How Big is Science? Can I Discover its Dimensions?

There is great beauty in thoughts well conceived and clearly expressed.
This is science, when it is skillfully done.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
(Photo by Jim Martin also!)

When I first taught high school science, I assumed that published curricula would provide reliable instruction for my students. Midway through my first year, it began to dawn on me that this might not be so. The curricula the school used was organized so students studying it would learn about science. This, besides being rather boring, would not do what I expected. I believe students come into my classroom to DO science, to become scientists. A much different process than learning about.

By this time in my career, I had learned that students’ brains could think; all by themselves. Sort of an ‘Oh, duh’ thought, but new to me. What first put me onto this was observing students move from serial to parallel processing as they developed conceptual understandings. That, and reflecting on student frustrations and failures in lab when I assumed that their lab manuals had been written by authorities who “knew.” Thinking about these frustrations and failures revealed to me that students, and many of their teachers, hadn’t acquired the knowledge to comprehend the content as it was laid out in our texts and manuals.

My flag, the whirring that my antennae have learned to make when I’m not being careful about where I’m headed, was the perception expressed by students that, “this is harsh.” I can’t think of a better way to describe it; texts and manuals that were filled with directions and expectations insensitive to where students were at this stage of their educations. And me, expecting them to learn from them as written. The labs, in particular, were replete with concept load, where more than one concept lies embedded in words meant to clarify. What we do to enable our students to learn should never evoke the comments I heard. If we care for our students, and expect them to discover the beauty of our discipline, we should teach effectively. So, I ask, Is empowering students in science something that we can learn to do for practically every student who enters our door?

Science is a product of human endeavor, and can be learned. Look at the good teachers whose students learn to express themselves in competent poetry and art. We can do it in science if we become competent and humane practicioners. This tells me that all of the pedagogical classifications our profession employs – Maslow’s pyramid, hierarchy of cognitive function, inductive/deductive, etc. – reflect expressions of central nervous system function, expressions emergent from our brain at work, and that these underlying neurological processes aren’t as complex as the concepts and classifications we use to describe, understand, and manipulate them.

It takes confidence for a teacher to move from the recitation of facts to the manipulation of concepts in the solution of problems. In fact, examination of this transition provides some useful successive approximations which can be used as signposts to move ourselves from one end to the other on the spectrum. Science engages concepts and processes along with the brain’s mechanisms for generating critical thinking and learning for understanding. While complex to address individually, they all come into play when you do science. Just as similarly complex combinations of concept and process come into play together in painting an image, writing a poem, swishing a three-pointer, or playing a long, slow, syncopated sax line.

How do you prepare your students to engage in self-directed inquiries in the environment, while also preparing them to take standardized tests on the content they are expected to cover? A good first step is to prepare yourself. We can start by looking at what teaching inquiry looks like along a developmental continuum from fully teacher-centered to fully student-centered; a line with particular dimensions. The names of the stages along the continuum describe its dimensions, and the time to learn to express each dimension is the length of a particular piece of the continuum. Let’s picture different ways you might execute a streambank restoration project, and develop our continuum along that process.

There is a creek about four blocks from your school, and you have learned that the city wants to restore a section of its bank for a wildlife observation park. When you inquire, you find that part of the project involves planting native riparian trees. How might you exploit this as an opportunity? Let’s say you begin this work at what I’ll call the Fully Teacher-Centered level, in which you instruct the class on the project, show them how to plant the cottonwood cuttings you will be using, and have them set up pots and plant their cuttings in them. You will show them how to measure the cuttings’ growth, and graph their data. Typical teacher tells, students do, classroom learning. During all of this work, you have been attempting work in which you have little or no experience, especially in involving students in work outside the classroom.

You can begin to move toward the next phase, the Introducing Student-Centered level, by finding ways to make the activity, while it is not student generated, become relevant to them and enables your students to feel that this new learning is important to them. You can do this by engaging them in selecting learnings they would like to attempt. Let’s say one student, when planting her cutting, asks which end goes into the ground. A tough question if you’re not a botanist, which I am not. So, you suck it in and respond, “I don’t know. How can we find out?” (The most beautiful words a teacher can utter!) What happens next is up to your students. They’ll answer their question, and you’ll have grown at least another inch and a half in stature.

In this stage, you and your students will become aware of your need to learn more about the community outside the classroom. You might have already involved them in work outside your classroom organized by a local environmental education organization. You make sure your students have practiced the work they will do before going out in the field. And you might find yourself looking for other teachers who take their classes out into the field, and helped them become active members of effective work groups. In this stage, you still rely on other knowledgeable people, especially environmental educators, to facilitate your work.

Another thing to look for, and in future expect, is students who begin to see their role in making field work eminently doable. Students who are involved and invested in the work, and empowered as persons. They will become partners with you in planning and doing the work; and, in doing the learning and research to comprehend what they have discovered.

If you continue this work, you will find yourself at the next level, the Teacher:Student-Centered Level, where you and your students collaborate on the project from its initial conception to the final product. You initiate projects, and then include your students in designing and doing the project. You are experienced now in involving students in work outside the classroom and exploiting the curricula embedded there. Student work groups know what to do and how, and practice tasks before going into the field. You know how to design, organize, and implement the work, and to integrate the field work with curriculum. The results of their field work are brought back to the classroom by the class for discussion and follow-up work.

As you continue in this work, you will find yourself working at the Fully Student-Centered Level. You have a set of partners in the community whom you work with to design, develop, and execute projects in the community, and to tie them to your classroom curricula. You work closely with your students to plan field work and classroom followup. Students are organized into effective work groups who, working together, have developed the skills to carry out their field work, are involved and invested in their work, reach out to help others in their groups, communicate effectively, and can be counted on to make sure their equipment and materials are ready to go. You facilitate this by maintaining effective contact with your partners and agencies. You have eyes out for opportunities to expand your network, while ensuring you don’t overextend yourself.

It is surprising how little it takes to move a teacher from the textual delivery of facts and information to the contextual delivery of understanding. Experience in initiating, doing, and communciating self-directed inquiry is a key piece of the puzzle. In spite of this effort, and most school science is taught from texts, standardized labs, and worksheets. In time, teachers will be the decision-makers in their schools, and schools will become dynamic centers of learning. In the meanwhile, we have to do the best we can to teach well and let others know what we’re doing.

Science has many dimensions. We’ve begun to enter a discussion of the amount of structure we impose upon our students’ efforts, and the amount of structure we build into our approach to meeting students’ needs. As with any kind of learning, we expect the learners to move from dependence on instruction to independent activity. Do we, in our classrooms, allow that? Do we allow this for ourselves?

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.”