Active Learning:

Is this something our pre-service education equips us for?

I’m interested in the Resource section on the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) web site ( At the very end of the materials, there is a link to the Vision Framework table ( which indicates where science education has been, and where it is expected to go: From teacher-centered/didactic to student-centered/constructivist, along with an emphasis on active learning. My experience and perennial hopes tell me that this is what should happen. In the long run, it will produce a better-educated electorate.

15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVisionOne thing I don’t see is how this change will be effected. There is little evidence of funding to facilitate this movement from teacher-centered to student-centered deliveries, especially when so many science teachers haven’t made the move. And for good reason: a large fraction of teachers don’t have the college-level preparation this change entails. And, historically, this has been the case since I started tracking it in the early 1970s. There is some talk of states taking up this responsibility, but not many states seem willing to spend more on education. As in most education initiatives, it will be up to the teachers to bring themselves up to speed.

That said, my hope is to be able to take a science activity and walk it up the NGSS from K-12. This started with a simple food web, which we’ll continue to use with questions it raises to stray into other areas of the Life Sciences standards. I’ll try to use examples which can be applied at any grade level. I have no certainty that I can do that, but I’ll try.  Several possibilities for assisting teachers to make the transition to effective use of the NGSS in their classrooms are briefly described in the NGSS Resources section, such as the effort the Delaware and Rhode Island ( collaborative effort to build effective ways to deliver the NGSS. Most efforts are still in the works, or pending work. The Delaware and Rhode Island effort’s final statement is instructive: “This work takes time: Participants’ knowledge of the NGSS, the rubric, and what makes for good feedback and suggestions for improvement grew over time, especially through the process of sharing their work with other members of their state team and across state teams.” Progress, but definitely not a final product.

next-genMany Classroom Sample Task plans described in the NGSS Resources section are “coming soon.” In one which is here now, Where Did the Water Go?: Watershed Study – Middle School Sample Classroom Task, the Introduction to the sample task describes what could become a student-centered activity, but the description of how to teach the lessons is largely teacher-centered. Overall, it doesn’t represent a student-directed inquiry, and provides little effective advice for teachers who are employing active learning for the first time. I suspect it will be up to individual teachers to reorganize the NGSS Resources offerings to make them student-centered inquiries. I’m concerned about this because teachers are under the gun to deliver on the NGSS, but are receiving precious little assistance to do so. And so we must train ourselves.

Let’s look at the wording in K-LS-1. Its performance expectation reads, “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.” This is further clarified: “Clarification Statement: Examples of patterns could include that animals need to take in food but plants do not; the different kinds of food needed by different types of animals; the requirement of plants to have light; and, that all living things need water.” Then, elements from the Framework for K-12 Science Education are listed: “Analyzing and Interpreting Data – Analyzing data in K–2 builds on prior experiences and progresses to collecting, recording, and sharing observations. Use observations (firsthand or from media) to describe patterns in the natural world in order to answer scientific questions. Connections to Nature of Science: Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence – Scientists look for patterns and order when making observations about the world. LS1.C: Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms: All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow. Patterns: Patterns in the natural and human designed world can be observed and used as evidence.” Lots of jargon, but it does contain useful information. We can draw on these elements to integrate what we observe in the real world with the semantic world of the NGSS. If we succeed, our students will be learning for conceptual understanding rather than to connect particular standardized test question stems with memorized, but not conceptualized, facts. We need to be able to do this.

We started to use a food chain to begin to address this standard. If we were to use the delivery modalities described in the first row of the Vision of the Framework table at the end of the NGSS Resources web page we would have two choices. One is teacher-centered, “Rote memorization of facts and terminology.” The other is student-centered, “Facts and terminology learned as needed while developing explanations and designing solutions supported by evidence-based arguments and reasoning.” That’s a rather densely concept-populated sentence; a sentence with a top-heavy concept load. (Concept Load is one of the things we all need to be careful about when we’re speaking or writing. It’s certainly a common problem for me.) In spite of that, it does open the door to teachers who allow their students to develop their own questions from time-to-time, and to develop investigations to answer them, collect and analyze data, interpret their findings, and communicate them. (You’ll notice my problem with concept load in that sentence.) In the process, students’ own questions and investigations force them into the books and the web to find needed information. Because they’re not going after it to answer a test question, it will be stored in conceptual memory, where it can be brought out to use when needed. That kind of work fits what the NGSS states it wants students to do. That opens the door to real, competent learning. We need that.

