How Embedding Your Curriculum in the Environment Meets Certification Criteria

How Embedding Your Curriculum in the Environment Meets Certification Criteria

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

IMG_9563 A teacher has made a commitment to design and execute a unit which explores the curriculum embedded in a small creek at the edge of her schoolyard. She didn’t just decide, then go; instead, she visited the creek, became familiar with its parts, then drew on some information she had gleaned at a teachers’ conference to construct a basic plan for how the unit would work. The plan included elements like: Place students in work groups assigned a particular task, Identify and exploit the curricula embedded in the creek and its banks, and Use group reporting to bring all of the learnings to all students in the class.

Before moving on, let’s compare what she’s done so far with what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards teacher certification program is looking for in teachers. Their vision of effective professional teaching is based upon five 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.

Let’s look at each of these propositions from the standpoint of the work of this teacher, and that of another who teaches from the book, and is committed to teaching a particular publishers’ curricula. This other teacher knows that, at the least, her students will have covered what is on the standards tests, and how well they do on that is up to them. These two teachers’ approaches to teaching are interesting to me in that they embody a dichotomy of approaches to many aspects of being human, that I, and others, identify as hierarchical:individualistic vs. egalitarian:communitarian and teachers identify as didactic vs. constructivist. This dichotomy in the way we approach life’s problems and decisions is directly related to the parts of the brain engaged. There’s a direct tie to the quality of conceptual learning in that dichotomy, both in the pedagogies employed and in the way the brain works in each case. In teaching, we’d call the two basic approaches teacher-centered and didcactic vs. student-centered and constructivist. I’ve been exploring this topic from time to time in this blog, and we’ll explore it some more.

I diverge. Back to the National Board’s Propositions. Proposition #1: Allowing groups to learn their particular part of the work, and then teach it to the rest of the class, with feedback from the teacher, tells me that she understands how students learn, how the brain learns, understands her students, and uses these understandings to develop an approach or delivery to a new set of learnings that is tailored to this class. And that she trusts that her students are ready to engage in learning. Because she intends to work with them as they negotiate and construct meaning, she knows who they are and how they learn, and has tested this enough times to have confidence in it. The other teacher presents a common base of information to her class, and helps students learn it. She uses the information in the teachers’ manual, in the prepared materials, what she has learned on her own, and would probably engage a guest speaker if she knew one. Student learnings are limited to what they read, hear, and see, and are not influenced by elements in the real world that they are learning about.

These two approaches meet the first proposition, Teachers are committed to students and their learning, to varying degrees. The first teacher is planning with what she knows about the subject, what she knows about her students, and what she believes her students can do. By moving beyond the so-called tried and true (which doesn’t actually develop into good test scores), she evidences her commitment to her students’ capacity to use their own brains to learn. The other teacher appears to be committed to the publishers’ curricula she uses, and is willing to allow an outside person to speak to the class. The fact that she conscientiously applies this curriculum indicates that she has confidence in it and is committed to her students’ learning, but places bounds on how much learning she believes they can be responsible for themselves.

Proposition #2: The teacher who uses the creek visits it to decide what to teach, and what she needs to learn. As she moves through the area, she amplifies what she knows about the subjects she uses the creek to deliver; she learns more as she teaches. Locating the curricular pieces embedded in the creek and its banks enables her to understand them better, and increases the methods she can pull off the shelf to teach them. She decides to teach more than the science of the creek, and, I assume, knows those additional subjects. I say that because she looks for them embedded in the place. (You can practice this by looking for examples of fractions and alliteration in a natural area nearby. You’ll note that you have to know the subject in order to find it.)

Here are some hurdles she must overcome in organizing and delivering her curriculum via that which is embedded in the creek and its banks: Food Webs – she has to learn about them. Mathematics – where are percents, exponents, pre-algebra, coordinates on the site. Physical Science – water quality chemistry, velocity – how to measure them in a creek rather than at a lab table. Geology – water quality and velocity = erosion, riparian geology, soils, mapping, stream morphology – how much does she know and understand about them. Social Studies – maps, vegetation communities, animal communities, transport – does the community which inhabits the creek and its banks use communities and transport systems.

The other teacher may have a background in the creek and its inhabitants, either from actual experience, or from learning about them. She may use this background to add to the curricular material the class studies. However, their learnings are mainly acquired by listening, reading, and memorizing, and not from direct personal experience. And, they are less likely to be able to teach the other groups in their class via group reporting. What is contained in the teachers’ manual and prepared materials are their main sources of insight. Both of these teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students again, to varying degrees.

