Is Active Learning, Learning?
by Jim Martin
Because active learning requires practice and feedback on thinking like an expert (a scientist), it demands considerably greater subject expertise by the teacher. . . . [A problem that] will remain until college science teaching improves to the point that all students, including future K-12 teachers, graduate with a solid understanding of science and a better model for good science teaching and learning. . . . Most people, including university faculty and administrators, believe learning happens by a person simply listening to a teach¬er. That is true if one is learning something very simple, like “Eat the red fruit, not the green one,” but complex learning, including scientific thinking, requires the practice and interaction described earlier to literally rewire the brain to take on new capabilities.
– Carl Wieman
Wieman is describing what I view as the historical residuals that impede effective teaching in today’s schools: We are leaving the educational needs of the Industrial Revolution, and embarking on the needs of our Technical age, and evolved social and cultural structures. Rote learning limits human empowerment, yet we still, in large part, rely on it.
The two issues Wieman describes both limit the education our students receive, and perpetuate the problem because under-prepared graduates make under-prepared teachers. Teachers are the only people who can correct this. Teachers can’t give effective feedback to learning students if they haven’t the requisite extensive experience and knowledge of what they are teaching to do so. A teacher who has done the science, and comprehends the concepts and processes involved in what is being learned, will have a much better perspective to process a student’s efforts, place them within a meaningful context that the student can respond to, and observe for first, critical, steps toward learning for understanding. For a teacher without the background to comprehend and do the science, a student’s efforts which seem to be going in the wrong direction might be interpreted as being altogether wrong, the appropriate material in the text or instructions pointed to, and the student moved on; perhaps even to learn what was to be learned, but not empowered as an autonomous learner. And less likely to become a competent student. Ultimately, what was to be learned will not be learned well enough to remain in memory after the test.
If teachers are to engage their students in active learning, which has the capacity to produce effective long-term conceptual memory, we all need to help build an environment where teachers are assisted to become competent in the concepts and processes they teach. Since I started tracking teacher preparation for the content they are asked to teach, about half are reported to have had the coursework and/or experience to teach it. Wieman finds a similar pattern. Even those who teach teachers aren’t immune. A chemist, who mentored science teachers for a federal education support agency, didn’t know that cold creek water which was overhung by vegetation and aerated by an upstream riffle might have what appears to be an elevated dissolved oxygen content. This is a real deficit, and we all need to do something to resolve it.
Environmental educators have generated an enlightened public which has produced a State, Oregon, that is an epicenter for streambank restoration in the world. We’re now faced with a nation which is near the bottom in science education among the highly developed nations. Environmental educators can help inexperienced science teachers gain the confidence and expertise they need to improve science education in our classrooms. Everything we need to do that is on our sites and in our heads. We only need the bootstrapping will to take the first step – sit down with someone of a like mind, talk about what needs to be done, then, together, sit with someone else and do the same.
Here’s one I experienced years ago at a constructed pond within a large industrial area. The pond was connected by a canal to a large natural lake. There was a parking lot on one side of the rectangular pond; a large drain pipe removed water from the parking lot and surrounding area and dropped it about ten feet from its open end into the pond. We visited one Spring as part of a science inquiry workshop. Teacher participants were practicing water quality observations, and asked to decide in each of their groups where to make their observations.
As we gathered to review their findings, most groups’ dissolved oxygen (DO) measurements were within the range we’d expect for pond water at the temperatures they’d recorded. Two groups, however, recorded very high DO values. One group had made their observations in the center of a large algal bloom at one end of the pond, and they decided that, since these were algae producing the high DO levels, the levels observed there represented excellent water quality. The other group had measured water quality at the place in the pond where water flowing out of the drain pipe splashed into the pond. Their DO measurements were higher than those in the algal bloom. This group decided that, since the water leaving the drain pipe must be polluted, the high DO values represented very poor water quality.
What would you have interpreted from the DO data and places where the observations were made? Those teachers were using the science they knew, and taught, but in a place outside the classroom or lab. What might they have thought and said if it were their students who made the observations, and their interpretations of the results were different? Perhaps even the opposite of those they had made themselves?
We’ve all been faced with dilemmas like this. How do we respond? How might a teacher respond who has never made a scientific observation outside the classroom? Perhaps never made one at all? (Or the chemist who didn’t understand dissolved oxygen dynamics in a natural environment?) How might an environmental educator respond to this issue? By that last, I don’t mean give the correct answer; I mean relieve the deficits in experience and understandings that brought the problem into existence.
Most issues in education become issues because we don’t lay the practical and conceptual foundation our careers require. To fix it, we need to jack up our structures, rebuild their foundations, lower the structure back on a solid foundation, then let the creaks, groans, and cracks in the structure tell us how to reorganize it. This is something our top-down educational organization is unable to do. We have to do it ourselves. I say that teachers who are comfortable teaching inquiry science, and environmental educators who are comfortable reaching out to teachers, need to get together to bring science back to young people in ways which restore its inherent interest, excitement, and empowerment.
Working together, environmental educators and teachers who routinely engage their students in inquiry, are a practical hope for building a stronger science edifice in our schools. Current efforts from the top of education’s administrative structure to embed a common core curriculum and new science standards in the schools haven’t, to date, funded the basic professional development support that a large number of teachers will need to bring these initiatives to life, and make them a basic part of all education in the nation. A good way to make this happen, in an effective, non-punitive, way is for the work to start in the classroom, supported by teacher mentors and environmental educators.
Why do I include environmental educators in words about science inquiry education in classrooms. Because inquiry education relies on active learning, which is an effective way to build conceptual learnings into long-term memory. Active learning is the teaching modality that most environmental educators use. The familiar concrete referents students and their teachers will use at an environmental site make learning to do and understand science inquiry much more effective. And because school curricula, even though it may be so disguised that it seems appropriate only to school, is actually about the world we live in. You can find it embedded in nearly every place you see, from a busy neighborhood business area to a riparian forest or a mountain stream.
It’s been my experience that teachers respond well to developing the capacity to take charge of their science curricula by beginning with inquiries in a natural environment, zoo, or school neighborhood. Inquiry workshops which introduce groups of teachers to science inquiry in places with familiar concrete referents, then use these experiences to transition participants into science inquiry with the materials they have in the classrooms, are a good first step in improving science education. If it could be arranged, environmental educators and teacher mentors would ensure that a large number of these teachers would complete the journey to become those who, along with their students, routinely learn for understanding. And are willing to help empower other teachers.
Here are two sets of five assessment statements which have been used with effect, and which would emerge from the classrooms of teachers who have been freed to teach science as it should be taught. Freed because they have overcome the obstacles their teacher preparation and current punitive emphasis on standardized test results place on them. Freed to give effective feedback to their learning students. A teacher who has done the science, and comprehends the concepts and processes involved in what is being learned, will have a much better perspective to process a student’s efforts, place them within a meaningful context that the student can respond to, and observe for first, critical, steps toward learning for understanding.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards teacher certification program effective professional teaching propositions:
1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning;
2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students;
3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning;
4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience; and,
5. Teachers are members of learning communities.
I believe that #2 above is not effectively addressed by current reforms. The five propositions listed above lead to what comes next:
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching and Cambridge Education Project teacher assessment assessors developed by students, themselves:
1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect,
2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to,
3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,
4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day, and
5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.
Becoming comfortable and experienced in teaching inquiry-based science is a fundamental step in meeting these propositions because it engages a paradigm shift which provides you with a more realistic perspective about science and students becoming scientists.
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.”