When you make the finding yourself – even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light – you’ll never forget it.

-Carl Sagan

by Jim Martin
Science Educator and
CLEARING guest writer

Going out into the world beyond the classroom for science and other curricula can be confusing. I clearly remember the first time I took students out to make observations. In the classroom, we had lined up all the conifers together, deciduous species together, and animals in neat little boxes. It all made sense to me. Little did I know! When we went into the real world, there was no sense of order my students could perceive. I saw that my first job was to help organize what seemed to be disorder. We did a transect, and the observations they made along its length brought the underlying order in any ecosystem within reach. And the difference between the ecology in the publishers’ materials and in an actual ecosystem opened my eyes to why we need to begin our science studies with actual hands-on inquiry, both as a pragmatic necessity, and as being a closer fit to how our brain learns for understanding, than the lessons and activities in the published materials I was using. It’s also the way scientists work; inquire of nature to answer a question, communicate findings, and inquire some more.

Let’s look at a project in a schoolyard. A teacher began one with a garden plot, and had her students plant seeds in a plot on the school grounds. During the year, they would make observations on changes they observed. She had a friend who works for the county environmental services agency, talked with her, and they jointly decided to complement the garden plot with a study of a restoration site where the teacher and her students would determine where to plant, plant, monitor, and compare.

For the combined project, she enlisted a 5th grade teacher and her class. They planned the project to cover two years: Year 1 will be the garden project as originally described, and then she will talk with her agency friend in Spring and the 5th grade teacher before summer break, and her 2nd graders will show this year’s 4th graders what they’ve done. Next year, both classes will plan and do the restoration and comparison, and will decide whether to pass information on to next year’s students. They will also try to involve the 3rd grade teacher to do some kind of follow up with her students when they move up.

So, this is a project, first conceived as a relatively simple activity involving planting seeds and observing as they develop during the school year. The teacher asked a friend for advice, and soon the simple activity blossomed into a fairly complex project. Don’t be mesmerized by ‘simple projects.’ I’ve learned to live with this little caution: Things are always simple in concept; complex in execution. We have to attend to details up front. Once planned, we have to look for the science and other curricula embedded in the places and work, and we ought always to exploit the science inquiry in the work to ensure learning for understanding.

Martinquote2Here’s something I’ve done from time to time that might apply here. Students would prepare microenvironments for organisms they would be using by choosing their own ingredients from a deli selection that I prepared. That way, we could almost always discover the best components of the microecosystems our organisms would live in while we worked with them. Could you turn this activity into a self-directed inquiry that students would readily engage in setting up their garden plot? Is it possible for them to ask an inquiry question, design an investigation to answer it, execute the design by gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data, and report their findings to their peers? (You can try it at home any time of year by controlling the amount of light your microenvironment receives.)

Carry this a step further. How do living things structure their world? Students can organize their plots so they are more random than the rows we usually produce. This way, they can learn to observe and to organize data from observations into structures which help them understand what they have been studying.

Do you think students might engage an inquiry when they do their restoration project? When they compare the two projects? The key here is involving and investing your students in the work that they do. If they are simply following directions, their chances of learning new material for understanding are slim. If you’ve never done this kind of work, but know of someone who does, take a professional day to observe that person’s classroom. Be sure to look for signs of where the students’ locus of control lies. Are they in charge of themselves and their learning, or do they need guidance through every evolution? By this, I don’t mean, Are students behaving. I mean who tells students what to think and do, the students or the teacher. We don’t get much training about how to know when students are involved and invested in their work, engaged in their educations. It involves more than turning homework in on time. We have to learn this on our own.

When the students receive their seeds, they have their hands on concrete referents. This opens the door to learning by assimilation. How could you organize this beginning so students become involved and invested in the work? Are the seeds all the same? Where will they be planted? How can you organize their work so they make some initial decisions about what they will do, and you can have confidence that these decisions will provide the grounds for raising questions? Hard to do the first time, easier as you go along.

Let me tell you an experience I had with structuring an activity so it generated a question. It took place at a science teachers’ conference, and my workshop was scheduled for the first period after the conference keynote speech. The speech went overtime, and left me no time for the inquiry I’d planned, so I had to structure what was left of the period and place to accomplish the workshop’s goals. We all experience these glitches, hopefully engage a little values clarification, and emerge with a doable plan. There were some trees, shrubs, and scrubby groundcover behind the school building about twenty yards long and ten feet deep. Not much, but the structure of the ‘ecosystem’ wasn’t monotonous. I asked the participants to find a question there.

There were a couple of species of trees and shrubs, and several of groundcover. We hear birds and saw some. Within five minutes, I could see faces turning toward one another then looking away in the same direction, hands reaching into branches and pulling on one, bodies crouched to the ground with eyes on the same spot. I think that, as long as we’re faced with more than one thing, and know we need to learn or understand, our brain takes over and raises questions. I count on this.

About ten minutes later, we went back to our classroom, and the participants asked some very good inquiry questions. Most didn’t routinely engage their students in self-directed inquiry, so this was a pleasant outcome. We got as far as asking an inquiry question and designing an investigation, shared that, and moved to another topic which had to be discussed. Even though we hadn’t completed a self-directed science inquiry, we had navigated the most difficult part, asking a good inquiry question. After designing an investigation to answer the question, the rest of the process takes care of itself. Our job is to structure the people and the place so that questions emerge.

This process of going into an environment or a room with more than one thing to attend to, with the knowledge that you’re there to learn by asking your own question, has never failed in all of the decades I’ve used it. It takes courage to start; our teacher preparation doesn’t cover entering the unknown. But, it works, and is a wonderful first step in the discovery of how to involve and invest your students in their educations, and empower them as persons.

jimphotocroppedThis 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.”