Proposition #3: The first teacher allows students to correct misconceptions, and amplify their learnings and thoughts, as they work and report. This teacher’s strategy of having student groups report during the project is an effective method for monitoring student learning and making mid-course adjustments. Because their teacher invests in her responsibility for managing and monitoring student learning, they are allowed to monitor and adjust their own learning activities, with the concomitant result that they also manage the flow of their work. Due to the way she delivered her curriculum, she learned more about pertinent subjects as she taught. While sharing those learnings through the activities she engaged her students in, this teacher developed methods of managing and monitoring student learning such as organizing the class into work groups, and using group reporting as learning and monitoring vehicles.

The other teacher uses standard classroom management techniques to organize her students, and publishers’ handouts to manage student learning. She knows the subject as it is expressed in the publishers’ curricula, and uses prepared handouts, assignments, quizzes, and summative tests to monitor student learning. She expands her understandings as the publishers she uses expand content particulars. She probably supplements these learnings from presentations at conferences. This is standard practice, but does not induce involvement and investment in the learning, nor does it empower her students. Again, the two teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning to varying degrees.

Proposition #4: Exploring new curriculum deliveries by deciding to use the creek, visiting it, looking for embedded curricula, organizing space, and employing group reporting, compared with relying on what others have developed in curriculum deliveries, forces the first teacher to pull what she understands about teaching into working memory, and use careful critical thinking to find and engage the pedagogical components and processes that will facilitate the work. (That’s a long sentence! I’ll try to tone them down.) Locating and placing embedded curricula within its thematic place in the larger curriculum of each discipline addressed is a systematic process as is group reporting as a pedagogical strategy. Using group reporting as a teaching and assessment strategy, using what emerges from them to monitor and adjust her delivery, infers that she is considering all of the components of her curricular delivery as a system. This teacher also learns from experience and incorporates these learnings into her practice as she goes. The other teacher uses publishers’ materials conscientiously, learning the way their curricula and directions are structured, and using this structure to organize her delivery and has, at some time, learned about the effectiveness of guest speakers. As before, the two teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience to varying degrees.

Proposition #5: There are two learning communities associated with the first teacher. First is her classroom community, a true community of learners, The teacher allows herself to learn with her students, developing concepts together, organizing the class into work groups, and consolidating learnings via group reporting. Learning about the creek with her students generates a learning community in which all members benefit and grow. This kind of community, classroom as learning community, mirrors the dynamics of learning communities of educators in which, as proposed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, “. . . teachers contribute to the effectiveness of the school by working collaboratively with other professionals on instructional policy, curriculum development and staff development.” Because the first teacher intimately involves her students in the process of learning, her class seems to be based upon the concept of a community engaged in mutual learnings; a community which shares learnings, discoveries, and methods in order to achieve a community goal.

Teachers are also members of their own professional learning communities. For this teacher, that would include the teacher who presented at the conference which started her on this journey, and the other teachers in her school. It also includes the school administration and resource personnel, and their interactions like curriculum development, staff development, and so forth. We haven’t met most of this community, so can’t say much about what they do, or assess how she works with other professionals in her school and district. Working together, this community has the potential to evaluate school progress and the allocation of school resources in light of their understanding of state and local educational objectives. The other teacher may be active in her professional learning community, but we don’t have any information with which to assess that. The two teachers developed different classroom learning communities. The first is based upon a community engaged in mutual learnings; a community which shares learnings, discoveries, and methods in order to achieve a community goal. The other community is less egalitarian, with students learning from the teacher, who is learning from the publishers and other external authorities. Most meaning in this classroom is learned, rather than being negotiated. Again, these two teachers are members of learning communities, classroom and professional, to varying degrees.

In sum, both teachers taught their students about creeks and creek communities. Only one teacher taught in a way that involved and invested her students in their work and learnings, and empowered them as persons. This was the teacher who started her students in the real world, developed incipient conceptual learnings, then used her subject knowledge and her knowledge of her students, to create an environment in which the students went to the publishers’ curricula as their efforts generated needs to know information, or to seek confirmation of what they believed they were beginning to understand. They were assuming ownership of their learning. This is what we need to teach for.

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.”

