“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 19: Walking Backwards May Get You There

Working backwards is a good way to nail down understandings. It’s also a good way to test your students’ understanding of science inquiry.

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

We’ve been looking at inquiries as they go from beginning to middle to end. What might they look like if we start our inspection at the end of an inquiry, and trace it to its inception? Will it sound the same? Are there some insights lurking along the backward path? Retracing a path you’ve walked or driven often contains some surprises.

Let’s start with an end product, a two-panel cardboard display board sitting on a counter in the classroom. On its surfaces, students have written and illustrated their question and how they arrived at it, the design they built to answer the question, the data they collected, their analysis and interpretation of the data, and their conclusion about whether the interpretation answers the question. (That last piece is an easy one to overlook. Studies can take on a life of their own, and students sometimes forget why they started on their journey!)

Think of that display as a benchmark; the evidence that a student has mastered the learning it, the benchmark, encompasses. If you’ve ever used benchmarks to design the scope and sequence of a unit, you’ll know they do have good, practical, pragmatic uses. They tell you what you want to accomplish, and your scope and sequence tells you how they will get there. If you keep the benchmark in mind, you’ll find it easier to keep your scope and sequence focused, targeted on the benchmark. This is different from looking up a required benchmark and seeing if your lessons have addressed it, a common, ineffective, current pedagogical practice.

So, let’s take the last activity we described, a study of temperature and dissolved oxygen in the main and lateral channels of a stream. What do the writing and illustrations on the panels of the display tell you that students have to learn? Well, an obvious one is that they have to know how to organize a complex report. So you make Report Writing one of the topics to cover. To get to the final product, they have to be able to work in Effective Work Groups. This means you need to be working on building these well-oiled machines early on.

Moving back, they have to know how to Construct and Read a Graph for the information it contains, and Explain this Clearly in Writing. They have to know how to Refer their Interpretations back to their Question. And they have to have the capacity to engage in Critical Thinking in order to do this. This is one of the weak spots in education in the US. Getting the right answer on a multiple choice question isn’t critical thinking. My own questions of students and a number of studies show quite clearly that, no matter how well critical thinking would help make the right choice, students just look for the best answer, or choose between two likely answers. They don’t think unless you ask them to write their thinking on the test itself.

During their work, they will have to know how to Analyze Data. This means you’ll have to assess their competence in the math they’ll use for the analysis, and they’ll have to practice figuring out what the results of the math mean. Often, this means that we, the teachers, need to brush up on this. Not to mention the Outliers in the Data that they’ll have to make decisions about. Students are working with two measurements, temperature and dissolved oxygen. How do they analyze them? Deal with outliers?

Collecting Data is just a term, but it’s a big part of the work. Students will have to know how to Measure Temperature and Dissolved Oxygen. This means time in the lab, and the conceptual background to Understand the Relationship of one to the other, and to the lives of juvenile salmon. (Analogy to doing my budgets to find out what I’m really doing.) As they encounter problems, they’ll need to know how to Negotiate Meaning in a group. They’ll need to know how to Organize their Sampling; do they sample at the edge of each channel? Within the channel? How many measurements at each place they sample? Actual sites are very different from the lab. In the lab, everything is organized, and sitting just where it is needed, in its proper order. The real world is messy; until you’ve sampled in it a while, it can be a very confusing, disorderly place. Safety on the site: What Safety Rules do you have to discuss with the class and write down? The work: How do they divide the jobs?

Designing the Investigation; how do students go about this? If they’ve asked a succinct inquiry question, it will tell them what to do. They just list the steps the question calls for. This is usually the easiest part of the work to do. You simply need to get them started, then walk around and review what they’re talking about and writing down. You’ll find that their locus of control has moved within them, they exhibit all the characteristics of ownership of the learning. Plan for enabling your students’ locus of control and ownership of the learning, or it won’t happen in the clutch.

Asking a good Inquiry Question is probably the most difficult part of the work. After developing a question, students assess it. There are lots of assessment rubrics around. Here’s one I use, thanks to Norie Dimeo-Ediger and Berk Moss, who passed them on to me while we were doing institutes at the Oregon Zoo. A good inquiry question is: interesting to you, simply stated, observable, and doable. And one other, thanks to Mike Weddell – Ethical. (That last may not seem applicable to you until your students are disturbing plants, animals, and soils in ecosystems.)

