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Posts Tagged ‘inquiry skills’

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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I’m moving on up to teach Middle School next year, so this will be my last 5th grade science fair for the foreseeable future. After 8 years of overseeing these fairs, I’ve generated a ton of schedules, forms, letters, worksheets- all the structural stuff that I’m going to be passing on to my replacement next year. Unfortunately, no matter how much I want this transition to go smoothly- I realized today that the most important element of the entire fair can’t be forwarded in an email or printed out in a binder: it’s the careful coaching that I do with students in short face-to-face meetings over the course of the science fair preparations.

Thinking about it now, I probably should have recorded some of these conversations, because it would be much more interesting and informative than just sharing my recollections and impressions- but that will have to be another project for another time! To give you an idea of what this kind of science fair coaching looks like, here’s a recreation of a typical conversation that I had with a team of students who were investigating how different liquids affected the amount of rust that forms on steel:

  • Teacher: So what are you going to measure to compare the amount of rust?
  • Students: How long the rust is.
  • T: What tool are you going to use to do that?
  • S: A ruler. With centimeters.
  • T: OK- so let’s say your blob of rust looks like this (I draw a blobby shape on a piece of paper). How would you measure that?
  • S: Like how long it is. From here to here (pointing at two ends of the rust).
  • T: Why not here to here? (pointing at different ends of the rust). You see how this is going to be tricky? What if the rust looks like this (draw another blobby shape, smaller but longer)? Which blob of rust is bigger?
  • S: This one. (pointing at the first blob)
  • T: But the second one is longer, right? So what else could you measure?
  • S: We could do how long and how tall maybe. 
  • T: Length and height… so you would be figuring out area then instead, right? So instead of just measuring centimeters, you would be measuring square centimeters, like this (draw a square centimeter). But are your blobs of rust going to be perfect squares?
  • S: No, but we could estimate it. 
  • M: OK, that’s a good idea, you could try to figure out how many square centimeters each blob of rust. So how would you figure out this blob (pointing at the first blob on the paper)?
  • S: Like this (starts drawing square centimeters inside the blob), and count how many fit inside.
  • M: Good thinking, but won’t that take a long time? Instead of drawing square centimeters yourself, is there a way you could use something with the squares centimeters already drawn on them? Like a piece of graph paper? How could you use that to make your measurements easier?
  • S: (after some thought) We could trace the rust on the paper- and then just count them up! …But what about if only part of a square is full? 
  • M: Hmmm…. what do you think you should do? 
  • S: What if we only count the ones that are mostly full.
  • M: That sounds like a good rule for estimating. I think you have a good plan now, why don’t you try it out and see how if it works?

And now for some “post-game analysis”- here’s what I think makes these kind of coaching conversations work so well:

  • Leading from behind: The most difficult thing for me to learn as a science fair coach was how to lead a team of students without…  err… leading. It’s a tricky tension: we want our students to be active learners and experience inquiry-based learning, but our students don’t have the skills or understanding to go the distance independently. So yes, the teacher still has to take the lead to guide students through the process, but it’s a subtle kind of leading puts the students out in front so they have a feeling of ownership and an opportunity to make decisions (and mistakes). In the example above, obviously the students are going to run into problems trying to measure the length of several irregular shapes, and there’s no point in having them waste hours of time doing that to “teach them a lesson” (if students spend hours collecting data, they will cling to it for dear life no matter how “bad” you may explain it is later!). Instead I have them think it through beforehand and come up with a better solution. Notice that I’m while I’m driving the conversation towards this solution the entire time, it’s the students that are actually making the decisions. The best analogy I can come up with is driver’s ed: the students are at the wheel, but all the while the teacher is there to keep students focused on what’s important, and if necessary you have the ability to slam on the brakes.
  • Just right and just-in-time: My science fair coaching style is not a constant peppering of students with questions and suggestions- if you coach that way students will tune you out as faster than a nagging parent! Instead I pick 3 critical points to have these face-to-face conversations: when students have brainstormed their experimental questions, when students have written a rough draft of their procedure, and when they have collected their data (before analyzing it). That’s it. In between these points there’s plenty of modeling with exemplar science fair reports and example experiments in class, but the actual science fair work along the way is done without anyone looking over their shoulder. This way students truly do have ownership of their experiment, and have the opportunity to make plenty of mistakes! For example, the rough draft procedures are almost universally terrible when we meet- but that’s OK. As a teacher I can hone in on the most important issues to address, and lead from behind to guide student’s learning to improve their procedure before they start experimenting.
  • Student-centered learning should be… STUDENT centered: The last important aspect of successful coaching is more of a philosophy than a strategy. As science teachers we can’t help but have an idea in our mind of what a perfect science fair experiment looks like… the kind that impresses the judges, wins the Google Science Fair and gets our name in the paper. Part of us would love to stroll through our science fair and see table after table of these perfect clones- wouldn’t that be a successful science fair? Maybe in a teacher’s eyes, but of course our real goal is student learning, and that will only be successful if that students actually have a chance to learn! In my mind the most successful science fair experiments are the ones that inspired the most learning and sparked the most interest in scientific inquiry. These may not be the ones with the most polished poster or the most “scientific” topic. In fact often these will be the experiments where the students ran into the most problems with their procedure or data. At the end of the day though, with careful coaching these students will have learned far more than by following someone else’s directions on ScienceFairProjects.com, and they will be able to demonstrate that learning by explaining the problems they overcame (and the ones they could not).

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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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