Teaching Science Inquiry

Teaching Science Inquiry

Can I become a science inquiry facilitator? . . . If I’ve never been one?

by Jim Martin

What do I need to be competent in, comfortable with, being a facilitator instead of a top-down teacher? I think a first thing is the recognition that people can learn on their own; that they don’t need to hear me say every single thing that I want them to know. To be free to allow that, facilitators have to be comfortable with their understandings of the content they are delivering. And, they need to be comfortable developing effective work groups. Actually, I can think of a bazillion things, but these three are, so I currently believe, essential to making the transition.

If the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are going to become more than simply another swing of the pendulum that arcs through the schools with predictive regularity, then teachers need to rally to support and develop those pieces of these initiatives which are directly targeted at the deficiencies in our teaching. Deficiencies which have landed us in a mediocre position in the educational statistics describing achievement on the globe. We’re the only ones who can do it.

Both the CCSS and NGSS initiatives profess to be based on a constructivist, active learning model of teaching and learning. This, to me, is wonderful news. Our brain is admirably organized to learn by actively constructing conceptual schemata, conceptual learnings. It does this best by asking questions of the real world. This means that teachers aren’t , of necessity, people who put learning into other people’s brains; rather, they are people who can organize their teaching environments to draw out the learning potential which resides in their students’ brains. They facilitate those brains to enter a conceptual space, engage and discuss what is there, and find out as much as they can about it. Like the little robotic vacuum cleaners, when, once their switch is turned on, clean up all the dust and litter in the room. All by themselves, with no one directing them. Once you turn on a brain, it doesn’t turn off. Unless it loses its freedom to work.

I’ve observed this dichotomy of teaching practices as long as I have taught, and been a student. Didactic, teacher-centered practices, and constructivist, student-centered practices: Is it a matter of personality, or of comfort with the content and methods being used to teach it? That makes a teacher prefer one or another? I’ve had (and observed) teachers who told me what to learn and how to learn it, then tested me on the results. Twice, in high school, I had teachers who threw out an idea, then sat back as I tried to find out more about it. I remember what I learned by finding out 60 years later. And the excitement of the learning. I carry no specific memories of learnings from the rest, except for things which personally interested me, like diagramming sentences. Which, odd it may seem, I loved to do.

The didactic teacher I had from fifth through eighth grades was the kind who told me what to learn and how to learn it all the way to the last days of eighth grade. Then, she started us on the way to pre-algebra by saying, “You don’t have to learn this. Just see if you can follow the argument.” Then, she wrote on the board the first algebraic expression I’d ever seen, a + 2 = 6. I looked at that for awhile and thought, “Wow! You can use letters to stand for anything! You could learn about anything with that!” A mind, at last free to explore.

For that brief moment, my stern, demanding teacher had become a facilitator. All by herself. That was 1952. Had her stern and demanding exterior reflected a lack of comfort with the content she was teaching and the methods used to deliver it; or, was her exterior reflecting the personality within? I can’t answer that question, but the obvious interest and enthusiasm she brought to the introduction to equations suggest she may not have actually been a stern and demanding person. It seems almost, from hindsight, relief to be free to teach as she thought she ought that I observed those very few days at the end of eighth grade. Today, more teachers have experienced being facilitators, but many have not. What would you need to become one? How can you find out?

At this point, I should leave you to find out; but, I’ll barge ahead with my own ideas, just as any didactic teacher would. Hoping all along that you’ll adopt a constructivist approach to the subject. That said, let’s start with my offering of three things a person who is a facilitator must have encountered and successfully engaged.

The first is probably the most difficult for a teacher to entertain – recognizing that people can learn on their own. When I first experienced this, I was in my first year teaching below college, in a 7th grade self-contained classroom. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun employing a constructivist teaching paradigm. It was hard, exciting work, yet I always felt the anxiety-producing peer pressure from colleagues whose view of school was students sitting in rows doing quiet seat work. Luckily, I had a very supportive principal, who encouraged what I was doing. And I applied what I had so far learned from raising my own children, that they do best when they are following up on choices they have made, which I had offered them, and which were within the limits I knew were workable.

