he young woman carefully pours hydrogen peroxide into a graduated cylinder, presses a key on a computer keyboard, then measures ten drops of liver homogenate into the cylinder. The surface of the hydrogen peroxide seems to leap at the first drop of homogenate, then the drop begins to froth and spin as it is carried deep into the cylinder, trailing a growing, spinning plume of bubbles. Each drop increases the frothing turbulence in the cylinder until it seems enveloped in a pulsing explosion of bubbles. Meanwhile, the young woman’s glance moves from a developing graph on the computer’s monitor to the activity in the cylinder and back again. Science is being done.
If we could see into her mind, what kind of thoughts must we find there? What must she have done and thought to get to where she is at this moment? How will her thoughts change when the reaction has gone to completion and she reviews the data? One thing is certain: this young woman has a history of doing process science. Another thing is certain; her work presents her with conceptual schemata which require filling out with specific facts; the work she does generates a need to know. This need can drive her into the books and the web to find out. Can we capture this kind of science in our classrooms? Can we accommodate her experiences into a model of science pedagogy?
How might this scenario play out in a stream, where the young woman is measuring water quality, collecting and identifying macroinvertebrates, and entering her data into an iPad? Is there any substantial difference in her experiences in the two environments? Certainly there are logistical differences, but I submit that these are an emergent phenomenon which arises from our traditional concept of what school is. Is school a journey of the mind, or is it a place with boundaries, where we learn to pass tests? In both places, she is engaging similar mental concepts, and procedural processes. Our bodies and brains are able to work in both environments. The significant thing is that what the mind and body are doing has to be meaningful. In the case of this young woman, what she is learning is related to what she knows of other knowledge; it is being learned within a familiar context. If she were learning for a test, she would learn the facts, but they wouldn’t necessarily be learned in order to understand. The kind of learning this young woman is engaging is active learning, in which she is constantly comparing her experiences with what she knows. Whether she is consciously aware of it, she has learned how to learn. That’s a powerful skill.
In school, we tend to move from one topic directly to another as if this is what education is about. Many of us do this in our personal world, racing through life, leafing through it as we would a magazine in the doctor’s office, never pausing to contemplate what it is, what it means. We should take the time to absorb life so we can live within it. The same goes for school. Instead of zipping on to the next topic as soon as we’ve covered the current one well enough to test on it, we should probe for students’ attainment of the concepts embedded in the topic to see if they’ve nailed them down. We ought to give students a chance to think about what they’re learning, and design a repeat investigation to nail down their understandings. We need to explore ways to transition what we have just learned to what we will be learning. Even though they can parrot words we’ve used, they may entertain misconceptions and may well not actually understand what we assume they know.
This applies also to teachers. Our pre-service preparation and most of our in-service learning was done with this industrial assembly line model, zipping us through a ritual that eventually placed us at the head of a classroom. About twenty years ago, I was doing a wetlands ecology institute for teachers, and a question came up among the staff about what to do after the teacher participants’ first afternoon in a local wetland. One opinion was, “Okay, they’ve done their first study. Let’s get them ready to go to the coast for their second study.” The other opinion was, “They’ve done what amounts to a casual observation, which might have raised some questions they could follow up with a second investigation.” Fortunately, the second opinion won the day; the participants asked questions which arose as they processed their observations, and they used these to design the following day’s study at the same wetland. Having done that inquiry, once at the coast they hit the beach running, the well-oiled machine, and they nailed down what they had been learning about wetland ecology. It took time, but it moved them further up the learning curve.
After their original casual observation, we could have left them where they were, some in the Acquisition phase, some entering Proficiency. This is what many in-service educators do. We assume the teacher will move to Mastery, but only a few have the self-confidence to do so. Instead, we leave them knowing that they could know, but not ready to take the next few steps. Dryas and I had a mutual friend, who was in late middle-age. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah had decided to leave an emotionally abusive relationship, but had no idea what to do, nor did she have the confidence to try. A few of us located a place where she could stay, and I agreed to meet with her once a week to help her develop a business plan for using art to explore relationships as a way to earn a living. Over a period of three or four months, we’d meet once a week, and she’d bring out what she’d accomplished on the plan. Her Acquisition phase was long, about six weeks, but then she started accelerating into Proficiency. Sarah had been making collages to express her feelings then interpreting them. This is what she planned to teach others. After moving into Proficiency, each week her collages portrayed a bird, first totally enclosed in a sealed room becoming a bird looking out the window, seeing life outside the window, perched on the window sill, and finally freedom – soaring in the air toward the Sun. The slow but steady movement from locus of control far outside the body, to deep within and freedom to live her life. It takes time, but moves us up the learning curve. We need this in our emotional life, but also in our cognitive, conceptual life.
What’s the difference in insecurity about living in a relationship and insecurity about teaching in a content area? You could leave the relationship because the other isn’t likely to change. But, understanding the science means you’re in a win-win situation, and don’t have to leave, much as you would be in the relationship if the other decided to go into counseling. The young woman pouring hydrogen peroxide obviously understands what she is doing and why. She’ll continue this relationship. That’s what we want.
Are we adrift now? The point is that, like all things we do, they’re done by humans. We bring our small, effective human arsenal to bear on a large number of issues, all manageable with what a well-understood arsenal contains. In school, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to teach, just as in your personal life, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to manage a relationship. Likewise, a student’s confidence in the content and concepts determines her ownership of her learnings. We need to bring them to confidence, then we’re all ready to move to the next topic. How do we do that?
Working with Meredith, the middle-school teacher who takes her class out to the creek at the edge of the school yard, we’ve seen how she has learned to have her students repeat investigations to move along the learning curve. Like a booster rocket, they’ve got altitude and velocity; just need that extra push to get them into orbit. The first time through their work on the creek, they figured out how to do it. Setting up more than one station per group, one at a riffle, at a glide, and at a pool, would ensure students had ample opportunity to move to Mastery. At each trip to the creek, students might repeat their observations more quickly, and could move in to explore new curricula in the time saved. While moving their understanding of, say, macroinvertebrate collection, identification, and interpretation to Mastery, they could be moving their understanding of the roles of the rest of that ecosystem in generating a healthy habitat for the animals they are studying through Acquisition into at least initial Proficiency. That puts Meredith in charge of her curriculum. Which is where she should be; on the road to building competent, empowered minds.
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.”