Stepping into the Real World – What happens when you open the door

Stepping into the Real World – What happens when you open the door

Stepping into the Real World – What happens when you open the door

by Jim Martin,
CLEARING Associate Editor

Let’s explore what science and environmental education could look like if we were to use the real world as if it were an authentic source of curriculum, and a place to start our work. The place we’ll explore is a suburban school yard. There is a small creek at the edge of the school property. Its west side has a tall fence at its edge; beyond is an apartment complex. On the school side, the bank faces a playing field. There are trees and shrubs along both sides of the bank. Closer inspection reveals that the stream has two riffles along its length, a glide or run above the first riffle, between the two riffles, and beyond a pool at the end of the second riffle. Riffles are places in a stream where the water splashes and turns white. Glides or runs are places where the water moves quickly, but doesn’t splash. Pools are places where the water moves slowly, and has a relatively smooth surface. (more…)

Do It Yourself First: Leading Student-Directed Inquiry

Do It Yourself First: Leading Student-Directed Inquiry

Do It Yourself First: Leading Student-Directed Inquiry


by Jim Martin
CLEARING guest writer

I-bluef you’ve never taken your elementary, middle, or secondary students out of the classroom to learn, and can’t find a helpful mentor or workshop, it’s okay to learn to use the real world to generate curricula and teach for understanding rather than to pass tests just by doing it. Just make a plan and stick to it, and you’ll be okay. Try a place on your school grounds first, then move to a place in the community when you’re comfy.

There is a simple way to do a student-directed inquiry outside your classroom, involving observations on invertebrates. You can use it to discover whether this kind of work is comfortable for you to do, and if it generates curricular content that satisfies your anxieties about meeting mandated standards and benchmarks. You can start it on your school grounds, or if you’re not comfortable with that, right in your classroom. The only caveat is that you have to let your students think and ask questions, and follow the parts of the project that capture their interest. That is, after you’ve first guided them (and yourself) through the process.

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The nice thing about the project we’ll be describing is that it begins with you facilitating a guided inquiry. It doesn’t matter what grade level you teach, the basic work applies to all of them. The vocabulary and complexity of conceptual content will vary with grade level and student experience, but the basics apply to all levels. The plan is this: We’ll make a small compost heap, then see what comes to live in it. Then we’ll have our students do the same. Simple, but loaded with potential.

First, do your own inservice, perhaps this summer. Start the compost in your own yard or somewhere on the school grounds as your source. Don’t place it where it will always be in direct sunlight, since it needs to stay moist. Put about 5-10 gallons worth of different kinds of plant material in it and turn it once a week with gloved (or ungloved) hands. Keep it moist, but not wet. It’s necessary to start outdoors to attract the invertebrates and microbes which will populate your students’ compost ‘piles.’ As you tend your compost heap, notice what is living there. (If you’ve already done this, I’ll bet you’ve gone to a book or the web about what you’ve found. That’s your brain doing what it’s designed to do.)

As you do your work, try out some learning activities. What is the temperature at the surface of the heap, and in its depths? How do you go about measuring the temperatures? Any glitches? Ask yourself how any temperature differences might have come to be. If it’s not directly explainable to you, who might you ask to find out? (This is a skill we all have to develop when we move out into the real world.) What mathematics activities can you use to make sense of the temperature data? What tells you more, the numbers themselves, or their graph, average, median, range? Would the data be different if the compost heap was larger or smaller? Let’s look at more of the things we can learn.

After your compost heap has been working awhile, you should be finding an increase in the numbers of invertebrates living there. If this isn’t the case, go to places where plant material is obviously decaying and bring samples back to your heap. Keep a record of how many species you find in your heap as you turn it, and how many of each you observe. This means you’ll have to be systematic about how you turn the heap. And about how you record the information you measure, count, and observe. You can pass these skills and understandings on to your students.

As you count species and their numbers, use that data to track species diversity in your compost heap. As a rule of thumb, the greater the species diversity, the healthier the system. Whether you work with kindergartners or high school seniors, you’ll need to know something about species diversity. You can google the term, find some sites which explain it in a way you can understand, and which detail some of the math used to make sense of the numbers. Here’s one you can use; a little esoteric at first glance, but ultimately doable; Simpson’s Index, D = Σ ni(ni-1)/ N(N-1), where D is Simpson’s Diversity Index, Σ stands for ‘the Sum of,’ ni is the number of organisms you counted in the ith species (so the number of organisms in the 3rd species you counted would be n3, and i goes from 1 to the total number of species you counted), and N is the total number of individuals counted among all species. This means that you take the sum of the numbers you get from multiplying the number you counted in each species times that number minus 1, then divide that sum by the total number of individuals you counted times that number minus 1.

