Archive for the ‘science teaching’ Category

Over the holiday break I finally had a chance to read something that’s been sitting on my desktop for months: Lockhart’s Lament, an essay by the mathematician and teacher Paul Lockhart about the abysmal state of math education (he has also written a longer book version). If you haven’t read it, definitely check it out- it’s extremely thought-provoking and challenges a lot of assumptions about mathematics and education in general.

In his essay, Lockhart makes a lot of sweeping claims that may sound downright sacrilegious out of context: Standards? Get rid of them! Lesson plans? Planning to fail! Schools of education? A “crock”! But there’s a method to his madness, he makes a very convincing argument by cutting right to the quick of the debate: the point of math education itself. Lockhart rejects outright the common assumptions that students need to learn the standard math canon for use in everyday life (when’s the last time you used your school math skills to do something that required more than a calculator?), and he counters that advanced study should be relegated to the university level. In place of the standard math canon, he advocates for students learning by doing math as a mathematician would, puzzling things out for themselves and putting aside rote algorithms and standard notation for creative thinking and a sense of playfulness.

As a science teacher, I can’t speak to whether or not he’s right about math education (although you can read some interesting reactions from math folks here). But reading his essay did keep me coming back to science education to see if his criticisms also applied here… was science education in the same dire straits? My mind is still reeling from the implications, but here’s the first Lockhart-inspired thought I’ve been chewing on:

Scientific literacy: One of the fundamental assumptions of most science educators is that scientific knowledge is important whether or not students go on to work in a scientific field. The idea is that all people should have a certain level of “scientific literacy” so they can make informed decisions on issues that require some scientific understanding (think global warming, genetically modified food, vaccines, etc.). Lockhart argues (for math) that the current standard curriculum isn’t really adapted to this kind of purpose in the first case, and if we were serious about teaching students something useful for every day life it would require major changes. On that last point I have to agree with him in science as well- while I make an effort as a science teacher to show students how the subjects were learning apply to their real life, this idea of usefulness is obviously not the driving force, it’s more of an afterthought. What gives? Should the curriculum be changed to reflect the true importance of the goal of scientific literacy, or is it just weaker secondary justification for science education?

Interestingly enough, in a recent job interview I had for a Middle School science teacher position, a similar question came up: What’s the point of Middle School science education? I had already explained my belief that elementary science was all about establishing fundamental concepts and learning the skills of thinking like a scientist, and I had already conceded the truth that students don’t retain much factual knowledge from grade school anyway, so I had to stop and actually think during the interview (isn’t it funny how uncomfortable actual thinking on the spot is??). What I came down to was the idea that Middle School science would build on those elementary science fundamentals to teach students how science (and of course I also include in this the process of scientific thinking) really is useful and omnipresent in everyday life. After all, if every citizen had the equivalent of a good Middle School science understanding, we’d probably be in better shape than we are now, right?

So I can’t concede dismissing the value of scientific literacy, but I do agree that the standard science canon needs some serious reshaping in order to truly provide students with useful understanding for their everyday lives. Instead of teaching the subject first and then looking for applications afterward, why not start with the useful context and have that lead us to the necessary science? This reminds me a lot of the way Dan Myer approaches math problems: starting with the real-life context, and then having students add math as needed. I think this same approach would be effective to entire units of study.

I’m looking forward to digging into this next year in Middle School, so if you’ve got examples of this from your own teaching, I’d love to hear from you. Also looking for inspiration? Here’s a cool example of this kind of course for high school science.





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You know how you always think teaching is somehow going to get easier each year? I fell for that folly of an idea all over again this summer, thinking that because it’s my fourth year as science coordinator it would somehow be less work because I have it all planned out already. HA! Obviously I was forgetting that deep inside my soul resides a gnawing and persistant little bugger: Mr. Isn’t-there-a-better-way. And just when I thought I was getting set to cruise through the year, he had rear his ugly but inspirational head and get me off my metaphorical couch.

So here it is December and I find myself embroiled in several wonderful but seriously extracurricular projects that I’d love to blog about if I can  add a 25th hour to the day. Well, here’s on such project: The AERO Science Collaborative Workshop! Ok, I know it doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, so if anyone can come up with some sort of nifty acronym involving those words or similar, I’d be much obliged.

