NGSS and Active Learning

Maria’s Eye: How do we empower it to engage and understand her world?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING writer and contributor

f I could imagine the best possible classroom in the world, it would be one in which each student is empowered to look out into the world, see something which catches her attention, then know what to do to find out about it. Students engaged, involved, invested, and empowered in their world. My mind’s eye expresses this dream as one of a salmon fry darting quickly into a thick growth of periphyton on a fist-sized cobble, as Maria’s eye turns up and the corner of her mouth sets its sails toward a smile. That, not checking off a cell in a table, is the moment of learning that we teach for. That tells us that all is going to work out; we’ll accomplish this unit, and be ready for the next; empowered to accomplish whatever comes down the road.

How do we recognize that moment, and what do we follow it up with? So far, all of the work on science standards hasn’t clarified an answer to that question. Go to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) website ( and look for teachers’ resources. And for teachers’ in-service opportunities. What do you find that is cognizant of how teaching and learning actually happen? That offers in-service training on using active learning to engage students in self-directed inquiry. Perhaps we need to work on this ourselves.

How did Maria’s eye get to the place where it turned into anticipation, and an incipient smile expressed a clear message that she was on the way to understanding? Something in her environment invited Maria to explore a concept, and her brain did the rest. Something her teacher anticipated and organized within her students’ work environment so they would engage it. Not a simple thing to do. It takes knowledge, time, confidence, and experience to do this well. And competent mentors. (For about twenty years, I did science inquiry workshops for teachers which began with a casual observation that I hoped would lead participants to notice something. Each time, to the very last I did, this is the moment I felt that this time, it wouldn’t work. Each time it did, and my experience was the thing I relied on the most to trust it would. Takes courage! And experience.)

When students engage the real world, the one outside the classroom, and discover questions embedded in what they find, that process turns on their brain, engages the prefrontal cortex (pfc), and real learning begins. When they do this in partnerships or groups, the medial pfc adds to that learning power by engaging the negotiation of meaning with its power derived from the social interactions involved in exploring, then recognizing a question. Quickly, the whole brain becomes actively involved, and new conceptual understandings are reinforced in long term memory. Can teachers learn to use this wonderful, built-in resource?

How can environmental educators help get them out here? How do we get departments of education (unwieldy bureaucracies) and legislators to recognize the need and support it. Perhaps we can pilot a project which first describes what teachers need in order to appreciate and understand how active learning works, and why. Then provides the in-service support teachers need to feel confident with the content they are teaching, and comfortable with all aspects of delivering content via active learning.

There are educators who routinely use active learning to deliver content – environmental educators. They teach in places which are interesting, and where students can initiate learnings with real-world, concrete objects. A good way to start a learning activity by engaging the brain, especially the pfc. A nice five-to-ten day summer workshop, followed by mentored field trips to nail down specific learnings. What might this pilot look like?

Some teachers are already delivering content via competent active learning. A large number of environmental educators are doing the same. What if we could gather a few of each for a few hours to discuss the idea of helping teachers become comfortable with active learning, and comfortable integrating and aligning their deliveries to their state’s content standards? There are large regional environmental education learning centers which have the infrastructure to support workshops. A collaboration between teachers, environmental educators, and environmental learning centers might have the capacity to deliver a pilot project. I like to think in terms of the long run, so add a comment that this would be a three-to-five year pilot in which initial participants would, where feasible, mentor new teachers each year, periodically review progress and tweak the project, and present their work and findings at annual teacher and environmental education conferences.

It doesn’t take many people to make positive change. I’ve learned over the decades that they simply have to start.

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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