the process of science- as long as it’s flexible enough to incorporate the different ways scientists actually learn. My attempt at improvement is the scientific cycle:

How does this cycle work? Let’s put it into action and find out! Since it’s getting a little cold these days in Qatar (down into the 60s at night- brrrr!) everyone’s probably wondering where they stashed their portable electric heaters (buildings in Qatar don’t have centralized heat for obvious reasons). But how does an electric heater really work? We have your question– Boom! The scientific cycle commences, this time for a bout of secondary-source learning, aka research. Before diving into Google, I have teachers take a step back in the cycle and try to pre-explain how an electric heater works. Getting those preconceptions out there is important to encourage further questions and critical thought about any misconceptions that might exists. Got a vague and probably incorrect notion of how they work?? Great- back to Google, let’s investigate.

I give teachers a few guiding research questions to investigate on their own, then and there on their laptops:

  • How do electric heaters work?
  • What are electric heaters made of? (in particular the heating element)
  • How does electrical energy turn into heat energy?

Now everyone’s research and comprehension will be a little different, so to analyze their research findings I have teachers share and compare in small groups for a few minutes. Really, they’re a doing a synthesis of their research- compiling information from different sources and reconciling any discrepancies, which in turn gives them a better understanding of the “data”, in this case their research.

To explain I have them draw and label a picture explaining how an electric heater works. Better understanding than your pre-explanation? You betcha. In a nutshell, that was a much-simplified scientific round of research. It’s important to note that it might not be such a clean flowing cycle though- new questions could come up and cause a scientist to go back and re-investigate, or compare findings with someone else to re-analyze. But the general process is there: question-investigate-analyze-explain.

But wait- what about experimentation and all that? Let’s do another round of the cycle, but this time it’s hands-on. How do scientists answer a question when there’s nothing in the research to help? Let’s do an experimental cycle…

I show the teachers how a coil of wire attached to a D-cell battery creates a very simple electric heater (similar to the electromagnet circuit at right, except no nail necessary, wrap around a thermometer bulb instead). Technically it’s a short circuit, so the current is trying to race through, only slowed by the resistance in the wire, which generates heat. Hmmm… I wonder if it matters what kind of wire we use- some are thicker, some are thinner. Which wire would make the best heater? As before, let’s make a prediction, our pre-explanation, which we will revisit and revise later. And we’re off, investigating by having teachers creating a quick controlled experiment, something to the tune of comparing the different thicknesses of wire (but same length) in identical circuits, and wrapping the coils around thermometers to measure the temperature increase.

After 60 seconds of heating we’ve got some data, let’s analyze: in this case we can use mathematics to add different groups of teachers’ data together and find the mean for each thickness of wire. This has the same effect of doing repeated trials for accuracy (as long as we did a decent job controlling variables). A few calculations, and what do we find…. Try it yourself! Sorry, the elementary teacher in me just can’t spoil the excitement of discovery for you. Just try it out- I was excited myself to discover the difference, especially when it started to make sense, which brings us to…

Explain by writing a conclusion statement, supporting your claim with evidence. And there you have it, two complete tours of the scientific cycle in under an hour, with hopefully a demonstration of how versatile and useful the scientific cycle is as a new-and-improved scientific method. Whether you’re doing research-based investigations or experimental ones, the same general process applies. So the cycle is a framework, reminding students of the importance of making predictions (pre-explain), critical thinking (analyze) and meaning-making (explain). It also serves as a reminder of the cyclical process of scientific learning, as one question leads to another. The scientific skills at each step can vary, and with practice students could even learn to decide which skill would be appropriate to use as the learning demands.

End scene. I’m still wondering how this workshop would actually fly in real life, but in the meantime I’d be satisfied with any thoughts or comments you have (especially if you try your own electric heater experiment!).


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The other night I gave a presentation to parents about our elementary school science curriculum. Since it summarizes both our program at ASD and some of my own philosophy about science teaching, I though I would share it here.

As John mentioned, it’s ironic to lecture parents about inquiry learning, but I’ve yet to come up with a better idea short of installing Big Brother cameras in my classroom or holding a “Bring Your Parent to School” day… so I’d love to hear other approaches on this.

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One of my responsibilities as elementary science coordinator is to be a mentor to homeroom teachers and help them become better at teaching science. I must admit this is probably the hardest part of my job- it’s one thing to be critical of yourself and work to improve your teaching, but teaching teachers, that’s a different story. Up till this point most of my mentoring has consisted of leading by example, teaching model science lessons in our science labs, which is well inside my comfort zone. But I know in order to take our program to the next level I’ll have to do more: instead of being just the captain of the team, I need to be a coach.