A little background: Project AERO is an educational arm of the U.S. State Department created to assist American schools abroad in implementing standards-based curricula. My school, along with most in the NESA region have adopted the AERO standards, in particular the K-8 science standards which were released two years ago. However, as international schools are by their nature isolated, we have very little opportunity to work together with each other and share what’s working with this standards-based shift. Yes, there are conferences set up by NESA and AERO which allow for some collaboration- but as with most conferences the focus is mostly on professional developments (aka listen to the expert at the front of the room).

So basically we’ve got several schools toiling with their heads down in the sand (quite literally in the Middle East), trying to complete this science curriculum overhaul with occasional  support from consultants here and there, but mostly going it alone. Which of course means a lot of work for everyone and not a lot of feedback or second-opinions on the best way to go about it. Why not get together and get our collaboration on?

This April we are attempting to do just that. With the help of my ASD colleagues and NESA science ed guru Erma Anderson, I’ve drafted a proposal to bring together K-8 science educators from five school (ASDubai, ACS Beirut, TASIM Oman, and ACS Amman) for three days of peace, love, and music…. whoops– wrong workshop– I mean three days of intense science curriculum collaboration. We’re hoping for around 20 teachers, with representation from lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school. So far the response has been very favorable, and it seems I’m not the only one out there who sees the benefit in teachers teaching teachers for a change.

Now that my good idea is actually coming true though- I’ve got to figure out how to pull this off. So I’m eager to hear if anyone reading this has ever worked in such a collaborative cross-school setting before:

  1. What’s the best way to kick-start collaboration with a group of unfamiliar people?
  2. What organisation or set-up helped (or hindered) collaboration?
  3. What tools or technology did you use to facilitate collaborative work?
  4. What follow-up helped the collaboration continue after the workshop and build lasting collaborative relationships?

Here are some of my nascent thoughts on these matters:

  1. I’m thinking of starting with something called “Share Your Strengths” where each school briefly presents some of the curriculum work they’ve done that they think is good stuff. This will not only get our best ideas out there quickly, it should also give us a chance to build a little rapport and trust so we respect each other’s opinion when we dive into collaborative work.
  2. In my experience small group work (about 3 people) seems to be the most productive. You get a variety of opinions but don’t get weighed down by too many. So depending on numbers I’m thinking of breaking us up into teams of similar grade-level and possibly subject interest (so for example, a team of MS teachers working on a physical science unit). I don’t want to over-structure the workshop since I want it to be tailored to school’s needs, so the goal for each team’s work may even be left up to them.
  3. I really want to make sure the work that’s done is easily accessible to all after the workshop, and that whatever platform we use encourages further long-distance collaboration. I’m very familiar with GoogleDocs and GoogleSites, so I’m leaning that way. We also may have some teachers attending virtually, so we’ll need to figure out how to accommodate that (maybe Skype them in for certain parts?)
  4. I know how it is after a conference. You have all this stuff you’re excited about, but then you slip back into your daily grind and never get around to all those good ideas you had. I know 3 days isn’t much time to build “lasting collaborative relationships”, but I’d like to try to nurture the collaboration to the point where it’s self-sustaining. I’ve been blown away by the high level of collaboration going on in the blogosphere, so maybe I’ll even try to turn teachers on to that. The secret ingredient seems to be that blend of the personal and the professional- both intellectually and relationally stimulating.

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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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Khan Academy has stirred up a lot of debate among educators about the value of video lectures. On one hand the proponents tout the fact that students can watch them on their own time, at their own pace, and review again if needed. Some educators (like these guys) have even been employing video long before Khan’s rapid rise to notoriety, using video lectures to “flip the classroom” so valuable school time isn’t wasted on something students could just watch at home. The critics of Khan call foul because of the questionable value of lecture itself. A lecture on YouTube is still a lecture, a one-size-fits-all, listen-and-receive-my-knowledge affair. If lecture shouldn’t play a large role in the classroom, what is there to be “flipped” in the first place?

I agree with the critics that KA isn’t anything new under the sun. The media spotlight it enjoys is more about our country’s need to find a new direction in education than any new brilliance of KA. In fact beyond the videos, the “gameafication” of learning that has been created by KA team for teaching math through incentivized drills has much more in common with old-red-school-house pedagogy (Frank lays this out well here).

