On Teaching Science

identifying-samplesWhat’s the Difference…

…between a single performer and an energetic band? Can students teach themselves?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Master Teacher

I-bluen an earlier set of blogs, we followed a middle school class whose science teacher had started them on a project to study a creek that flows at the edge of the school ground. The last time we saw them, groups were analyzing and interpreting the data and observations they collected on their first major field trip to the creek, and preparing a report to the class. The blog focused in on the group doing macros, macroinvertebrate insect larvae, worms, etc., who live on the streambed; aquatic invertebrates large enough to distinguish with the unaided (except for glasses) eye.

They eventually organized themselves into three groups, one to cover the process of collecting the macros, one to describe how they identified and counted them, and a third to find out how to use their macro findings to estimate the health of the creek. Sounds like they’re on a learning curve, moving from Acquisition to Proficiency. They would need some feedback, both from withn the group and from their teacher. She gave each group one more task, to find out what they could about effective student work groups.

The macro group prepared the presentation they would make to the class. Each of their groups prepared their part, then they gave their presentations within the group, and used this experience to tweak them into a final, effective presentation. Their presentation included the interpretation they made based on their collected data that the creek’s current health was Fair, tending toward Good.

They used the rest of their prep time to begin a search for information on effective student work groups. During their web search, they were surprised there was so little there about middle school work groups, since they are finding their work invigorating, and feel they are learning a lot. Some of the sites they visited were confusing, some targeted high schools, but most described college work groups. Among those things related to effective work groups they found and were interested in were those which described the work, maintenance, and blocking roles individuals play within work groups, and those which described how groups can make their work visible while they’re processing by using whiteboards, posters, etc. They saw how these aids would help clarify concepts as they were learning. They decided to report on these two findings, roles group members play and making the work visible so that it is easier to discuss and process.

Of the two group characteristics they decided to report on, the idea that individuals play roles in a group, and these roles affect the work of the group were the most interesting to them, and a bit of a revelation. They were especially intrigued by one of the Blocking roles, which interfere with a group’s capacity to complete its work. The one they found most interesting was the Avoidance Behaver role. Each of them had engaged this role when they were madly fighting for the D-net while first collecting macros. (By joisting to control the D-net and collecting tray, they were avoiding the work in the way in which they behaved. They had employed Avoidance Behaviors; each of them, as they joisted, was an Avoidance Behaver.) They still laughed at the fun they had been having, but also felt the odd juxtaposition of this role with the Work and Maintenance roles they also played to move the work along, clarify the processes they used and identifications they made, keeping communication lines open, and sending out consensus queries about what they thought they were finding out.

They were encouraged that most of the roles they assumed were positive ones which lead to a successful project. As they talked, they also came to consensus that this was a finding of their work as important as their findings indicating that the health of the stream was Fair, tending toward Good. A revelation for them, and would become one for their teacher.

This group has made good progress on their new learning curves, macroinvertebrates and group roles. One curve is facilitating their conceptual understanding of macros; the other curve is empowering them to understand the dynamics of an effective work group. They entered these learning curves because (1) their teacher set them up in the first place, and (2) the Acquisition phase included finding out about macros. And, perhaps inadvertently, their, and their teacher’s discovery of the importance of developing effective work groups. Because the students were first finding macros, then learning about them, they started their work seeking information and patterns which would help them know who was living on the bottom of the creek. They didn’t consciously couch their investigation in these terms, but this is what they were experiencing.

The experience of seeing if they could actually capture macros, and the fun involved in collecting and seeing them stimulated the limbic’s Seeking system in their brains, which added dopamine to the neural soup that facilitates human efforts to make work interesting. These feelings and felt interests, in turn, drove them to the books and the web to follow up on the needs to know generated by their inquiries. Under their own power. First, the excitement of learning how best to capture macros, then residual interest carried them to the manuals to begin to identify who was there. ‘Finding Out’ is a powerful student (and human) motivator, one we stamp out as students move through the grades we teach. Perhaps because many of us don’t understand the content we teach well enough to allow our students to have their own thoughts about it. (Parenthetical comment on the 50%)

We could learn to use this motivator to engage conceptual learnings in ways that involve and invest our students in their learnings, and empower them as persons. There is a big difference between memorizing for a test and trying to find out the same information. The difference between a single performer and an energetic band. One way that difference expresses itself is in our standing in global scales of learning, where we are consistently near the bottom, rarely in the upper half. Our current model of school is memorizing for tests. How well does that work? We need to rediscover this active, group-centered, collaborative way of being human, and exploit it in our classrooms and outdoor sites. Telling students what is before them doesn’t stimulate long-term conceptual memory; helping them find out does. I’d like to say, “Freeing them to find out,” but for many teachers those words, especially the first one, might be intimidating to hear.

Building effective work groups takes time and patience. Fortunately, it goes quicker if the process takes place while the groups are pursuing an inquiry. Engaging in this kind of work develops needs for just the sort of group processes which make inquiries successful. While she may not have consciously planned it, dividing the class into groups, each with its own part of the creek to study, set the stage with students who were ready to learn about effective work groups. They weren’t consciously aware that they were ready, but their needs to do the work did the job for them.

(I’m interested in Jaak Panksepp’s work at Washington State University on the brain’s limbic system’s Seeking System. It’s important to learning for understanding because this is one of the few instances in which engaging the relatively primitive Limbic System leads to effective activity in the cortex, where critical thinking happens. When educators speak of the brain and learning in the same sentence, eyes in just about any audience tend to either roll or glaze over. Even though the brain is our organ of learning, teachers and administrators tend to think of learning and publishers’ products as the only bundle that matters. No room for neuronal bundles. Connecting. In effective ways. Evolved bottom up, and may work best that way.)

First, by sending students to find out, the emotions of the Seeking system move them to the cortex and critical thinking. Then we organize the learners’ environment so the information they (their cortices) need to know is readily available. And we can watch as our students learn for understanding. My experience was this: First engage students in their inquiries, then see how much of the reading I would have assigned or lectured on that they get into on their own. My observations on learners over the years told me that any movement away from total inertia on the part of the student indicates a determined effort to learn even if it’s a small move, say 10% of the way to mastery. Perusing the research on the brain eventually clarified that particular parts of the brain, when they were working, elicited the learning behaviors I observed, and clarified students’ involvement and investment in the learning, and empowerment as persons, and prepared them to form effective work groups.

So, the teacher and her class were learning that one thing which will enhance student performance is to learn how to get group members to interact. You can facilitate this by ensuring that students’ work calls for the communication skills it takes to develop consensual decisions about complex topics. The teacher whose students we just followed did this by asking each group to research information about effective student work groups. They do the work, she gleans the information. Win-win. A further step would be deciding how to include minority opinions in final reports. Simple to do; you just announce that you allow it. In my experience, this helps students achieve ownership of their learnings. A surprise for me was that sometimes students presenting a minority report saw something other groups presented from a new perspective, that of observer, not of learner. Whether that altered their interpretation of findings wasn’t as important as the fact that they were developing the capacity to hear another view and think about it. And validate the right to hold it. And, holders of the majority opinion often did review their thoughts.

The macro group is moving through its own learning curve. Does their progress look like a learning curve? Where did they start? Where are they now? How does the learning curve differ for an individual student vs. an effective work group? I picture this difference as one between a single, good performer, and an energetic band; the interactions between group members, while they’re working, can make a routine school activity become an exciting experience, a performance to be remembered. If you’re a teacher, listen to that last word.

jimphoto3This 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.”

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