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Posts Tagged ‘science coaching’

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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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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