Science coaching (as well as coaching in other disciplines) is pretty trendy right now in elementary ed. However, there seem to be many different varieties out there, and I’m going to need to figure out the recipe that works best at my school. Here are what I believe to be the key ingredients:

  • Model teaching
  • Providing professional resources
  • Teacher observation and consulting
  • Facilitating learning activities
I’m not going to delve into model teaching, because I already do plenty of that, and frankly that’s just regular teaching with another adult in the room. At first I guess it was strange, but once you realize your both on the same team ,it’s actually much better having another teacher with you.
Providing professional resources is easy as well, but probably the least effective ingredient. Just think of all the required readings or faculty “book studies”… in my experience they result in a lot of last-minute skimming and shallow conversations. Good for creating a common language around a new initiative, but not sufficient to reach any meaningful depth. Nevertheless, I’m kind of a professional reading nerd, so I continue to give teachers at my school excerpts from my favorite summer reading each year. One year I put a small note at the end of the reading, asking anyone who finished it to let me know what they thought… still waiting for a response. There are other options out there more interactive than readings, such as NSTA’s Learning Center where teachers can take mini-course online by themselves to brush up on their background knowledge, but I’m not sure how many elementary teachers would have the time or desire.
OK, on to the meaty stuff. Observing teachers can be an intimidating prospect, and also blurring the line between coach and administrator. But I’m going to have to suck it up this year, because nothing embodies the spirit of science coaching more than working directly with teachers on their teaching. Luckily, my school has had some training in an interesting observation protocol called Looking for Learning. You can check out their website for more info, but the basic principle behind this kind of observation is that instead of observing the teacher, your main focus is observing the students. So while students are engaged in an activity you conduct mini-interviews from student to student, aiming to get a grasp of how much learning is actually taking place during the activity. Of course this is all in the context of what the teacher is doing, and how they’ve structured their class. What makes it an interesting approach is that sometimes even when classes appear to be busy learning, there’s not actually a lot of learning taking place (or at least not the kind the teacher intended). The follow-up conversations with the observer and teacher are also interesting as the two compare notes on how they perceived the engagement and learning of different students in the class. Because the focus is on the students, it seems less confrontational, but the approach remains effective because the responsibility of the teacher to ensure all students are learning is clearly implied- if learning wasn’t taking place the next step is to look at what can be done in the future to change that. As with reading professional resources, the effectiveness of observations and consulting will depend on teacher buy-in. So I’m planning on initiating these with teachers who I think would be most receptive initially, and then depend on good word-of-mouth to involve others.
Last but not least, there’s the learning activities, which is just code for getting teachers messy with hands-on science in an attempt to spark those deeper conversations and thoughts about inquiry and pedagogy. When I think back to my favorite professional development experiences (the Dana Hall Science Workshop and a graduate class on experimental design at the University of Maryland), both of them were so stimulating simply because we were expected to do science as a student while thinking like a teacher. The common experiences of searching the beach for fossilized shark teeth and building a water tower of toothpicks led to much more lively and focused discussion between colleagues than any reading I’ve ever done. So I hope to recreate that in some small way for the teachers at my school, letting them dive into a hands on activity with the eagerness of a student, and then encouraging them to process it through the eyes of a teacher. Whether it’s possible to do this successfully in short sessions at the end of a long day with a bunch of familiar faces…. we’ll see!
So there you have it, another work in progress. 🙂 I’ll post more as the plan becomes clearer- in the meantime I’d love to hear from folks who have had successful in-school PD or coaching in the past. Despite these best-laid plans, I’ll probably need to focus my time in a couple of these 4 areas, and it would be helpful to get some idea where to throw my weight.

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Teaching students to become “life-long learners” is a popular buzzword bandied about in education. Despite the tiredness of the term, getting students to realize that learning doesn’t just take place within the confines of school and homework assignments is a real challenge (illustrated well in this Think Thank Thunk post). How can we inspire this life-long learningness from an early age?

One experiment I’m trying this year to address this is creating a school science website that puts as many relevant learning resources as possible in the hands of my students and their parents (btw, I’m using GoogleSites, which is a super easy way to make a website for free). For each of the elementary science units we do throughout the year, I’ll be adding stuff like this:

To measure the success of this venture I’m using Google Analytics, which will give me detailed data about how much the site is being used, how many unique visitors are coming, and whether they’re accessing the site from school or at home (by the way, Google Analytics is also free- so have you started making your own website yet?? :). Throughout the year I’ll add various “attractors” to the site such as photos from field trips, resources for assignments, and videos from class, as well as directing parents to the site whenever I get the “How can I help my child?” question (a tough question to answer when you can’t just point them to a textbook).

I also feel like there’s an opportunity to integrate social media into the site some way (student comments, polls, etc), which could broaden the usage of the site. In my previous school I had my 5th grade students create their own websites about their science fair experiments on the kid-friendly site ThinkQuest and I was surprised to see how the ability to leave comments on fellow student’s site generate a ton of buzz (not always of the learning kind of course, but variety is the spice of life). So I’d appreciate any suggestions from folks who have experience in this department.

Predictions? Will simply putting resources out there for students be enough to inspire extended learning outside the classroom? Since my students are fairly high-achievers with involved parents, I have high hopes. Then again, I suspect a website like this will mostly be used by… high-achievers with involved parents, but not reach the students who need some life-long learningness the most. But we’ll see!

Then there’s the issue of how much students visiting the site actually leads to life-long learningness (or learning of any kind for that matter!) I don’t know how I could measure this exactly, but I plan to do as much anecdotal research as I can by asking students and parents how they are using the site, perhaps even conducting some polls. Overall though, I believe that encouraging an interest in learning on your own time (whether it’s reading a book about science, trying an experiment at home, whatever) will have an impact. In my own childhood my parents were careful to surround me with educational diversions (Oregon Trail computer game, science encyclopedias, trips to museums) and these clearly rubbed off. Hopefully creating a virtual version of this for my students will have a similar effect.

You can check out the website I’m creating here, but it’s mostly just a framework now- I’ll be adding content as the year progresses. I would be interested to check out sites that other teachers have made, particularly ones intended to extend learning beyond the classroom. Anyone got some of that out there?

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