Your best way to master this new way of teaching is to take one piece and work on a way to deliver it via active learning. We’ll give that a first shot here. If we were to deliver the personal food chain activity described in the previous blog with a teacher-centered activity, we would provide students with the names of the plants, and where to place them on paper. Then we’d have the students write their own names above the plants and animals they ate, and draw arrows from each plant or animal to the student’s name. (We might ask them to write the animal names above the plant names and below their own names.) We’d then tell them they’d constructed a food chain, and begin to explain the arrows’ meaning. Whatever else we wanted them to know would be delivered in a similar way. Very little conceptual understandings would connect all of this information in a meaningful way or pattern.

“Pattern” is the operative word here. When we discover patterns, our brain’s Seeking system is activated, and the prefrontal cortex organizes itself to place all of these learnings within a connected conceptual schematum, which draws on information stored in various parts of the brain. The conceptual memory then ‘makes sense.’ Contrast this with memories created during teacher-centered activities, where memories are stored, but with precious few connections; little chance of developing into conceptual memories.

Now, to the right side of the Vision of the Framework table. Each of us teaches differently. I’ll describe this constructivist, active learning activity as I might do it. Think about it in your own way. That’s important. The differences may raise useful questions. Here we go. First, I assigned the homework task, “Tomorrow, write down all of the things you eat for breakfast. We’ll use this to look at one of the ways you’re connected to the world.” This will raise questions in some students’ minds. When a few of those articulate their questions, I’ll phrase in some way my standard response, “What do you think?” If the discussion seems fruitful, we’ll just see where it goes. If not, we’ll continue with what follows.

When they come in with their information the following day, I’ll ask them to work in partnerships to figure out a way to picture a relationship between the things they eat and themselves. After, we’ll report back what we find, discuss what we see and think, and then each group will build a picture to illustrate how they understand the relationship between the organisms they eat and themselves based on what they’ve taken away from the reporting session. That is as long as a fruitful discussion the day before didn’t lead to a better way to do this. Note: I’m talking about kindergarten or, K-1, since that is the level the standard quoted above is directed toward. But this activity does work at all levels with a little tweaking. The idea here is to prepare students’ minds for the learning about food webs that they will embark upon; and, to begin working on the NGSS LS1-1 standard.

We’ll post their pictures, then if I think it’s helpful, I’ll show them the way I did mine. Hopefully, I won’t have to. Since these are young children, I’ll simply say this is the way I thought of to do it. Then I’ll ask if their pictures provide any information about what plants and animals need to survive. This conversation can go many ways. My job will be to see that we learn that we all, even plants, need to eat. (Note: The NGSS K-LS-2 states that plants don’t need to take in food. I disagree with this assertion. Plants take in nutrients from the soil; that’s one of the reasons we compost and fertilize. Plant roots aren’t there just to absorb water and stabilize the plant. Roots work on their own and with microbes and fungi to bring nutrients in the soil into their own bodies. That’s taking in food, which the NGSS standard says plants do not. Oh, well.)

It is more difficult to write a set of standard directions for an activity delivered via active learning than via teacher-centered learning. Active learning allows so much room for minds to explore that it seems to have no direct path to the end. It actually doesn’t work that way, but you have to engage it yourself to discover that. There are little or no standard terminology or conceptual referents that we can use to describe active learning as there are for teacher-centered learning. Perhaps because it’s a relatively new function for most educators. Not for our brain. It learns best when it is seeking a pattern and/or answer to an interesting question. Helped us survive the Pleistocene. Somewhere along the way, school lost the capacity to use this powerful tool. We’re beginning to rediscover it.

In the next blog, we’ll look at the food chains the class produced, then see how we can use them to connect to other curricular areas.

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.”