Try it for 3 species: Species A, with 10 individuals; Species B, with 5 individuals; and Species C, with 20 individuals. The first ni set is 10(9), the second is 5(4), and the third 20(19), which totals to 490. There are 35 individuals all together, so the denominator is 35(34) = 890. Dividing 490 by 890 gives you about 0.56. What if the counts were 23, 51, and 36? Your numerator and denominator should be 4,316/11,990. If this is confusing, say so in a comment below, and I’ll get back to you with more details.

Sounds complicated, but by the time you’ve done three or four sets of species, you’ll get it down. Just be sure that you sum all the individual counts times themselves minus 1 before you divide by the total counted times the total counted minus 1. The answer to all this, D, gives you a number you can compare with other counts you or your students make. Remember, the reason you need to try this diversity calculation is to get an idea of one way that diversity is described. With your students, you can just use the total number of species present to stand for the same thing. This is the simplest math which can be used to estimate species diversity, the total number of species, a number students can use to compare the number of species in different compost heaps, and which may correlate with other measures of diversity.

There is a spectrum of ways to name diversity: number of species, species richness, species evenness, or a calculation like Simpson’s Index. None do a perfect job, since diversity is a dynamic with many aspects. For now, you can only choose one and use it consistently until you have good reason to use another statistic. We’ll take another look at this in the next blog.

Use your counts of living things to graph a population curve. Choose one species and plot it with time on the x-axis, and number of individuals on the y-axis. This is a population growth curve, and they are an indirect way of determining how an environment treats a particular species residing within it. In setting up your compost heap, you’ve created a new environment, and populations living within it should increase during the initial exploitation phase. Soon enough, those curves will change, raising nice inquiry questions.

Use the heap itself for learning. How big is it? Is it always that big? Bigness can be derived from measurements that students make. How tall is it? How wide? How long? How can you determine its volume? Do any of those numbers correlate with the range of temperatures in the different compost heaps? Species diversity? Population curves? Temperature range and diversity?

What about the biology of the organisms living in the heaps? If you’re up to it, you can take a piece of liver, blend it with a little water or electrolyte like pedialyte, then introduce a drop of this to a container with 250 ml or more of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2 ). Take the temperature of the hydrogen peroxide before adding the liver extract, then periodically during the next 20 minutes. As simple carbohydrates are metabolized to produce useable energy in the form of ATP in nearly all organisms from microbes to Homo sapiens, the extra oxygen atom in one of the intermediary products, hydrogen peroxide, is released leaving water (H2O), an oxygen atom (O), and the energy which held the oxygen atom in place. That energy isn’t re-used, and goes off as heat. Compare the results of this experiment with your data on population and temperature. Is there something to be learned? Might your students understand the basics of what they observed?

What can you find out about four of the species in your compost that explains how they are able to live there? The organisms you find are living in a dynamic relationship which keeps the entire community alive, an economy which cycles materials and moves energy in a productive way. Can you build some elements of a food web from the information you have? What else can you find out about the biology and ecology of compost heaps?

If you teach or use language arts, how can you use the compost heap and its components as metaphors to drive a piece of writing? A piece of art? Music? If you teach science, and have never used these arts and humanities deliveries, try one. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn. I certainly have been.
When you’ve studied your compost heap long enough to feel comfortable with it, have your students learn some thing about them. Use the piece you have the best handle on. The first time through the process with your students, you demonstrate each step. Let students ask questions or make observations as you feel comfortable. You can use your own compost, and demonstrate how to turn it to expose the invertebrates living there. (If you’re up to it, you can find out how to plate out microbes that will be living there, and find out what they do and who eats them.)

When you’re ready for your students to do theirs, have each group start compost heaps somewhere in the schoolgrounds, one 5 gallons in size for each group of four or five students. You can also have students bring in their own mulch, etc., or place boards on the ground at home then collect what’s living on and under them including any molds they find. You might suggest they place the animals in a jar of moist compost, keeping the lid slightly ajar for air, and simply bring the board in and set in in their compost heap. Once compost heaps are doing well (outside the building), you can make ‘sand traps’ by filling plastic bucket lids with a layer of sand and placing them next to a compost heap. Any small mammals or birds who are attracted to the compost will leave footprints in the sand. These don’t always work, but are pretty neat when they do. This will raise questions they can begin to answer.


jimphotocroppedThis is the twenty third installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” 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.”

