Is Science Communication? Can students, moving around and talking, do science?
You’re trying to answer a question. Student work groups have designed their own investigations to understand the question, develop inquiries to investigate what they have found and thought about, then present their findings to the other work groups in a symposium. There are many processes going on here. Let’s look at a few as they engage them to see what emerges in addition to discovering and testing possible answers to the original question.
Start small. In groups, you help students learn to communicate effectively. How to say, “Here’s what I think, and why;” and to listen and respond when other group members do the same. This is very basic to developing effective work groups. You have them keep notes on these conversations, and use them to elicit concepts, plan work, etc. (Basic, but essential. They need to know why they think what they do, and make what they think and why clear to others. And to learn to be advised or informed by others in their group.)
When your groups are communicating effectively, you observe for outcomes of their collaborative discussions. Do they understand their data, its patterns, its shape in graphs, etc. Are they showing signs of being able to relate data patterns to their question: Is it answered? What is the convincing evidence? What if the evidence doesn’t support their guesses about the answer to question? Or, does their question itself come into question? Are they becoming less mechanical and more purposeful in their work?
Further questions can move the groups along the learning curve by developing their critical thinking capacities: Are their interpretations of data supported by evidence? How confident are they of their data? Can they explain or justify data interpretations they have made, and their validity? What do their interpretations say about possible next steps?
You can continue to build on this conceptual foundation, each step easier because the foundation is becoming broad and more stable. You have them assess the design of their investigation and interpretations of data: How certain are they that they got the right data and used the best techniques of data acquisition? How certain are they that their data do, in fact, tell them what they need to know? Has their knowledge and expertise increased during this process? How much do they really know? Questions like these will tend to focus their thoughts on how they are learning and doing. Metacognition. Students who know how to learn know how to learn. Communication within effective work groups helps generate this capacity.
When they are ready, you have the groups report in a symposium. This is where their communication skills will be called upon to build conceptual understandings. How familiar are they with their evidence and its interpretation? How well do they comprehend other groups’ data and interpretations? How well do they generalize what they’ve learned and developed about collaborative communication within their work groups? Do they move it outward to carry on effective discussion with all of the work groups in the class? When an entire class develops the capacity to engage in substantive conversation about what they are learning, they’ll learn and nail down more than you could ever teach them using the publishers’ prepared materials and recommendations in the Teachers’ Editions.
Learning about science, but not doing science, does not develop the capacities described here. By only collecting and reporting data, students don’t engage the critical thinking capacities of their brain. I’ve observed science classes in which students looked up the boiling point of a liquid, say water, boiled the liquid and noted that it did boil at that temperature. What do they communicate amongst themselves? Is communication actually involved here? Or, are they simply engaging a perfunctory ritual? Might they have learned more if they had heated 3 or 4 liquids, noted their boiling points (or figured out how they’d know the boiling points, then test that), then looked up boiling points and made a guess about what their liquids were?)
Nor do they develop their capacity for conceptual learning when they simply learn about science, and commit science facts to memory. When students do engage in self-directed inquiries, examine the relevance of their collected data, critique it and the process of collecting it, and formulate interpretations they agree upon, they become involved and invested in the work, and empowered as persons. Engaging life. Engaged students are learning students. What our schools need today.
There’s not a lot of information out there on how to engage this part of teaching. There should be. This kind of work supports critical thinking, so it is of value. Critical thinking uses a part of the cortex that is especially well-organized for conceptual learning. That’s the prefrontal cortex, where relevant information from associative memories throughout the brain are brought together in working memory to nail down this new learning, then send it back out to associative memory; not as a fact to memorize for a test then forget, but as something more akin to common sense – something integrated into associative memory that you ‘just know.’
This critical thinking system turns on when you ask a question that is meaningful to you, and seek an answer to it. Science inquiry is a perfect complement and extension of this cortical learning system. In contrast, learning simply to prepare for a test won’t, of itself, entrain critical thinking. Instead, because of its aversive nature, learning content in order to answer test questions is accompanied by some level of anxiety, and entrains the limbic system, which isn’t good at engaging critical thinking. At least in this context, learning facilitated by anxiety about passing a test.
As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) continue to influence teachers’ and students’ experience in school, they present some level of anxiety to many, whether from an unfamiliar expectation for performance, change from structured, curriculum-directed teaching and learning to a more open-ended, active learning model, or from increased paperwork and accounting with no accommodating increase in free time for such work. Anxiety is processed through the limbic system, which impacts how the brain learns; which of its resources are freed for the task. As student and teacher stress levels increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage critical thinking. Instead, the limbic system, busy processing anxiety, increasingly limits communication with the prefrontal cortex, where critical thinking does its work. Instead, learning is limited to simple thoughts, which remain connected solely to the need to pass questions on a test, with little or no integration into associative memory, as occurs in critical thinking.
On the other hand, when students and teachers are free to explore new learnings (which the CCSS and NGSS seem to be interested in), to ask questions and seek answers to them, the limbic system supports this work with a heightened sense of pleasure and excitement, and feelings of well-being and inquisitiveness. And by assuring the doors to the prefrontal cortex are open.The different limbic involvements in learning are entrained by the properties of the learning environment. As they were when our brain evolved in the savannah during the Pleistocene. Might we use that history to revisit how we teach? How we organize student-student interactions while they learn? In the classroom and on-site in the natural world? In these cases, the limbic supports the work of the cortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, where working memory resides, and the brain’s conscious executive functions do their work. Work in which goals direct effort, reasoning and abstract thought are supported, and critical thinking takes place. Where we actively construct knowledge and commit it to long-term associative memory; ask questions, design investigations, develop needs-to-know which drive us into the information we seek, desire to complete and communicate our work.
When we are driven only by anxiety about not being able to answer questions on tests, this wonderful part of our brain is lost to us. The limbic system limits its use, and we simply memorize disconnected bits of information long enough to use them on a test, then forget. Are we teaching for fight or flight, or for higher-order critical thinking?
Used knowledgably, communication as practiced in doing science has the capacity to produce a foundation for critical thinking. By the information it generates, the testing of the information, and its processing and communication, it involves and invests students in critical thinking; in using their prefrontal cortex, its executive and working memory functions. The key feature is that the students, not the teacher, are involved in constructing knowledge. The teacher, while responsible for producing an environment where a constructivist approach to learning will probably happen, becomes a facilitator of their work. A difficult transition for many of us to make. I went into it willingly, but once committed, sorely missed lecturing and wowing students with the wondrous things I could show them in the lab. In spite of this, when I would pull out my old lesson plans, it would be immediately clear to me that this constructivist model was much, much more effective and empowering. And I eventually discovered this was because it used those sites and connections in the brain which were organized to engage conceptual learning. Something my pre-service and graduate education in teaching never addressed. It should have. Had it, and we learned as our brain is organized to learn, we just might have learned well.
Communication, when it is substantive, has the capacity to facilitate critical thinking. It does this by requiring us to consider what we are saying and doing, which is a readily useable road to the prefrontal cortex and working memory. Sort of like working in a shared workspace, a place with all the resources and facilities you need to focus on what you are learning, and the executive capacity to follow up on what you have learned.
This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”