But despite all the flaws in KA-style teaching, lectures are still an occasionally useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal, and a video lecture probably even more so. So let’s not flush video lectures down the toilet in our disgust at the media’s KA lovefest, instead let’s figure out what this tool is good for. Without further ado, here are my 4 S’s for the best use of video lectures:

  • Short: This should go without saying. Any form of direct instruction needs to stay within the confines of its audience’s attention span. For my elementary students this seems like 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Shallow: If well done, students will remember the content of a video lecture, but only on a shallow, memorized level. Without first-hand experience and mental engagement to let them process the idea in their own mind, there’s not much opportunity for any deep understanding to be created. So keep expectations for learning shallow.
  • Sticky: I mean this in the Malcolm Gladwell sense, not like the gum on your shoe. For the (admittedly shallow) learning to take root, the video lecture must have some memorable appeal that sticks with you: humor, intrigue, a storyline, whatever. I usually opt for humor, maybe because I secretly wish I was Bill Nye.
  • Spot-on: How many times have you teachers out there put on a video for review and realized midway through that it’s not quite what you had hoped? (I know I have!) Maybe the vocabulary doesn’t match what you’ve been using in class, maybe the approach is too complicated or too simple, but it just isn’t fitting for your students’ needs- and you end up with more confusion than when you started “reviewing”. A good video lecture needs to be crafted for a very specific audience and purpose- most generic videos won’t cut it.
How do I put these into practice? I end up making a lot of my own short video lectures to teach scientific vocabulary or review simple facts. It’s not as dramatic as a flipped classroom, but it does mean small bits of direct instruction and basic review can be done at home, and available to the students who need it more than once. I know there are plenty of pre-made video lectures out there already on the internets (BrainPop is a biggie at my school, and is useful at times), but nothing beats a teaching tool that’s been crafted especially for a specific learning purpose. Plus students have a weird fascination with seeing their teachers on-screen. Maybe it’s the era of reality TV we live in, but sometimes I get the feeling that they listen more carefully to video me than actual me!
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a few of the videos that I’ve made for our 2nd grade Forces and Motion unit. They were all edited using iMovie, and I swear I didn’t spend more than an hour or two making each one. In fact the gravity video I made yesterday in about a period. So from a cost-benefit analysis perspective, video lectures of this kind are a win-win, even if they don’t deserve headlines about “revolutionizing education”.  As long as video lectures are used as a supplement to thoughtful, contextual, inquiry-based learning experiences, they are tool teachers should keep handy.

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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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I’m an avid blog-reader, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I through my own hat into the ring. I’m especially interested in blogs about teaching, where teachers engage in those kind of deep conversations about pedagogy only seems to happen at grad school, and unfortunately not very often around the faculty room water cooler. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to find some stellar blogs that engage these kinds of conversations, but mostly written by math teachers or high school physics teachers (such as Dan Meyer and Shawn Cornally). I don’t know of much out there that deals with K-8 science teaching (but if you blog about this, please let me know!). So this blog is my effort to build the same kind of reflective community for elementary and middle school science teachers, although thoughtful teachers of all subjects and levels are welcome to join in the discussion.

Why call this blog the Scientific Teacher? Because it’s more about a scientific approach to teaching than just teaching science. That’s how I strive to approach my own teaching, by applying the scientific practices of questioning, collecting and analyzing data, researching, debating, and above all experimenting with new ideas in the classroom. And I know I’m not the only one out there that does this- I know there are tons of teachers pushing the envelope out there, but I don’t want to wait until I bump into you by chance at some conference. By leveraging the power of the internet, teachers should be able to communicate with each other to push forward our understanding of teaching and learning in the same way the scientific community does.

So let’s do this thing! I’ll start rolling out posts of my own questions, research, and classroom experiments, and if you’re a scientific teacher yourself, I want to hear from you. Too many teachers work alone in their classrooms and too many good ideas never see the light of day- but we can and should change that. So let’s connect and get the conversation started, and who knows- someday we may be able to conduct our own educational experiments across the many classrooms of our online community. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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