My Passion

My Passion

ospreyinflightby Bobbie Snead
Straub Environmental Learning Center

T1he male osprey swoops down to join his mate on the enormous stick nest in Minto Brown Park.  Sixty yards away, the third graders from a local elementary school gasp and clap in delight.  I’ve taught them about ospreys in their classroom and now they’re getting to see the real thing.  They are more excited than if they’d been on an African safari.  This moment is my passion. (more…)

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community — 21

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community — 21

“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 21: Where Brains Learn

Some cognitive particulars about learning in the real world

shewhowatchesby Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

T3he crack, a river, flows from the upper left corner of the wall, spreads into branching riverlets as it nears the window. That sentence was written in metaphor. The next sentence has no metaphor, but carries the same information: There was a crack in the wall which branched as it neared the window. Which will you remember? Which brings recallable pictures to your mind? This is like engaging in science inquiry in the real world. Compared to reading about the results of science inquiry in the real world. Each gives a visual clue, but which will come most easily to mind?

This is like science made vs. science in the making. The place of Assimilation is learning for understanding. When you engage your students in the real world, it acts like a metaphor, clarifies concepts and rectifies them with experience.

When you use the conceptual structures which underlie learning, they act as metaphors to clarify what you and your students are doing and learning. These structures are like the mirrors in a kaleidoscope which always generate the underlying structure of the image you see, and the pieces, ordered by that structure, are what you respond to. Can I add a little more to this?

We’ve been examining the conceptual structures that underlie learning, and how concrete experience in the real world encourages our brains to engage those structures. They reside in the architecture and processes of the brain. A picture of how they work to build understanding began to clarify itself to me during my teaching years. The brain is the organ of learning, and its structure and function does facilitate learning, especially when the delivery of the learnings recognizes how the brain works. Just as knowing the structure of color facilitates painting with water colors. When you dip the brush and apply it to paper, you know and anticipate what will happen. The underlying structure determines, to a large extent, what emerges.

Many of us carry an image of the human mind as an entity disembodied from our brain, an ethereal thing that goes where we go, and does our thinking for us. And no wonder. We can’t see the brain work, even in our classrooms. It doesn’t move the way muscles do, and it makes no sound. The best we can do is to know what the work of the parts of the brain are, and look for evidence of what they do in the things our students do and think.

Take Assimilation. The concept of Assimilation has varied descriptions, depending on who’s doing the describing. They generally carry this piece: What the learner personally experiences in the world about is incorporated into the world within our mind or brain. Its strength lies in the interaction between our brain and objects in the world outside ourselves. These are concrete interactions, and they work perfectly with the way our brain is organized to learn. Our brain learned to learn in the real world, where engaging concrete objects led to the kinds of abstractions that emerged as spear throwers and paintings on rocks, sticks, and cave walls. That is what makes metaphor such a powerful writing and rhetorical vehicle. It clarifies a subject with visual, tactile, olfactory, aural, and taste details that engage our senses, and make complexities open to understanding. A brain which developed in a concrete world is able to soar. Marvelous!

I often mention concrete vs. abstract referents. You can do the following as an experiment if you teach the same thing to two classes. When we are presented with new material in an abstract form, like a paragraph of information, we can put it into long term memory by using the information several times. Think of the end-of-section questions, where students answer questions by reviewing what they have read about particulars. Like Procedural Memory, which helps us carry out actions, it may stay with us, but different but related pieces won’t be stored as one concept. When we actually engage concrete referents, a thermometer in a stream, we engage Declarative or Distributed Memory, episodes and facts that can be brought to mind consciously, where new learnings are incorporated into concepts already residing in the brain. Let’s look at some of the parts of the brain involved in these processes.

When a student holds a thermometer in her hand and immerses it into the cold waters of a glacier-fed stream, her eyes send visual information about this to the visual processing areas in the Occipital Lobe of her brain, at the very back of her head. The Parietal Lobe, between the Occipital Lobe and the middle of her head, processes the feeling and temperature of the water on her hand. It also keeps track of where her person ends and the rest of the world begins, then gathers the visual, tactile, and coolness information, and passes it to other parts of the brain which carry memories of all these things.

