Jim Martin on Inquiry

Is active learning an effective vehicle to train science inquiry mentors?

Walking along with you is far better than telling you “I’ll show you the way.”

ow should we prepare mentors of teachers who wish to learn how to engage their students in authentic science inquiry, to provide what they will need for the work they will do? Should we get them together and show them what to do? Or, engage them in active learning focused on mentoring, and respond to what emerges? I know from my various experiences in being trained that listening to a speaker, then watching from a distance as the speaker demonstrates an activity, does next to nothing for me. When I arrive to do the work I was trained for, I’m not sure where to start. There, on site, bright smiling face, but a little uncertain just what to do. When my training has me actually doing the work, I arrive on site ready to go; looking forward to doing the work. So, I think I’ll describe mentor training via, mostly, active learning.

What is mentor training via active learning like?

Since classroom teachers will probably find doing a first field trip on their own a bit daunting, we’d start the teacher/environmental educator mentors-in-training doing just that. They’ll do a training, more or less on their own. First, we’d group them in pairs, then have them move through three or four stations representing those that students would move through on their first field trip. Participants’ first job at this training will be to decide how to do the work at each of the stations, say, “Streamside Vegetation.” As they go, these mentors-in-training will share what they know about the station they are visiting, and how they would assist an inexperienced teacher to become comfortable doing that station.

At each station, there would be a poster board, Post-Its, and a felt pen. The board would have the name of the station on it, and the rest of the space for questions and comments. For this training, the questions and comments would relate to the work of mentoring inexperienced teachers as they go to a natural site to do the work at this station for the first time. As they work out the way they think the station would be best done, they will make comments on the Post-Its and place them on the board. As the concept clarifies itself, they might wish to move the Post-Its around to reflect this.

After they organize the Post-Its on the boards as they wish, they will decide on outcomes for that particular station, what the students who visit it will take away from their experiences. Then, they will decide how the station will be introduced to students. Hopefully, they will have clarified the purpose of and function of the station, and they can decide on a rationale, a mission statement of sorts, for that station. A training done this way, not a talking head, telling them about it, but an active way of discovering it for themselves. All of this will go to the board on Post-Its, or, if they are sure of what they’ve done, they would use the felt pen to mark off a heading and space for the Post-Its that go under that heading.

Then, they will organize themselves to do the work of the station, and do it. While working, they would engage in an interactive dialog as they move along; clarifying, suggesting, and making recommendations which emerge from their experiences at that station. When they’re finished, they may wish to modify or add to the Post-Its on the board. After completing this station, they will rotate to the next one, where they will repeat the process. As they go, they will add Post-Its of their own, rearrange them, and add a heading if they think it should be a permanent part of the board. They continue until they’ve completed the work at all stations. (This exercise was first introduced to me by Rebecca Martin, when she used it in a Salmon Watch teacher training. I call it a concept-induction exercise. Some call it an ideation exercise. It’s very effective. I’ve even used it to focus a meeting to plan a performance center in Vancouver, WA, where I live.)

What might mentors-in-training take away from this active learning exercise?

At the end, after all groups have visited all stations, the entire group will do a walk through the stations, pointing out curricular elements embedded in the environment, listing equipment that would be needed or helpful in doing the work, noting safety measures for particular parts of each station, sharing what they’ve learned, discussing the work to understand it better and suggest modifications. As part of this, they will review each updated poster board (which remained on station), and nail down their recommendations, etc. At the end, they will suggest next steps, which might be no change needed, or some further changes.

When this has been done, the mentors should be able to have moved inexperienced teachers to a place where they can, with time, become teachers who confidently move their students, via active learning in a natural environment, toward the knowledge, skills, and understandings they will need to respond to the effects of climate change effectively. The purpose of all these words.

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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