The questions themselves are very difficult to arrive at until we’ve asked a relatively large number of them. This is partly because we haven’t lived our learning lives out in the world we evolved in. So we are a bit overwhelmed by the complexity we observe there, and subsequently ask very large questions. These large questions often begin with “Why.” Why do birds fly south in winter; how do aquatic organisms reduce pollution; why do leaves break up and decompose on the bottom of a pond; why did these trees grow the way they did here? These are what I call ‘umbrella’ questions. They don’t lead to one succinct inquiry which will answer them. Rather, they beg several to many smaller inquiry questions.

For instance, I might ask an umbrella question like, “Why do reeds grow in narrow bands along this river’s edge?” Think of answering ‘Why’ questions in this facetious way: Do I design a questionnaire, then go out and ask the reeds its questions? That’s a very common way to get an answer to a Why question. Or, I might take a different tack and ask the Why question what smaller questions might provide an answer to it.

Why questions and How questions are almost always umbrella questions, which can only be answered by sets of succinct inquiry questions. One inquiry question that might begin to answer my Why question about reeds might be, “Where, on a line from the water’s edge to a spot 100 meters up the streambank, do reeds live?” An answer to that should tell me what particular part of the reeds’ environment to question for an answer to my umbrella question.

A follow-up question might be, “What are the properties of the soil at the streambank’s waterline, the streamside edge of the reeds’ distribution, the streambank side of the reeds’ distribution, and soils at 10-meter intervals thereafter?” Not a succinct question, though. Not simply stated. That’s my cue to think about what I’ve just said. Thinking about it, I suddenly see that it’s more like a piece of a design to answer my inquiry investigation. I could make my inquiry question more succinct by simply asking about soil properties at 10-meter intervals from the waterline, or soil properties in the band of reeds, and on either side of the band. If I suspected soil moisture might contribute to the reeds’ distribution, I might ask, “What are soil moisture properties between the band of reeds and the stream, in the band of reeds, and 10 meters up the stream bank from the reeds?” I’ll continue with this one, but am still uneasy about the long predicate.

The time it takes to do this well is worth the expense. It’s key to doing inquiry. Work out your own way to do it; just be sure to do a quality job. And don’t forget, it takes lots of practice to get to the place where you routinely see something and ask a simple inquiry question about it.

Let’s assess this last question. First, is the question interesting to me? If I’d never seen reeds, the answer might be, ‘No.’ However, I have done a casual observation, and their tight distribution along the streambank came to my immediate attention. So, I’d say the question is interesting to me. Too often, students are given their question. Not a good way to make a question interesting.

Second, is the question simply stated? I say yes and no. It’s a long sentence, and I might spend some time thinking about how to shorten the description of where the soils are that I’m interested in. Perhaps I could change my question to, “How does soil moisture compare between the band of reeds and the rest of the streambank?” That way, my investigative design can do the work of describing just which soils I’m interested in. I like that; it is what I will do.

Third, is the question’s subject observable? Oh, yes. I find the soil, I dig, I test for moisture, I write down a number. Easy. Fourth, is answering the question doable? Well, that depends on how much time I have to do the sampling and testing, if I have the equipment, and if I can get transportation to the site. If those needs are met, then it’s doable, and I can get to work. If not, I’ll have to rethink my ideas.

It looks like my question has survived, and I can get to work. Earlier, I mentioned a casual observation. Let’s look at that now. You can’t ask an inquiry question without knowing something about the subject of your inquiry. It’s the weakest part of most publishers’ lab and field exercises. Many have the student write an hypothesis in the absence of experience, something scientists don’t do until they’ve thoroughly studied a phenomenon with many individual inquiries. The casual observation gives students an opportunity to get to know the subject well enough to ask an informed question of it. We owe them that much

When you send students out for their casual observation, and it’s their first such experience, you might think of giving them brief prompts like, Look for plants, Look where the water meets the land, or Look where plants live. Another thing to consider – students will be negotiating meaning while they’re doing their casual observation, and that tends to be best when they work in dyads, pairs. A third student will probably let the others do the work. At this point, it’s very important for each student to be closely involved in the work, and to be sharing thoughts with a partner. This is where the process of assimilation for understanding begins. If you can’t arrange the casual observation without one triad, then make sure each member is a good communicator.

Don’t tell your students specifics about what they are about to do, just what the next step is. Their brain has to do the learning. This is a toughie. We always want to help them, but this is learning they have to do themselves. And can.

We’ve walked through an inquiry from very end to beginning. Next time, we’ll bring this together to scope and sequence how the unit would work. See how it looks from beginning to end. This is a skill we all need to develop and use.

jimphotocroppedThis is the nineteenth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, 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.”