You can get a sense for how this functions when you sit down to enjoy your favorite beverage, say a latte. (Now, you have to tell yourself that you’re here to learn. That sets things up in your brain.) As your fingers move toward the cup’s handle, you become very aware of the shape of the handle just outside your skin, and the round shape of the cup. You may have brief perceptions of other cups, perhaps a favorite that is still in the dishwasher. You can see the foamy latte part of the beverage near the top of the cup, and anticipate its flavor. Certainly you’ll be aware of its texture, fine bubbles, color, pieces that your tongue loves to discover. And the coffee itself. You’ll know what kind it is, where it was grown, color, anticipated taste, texture, and the bouquet it always leaves in your mouth after you’ve sipped it. You may even be aware of the brands of the latte and coffee, and other facts of these ingredients of the beverage. You may have brief recollections of other places you’ve had this particular blend, who was there, and what you were doing.

These things happen very quickly, but they are perceptions perceived. Each piece of information came from specific parts of your brain, and these were processed together in your prefrontal cortex, at the front of you head, as what is currently called Working Memory. The prefrontal cortex is also the place where you engage critical thinking. Nice.

So, by doing something when you’ve told yourself that you’re doing it to learn, you suddenly have all of the things you’ll need to help you learn brought together in the part of the brain that can do the learning. Why shouldn’t we use the structure and function of the brain to enhance the delivery of our curricula? Let’s take this idea back to the young woman immersing her thermometer into the waters of a stream.

As she picks up the thermometer, positions it in her hand so she can see its graduations, she becomes very aware of its shape, its use, her expectations for what it will tell her, the particular reason she is picking it up, the memories she already has about streams, and thermometers, and, because she’s here to learn about salmon, some thoughts about how salmon like the temperature of their water.

She is on the first hour of a one week unit on watersheds, so doesn’t know a great deal about water temperature, salmon, and watersheds. None the less, what memories she does have of these things come together with all the rest in working memory, ready to learn.

So, she measures the temperature of the water, and it’s twelve degrees celcius. Her working memory doesn’t know where to fit this in, what I call a Need to Know. So she looks for the reference book that is part of the contents of the box she helped carry down to the streambank. Finding it, she looks for information about salmon and temperature, and finds they prefer waters with a range of temperatures between 4.4 and 14.0C. Then her prefrontal cortex, the site of critical thinking, begins to use the information she has gleaned and memories stored, to engage the prefrontal cortex’s functions of perseverance, self-monitoring and supervision, problem solving, orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals, compare and contrast, working toward a defined goal, expectation based on actions, extract and reconstruct sequences of meaning from ongoing experience.

That’s a long list, a partial one, of the functions of this site of human learning that current US curricula generally overlooks. Contrast this with the teacher telling students about salmon and water temperature, the student reading in the text about it then answering questions in the back of the chapter about these things. Compare and contrast (using your prefrontal cortex!) this with the rich texture of meaning in the young woman with the thermometer.
Next time we’ll look some more at this underlying structure of learning.

jimphotocroppedThis is the twentyfirst installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” 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.”

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community — 20

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community — 20

“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 20: Beginning at the Beginning


inquiryby Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

I-bluen the last blog, we looked at planning an inquiry unit from the perspective of a student display, isolating the parts of the display and tracing them backwards. Now, let’s start at the beginning, and look at the inquiry unit as a scope and sequence. Until you’re comfortable taking your students out into the real world, it’s easy to forget some of the details in this kind of work until you’re on site, or waiting by the school for a bus you haven’t ordered. It happens!

It’s difficult, in the blog’s format, to construct a scope and sequence using a long timeline, so we’ll do it as a narrative. You might practice laying the parts out on a timeline, at least mentally, as the visual feedback often suggests things to do that you won’t notice as you read a narrative.

Our reed distribution inquiry began with the Casual Observation. At least, as written. However, just getting to the site means you’ve ordered a bus and substitute, have talked with your students about safety, given specific directions about clothing and lunches, sent permission slips home for parents to sign and return, looked for equipment students might need, prepared student logs so they can record their experiences, done a preliminary site visit yourself, and prepared the substitute’s lessons.

On a time line, these would line up on the left under a heading, “Casual Observation.” They would be on the left side of this column. On the right of that column, you would list the things students will do. For instance, they will need to know something about the site they will visit, and, in general, what they will be doing there. You’ll need to organize reference materials the class will need when they return, and decide which references you will carry to the site. All before you board the bus. So your timeline would begin at least a month before you’re on that bus, headed toward your site.

