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Archive for the ‘skills’ Category

IMG_2501One of the highlights of my summer was watching my son Graham learn how to ride a bike. He’s only 3 years old- so I was blown away when he took off without training wheels on the 3rd day of riding. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ride a two-wheeler until I was like ten, and that was after many, many knee-skinning spills! How did Graham do it? His secret is using a balance bike and avoiding the pitfalls of “training wheel teaching”, which is a metaphor that I think will serve me well in my own classroom.

Last summer when we were shopping around for a tricycle for Graham, a friend recommended buying a balance bike instead (a bike with only two wheels, but no pedals). They claimed the balance bikes help kids to learn how to balance so well that their own child skipped training wheels and went right to a two-wheeler when they were older. I was intrigued, but a little skeptical: training wheels have been around since the early 1900s helping generation after generation learn how to ride a bike- was there really a better way? The more I looked into it though, the more excitement I found about the benefits of the new balance bike design, and so we bought it (literally and figuratively!). (more…)

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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!

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Call it whatever you want: scientific inquiry skills, practices of scientists, the scientific method- all science teachers are aware of the value of teaching skills as well as content knowledge. But I would go a step further and say that scientific skills are the most important thing our students can learn. Even if my students remember none of the scientific facts or concepts they learned in school, if as adults they are able to think critically like a scientist, then I think this world will be alright. As Carl Sagan puts it so eloquently in his brilliant manifesto about the importance of scientific literacy: “The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.” (pg. 22) 

It used to be a simple matter teaching scientific skills, back when they were all packaged up neatly in the “Scientific Method”. I’m sure almost all of us had those steps hammered into our skulls lab after lab after lab: question, hypothesis, procedure… zzzzzz. Of course it was mind-numbingly dull to experience science in that over-simplified, lock-step fashion, not to mention completely wrong. Science doesn’t actually work that way- they don’t follow any standardized linear method. A recent study (Reiff et al., 2002) of how scientists actually do science was revealing: although there were many common skills and practices, there was no clearly defined path or order. So to describe the real scientific method the researchers created this “inquiry wheel”:

When I read about the inquiry wheel in grad school, I was more surprised with the similarities it shared with the old-school scientific method than the differences. It seemed like a mere repackaging of the same old method,with just a breaking down of its stale step-by-step order.  I wondered if by making the scientific method a thing of the past, we teachers would  throw the baby out with the bathwater in our eagerness to purge it from our pedagogy. If we aren’t going to teach the scientific method to students, then how will we present the many practices that scientists use and students should surely learn? While this wheel might paint a more accurate picture, it didn’t appeal to me as an educator for use with my students.

For all of its flaws, I believe the scientific method successfully models one approach to doing science for students.  So what I’d like to do is give that model a makeover- and create something that simply structures the process of doing science while also allowing for the flexibility that reflects real practice. Behold, the Scientific Cycle! 

To create the Scientific Cycle I’ve taken the familiar scientific skills of the Scientific Method, synthesized them with an updated version of “science and engineering practices” from the framework for new education standards in the US, and framed them in a simple cyclical process, inspired by the inquiry wheel. Like the wheel I’ve put Asking Questions at the center of the whole thing, because questioning is at heart of science and can be done at any stage in the process. However, unlike the wheel, I favored a cycle as opposed to keeping it totally non-linear, because I believe the general process of Investigate-Analyze-Explain is a beneficial simplification for students. What you lose in realism you gain in students being able to learn and internalize the process.

By far my favorite aspect of the Cycle is the flexibly of the specific skills involved. In the classroom I plan on starting with the Cycle blank, like this: 

Then as we investigate a concept, we can highlight the skill we’re focusing on by adding it to the cycle. This skills might be different depending on the type of investigation: in one case we might investigate a question by planning and conducting a controlled experiment, analyzing and interpreting the data with the use of a graph, and then explaining the results by writing a conclusion. In another we might investigate by conducting some research, analyze by comparing the information found from various sources, and then explain by debating the answer to our question. So whether you’re researching, observing, experimenting, or just exploring, the Cycle still works and provides a good framework for scientific skills, while also teaching students that scientists approach questions in different ways.

Whaddaya think? What would you change/add/remove? Does this fit at different levels and in different subjects? The Cycle has been percolating in my mind for quite some time, so it would be great to get some feedback from other teachers.

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