The actual observation won’t take up much space on the timeline. You ought to give your students a tour of the site. Then have them follow prompts you give them, or just follow their own noses. At first, this will depend on your comfort level. Eventually, it will depend on your recognition of the potential embedded in a student’s ownership of the work and learnings.

Where we go from here depends upon your schedule. If you’re here for the day, then your students can move through all the pieces of the unit. If you are planning for two briefer field trips, then the timeline will look different, but most of the components should be the same. Because this is a linear unit, with each piece completed before moving to the next, the parts of the scope and sequence will be similar, but the days won’t.

When students have completed their casual observation, you might have them share what they noticed. As students work, some may go to the references for information, others may not have thought of this, or are waiting. As you move around the site, some may ask for advice. Be careful not to tell them what they can find out themselves. A sentence that almost always works for me is, “Good question; how can you find out?” The number and kinds of questions students raise are mostly a function of their locus of control. Okay, let’s move to the Develop an Inquiry Question phase.

Before starting this phase, you should have samples of good and not so good inquiry questions for students to critique. Do you have them do this before, or after they have written two or three tentative questions? Again, this depends on your comfort level and teaching style. Because Assimilation is one of the main conceptual structures that underlie the organization and delivery of my curriculum, I like to have students write first, so they have concrete referents to use when we discuss the characteristics of good inquiry questions.

The process is simple, but takes time. Basically, students write and critique inquiry questions using the examples you provide until they have one or two they are comfortable with. Then, they assess these questions and develop a final inquiry question. You might introduce the concept of operational definitions if appropriate, and naming protocols, which are sort of operational definitions. (Use naming protocols for plants or animals whose names they are unsure of. Mine was, “Give it a name and use it until you have good reason to change it.” This seemed to work; relieves anxiety and reduces confusion.)

If you’re doing two field trips, you’ll want to check permission slips, equipment, bus, and sub. So, under Develop an Inquiry Question, you would just have something like Develop an Inquiry Question on the right, and Prepare Sample Questions and Assessment Criteria on the left, and if you’re doing two trips, check permission slips, etc., on the left. (You might have noticed that all of the items we’ve been adding fall into two groups, logistics and pedagogy. This could be a way to further clarify your scope and sequence.)

After students have developed their inquiry question, they need to Design an Investigation. This is always pretty straightforward; their question tells them what to do to answer it. The other items in this column might be safety reminders, prep the analytical math they’ll need to process their collected data, practice using tables to organize observations, and practice on any equipment they plan to take into the field. They are important, not so much to the design of their investigation as to the next item, Collect Data. However, this is the time, before they leave the school, to do this. Of course, you can move it to Collect Data. I like the idea of prepping these things as students are designing their investigations because they have an opportunity to integrate these concepts into their planning at a time when it makes sense to them.

The Collect Data column is short, unless you include the logistical pieces in it, like take the bus, arrive at site, go to stations, collect data, pull the work together, return to bus. Students ought to iterate safety rules before you release them into the site. After that, students do the work and return to school. By this time, they ought to be the well-oiled machine.

Back at school, they Analyze and Interpret their data. Now that they have concrete referents about data, this is a good time to review what they learned about tables and analytical math. Since student groups will move through this phase at different paces, show them what you want to include (but not be limited to) in their reports and displays, if they are making them. As questions arise, this is where you do targeted mini-lectures. Most classes will welcome a demonstration of the analysis of a hypothetical set of data, both the mathematical and graphical analyses and interpretations. If you’re weak in this area, and lots of us are, this can be a good learning experience for you.

After students have analyzed and interpreted their data, they prepare to Communicate it, the last heading in the scope and sequence. They should at least make a presentation to the class, complete with a poster. You’ve already briefed them on what to include in their display, and this is a good time to reiterate it. After all reporting is done, you ought to consider having the class summarize the meaning of all of the findings. You’ll find, over the years, that you’ll learn as much about teaching as they learn about environments.

This description of attempting to use a scope and sequence has generated a great deal of detail. More detail than you’d want on a simple timeline. You can take lumps of these details, give each lump a name that makes sense to you, and just name the lump. It will help build a better scope and sequence. Somewhere below these briefer descriptors you can jot down the details. (I’ve used spreadsheets to do this, since you can go as far to the right, and down, as you want.)

It may be time, while we’re engaging underlying structures, to examine their significance. Next time, we’ll do this, and discuss some of the reasons structure is significant.

jimphotocroppedThis is the twentieth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, 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.”