So, what did I learn about using constructivist vehicles for delivering 7th grade curricula? About whether and how students can learn on their own? One, that this worked. At least, for me. They had two and a half hours each morning for language arts. During that tiem, they scheduled and worked on open-ended (but contained) writing and reading assignments. We also used speech and drama to engage active learning. (I didn’t know that’s what it is called; I simply knew it worked.) For instance, while working in groups to write and deliver one-act plays to elementary classes, they also learned the current language arts curriculum I had to deliver. Students became involved and invested in their work, and I noticed they also seemed empowered as persons. These were outcomes of the work; I wanted to know how this involvement and investment in their educations came to be. And that started my lengthy, often-interrupted journey into the human brain. A long stretch for me, with my background in intertidal marine invertebrate communities!

How would a constructivist science-inquiry delivery look in an actual classroom in two very different activities? The first is a microscope activity, where students observe for the stages of mitosis in plant cells. The second is a field activity, where students observe the effects of streamside vegetation on the temperature and dissolved oxygen content of the water adjacent to it.

When you employ a constructivist paradigm to organize the delivery of your curriculum, the students’ job is to construct the concepts you hope they’ll acquire by examining the pieces of the concept they are acquiring. Instead of you telling them the concept, they learn its essential parts by engaging them, and then use these parts to tell themselves the concept. A different way to teach; but effective. The first few attempts call for courage and confidence on the part of the teacher. And, in time, the patience to take the time to allow the learning to happen.

How does this play out? In the mitosis activity, you might start by projecting a slide of plant tissue containing cells whose chromosomes have been stained; the usual root cells most of us have observed. You have students pair up to do two things: Locate as many chromosomal configurations as they can and draw them. Or, if you know your students well, ask them to find out if there is any underlying order in the mish-mash of chromosomal configurations they see. This done, they are to organize their drawings in the order they think they occur during the progress of cell division. If you’re truly brave, you might ask them to find and draw other cellular evidence to support your placements. That done, they can present their findings, then go to the books and internet to find what other scientists have found about cell division. They will learn as much, or more, than you would have taught them. And moved further on the road to becoming life-long learners; explorers of the world they live in.

In the streamside activity, you ask each group to take a reach along the stream, then find out the effect of the vegetation on temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water along that reach. Nearly all students can do this. You can provide gentle hints about overhanging vegetation if necessary. The hard part of this work for you is locating a stream which has enough overhanging vegetation for the number of groups in your class. When they’ve collected the data, they find out what they can about temperature and dissolved oxygen, and relate that to what they observed. Next, they prepare presentations about their work, what their data tell them, and what next steps would be if they have discussed them in their groups. (Note that these are things the students and teacher do. To know what they think, we need to go into the brain.)

Eventually, with a constructivist approach to conceptual learnings, coupled with a didactic approach to things like safely lighting a bunsen burner or using a dissolved oxygen probe, I became convinced that this consistently led to solid learning. So, I slowly began to learn about the brain we carry with us, and the ways that it learns. What I found reinforced what I observed; validated it as a teaching paradigm based on real evidence. I had observed evidence over the years that students seeking answers to their own questions involved and invested them in their work; but that was just me, making observations and inferences. As I learned more about how the brain processes input from the world outside the body, I discovered that what I observed was real. Students get better and better at this. Probably quicker than you do. This relates to students as autonomous learners. Autonomous because they are pointing their needs to know, and following up on them.

The other two things a facilitator must engage, comfort with understandings of content, and comfort with developing effective work groups, are our responsibilities. Here is how I approached them. First, I recognized that they are, indeed, our responsibilities. Just as it was my responsibility to take college and graduate courses to fill the gaps in my understandings when I taught in college. Goes with the job. We’re teaching professionals, and that places the onus on us to do what is necessary to become comfortable with the content we teach. The only way to do that is to learn the content. We can take courses in it, work out an internship with someone who does the work, or teach ourselves. It’s an unfortunate fact of American education that we’ll be asked more than once in our careers to teach content we’re either marginally prepared to teach, or know next to nothing about. It will take all of us, working together, to resolve that.

When I finally decided to teach in K-12 schools, I knew nothing about teaching reading. I’d taken literature courses in college, but could only recall that we read, then discussed, then wrote papers. Not much help. I’d noticed in the few teacher education courses I’d taken that the most informative were the special education courses, so I enrolled in a course in corrective reading. It was taught by Colin Dunkeld, and delivered within a constructivist paradigm. (This was in the early 1970s!) I became comfortable enough to make my own decisions about teaching language arts. The corrective reading course was very hard and time-consuming work, but had a great payoff – confidence in content and comfort in delivery. That, and my life-long love of words helped me build a useful / effective / profitable / worthwhile7th grade language arts curriculum.

When you decided to do the mitosis and streamside vegetation activities, you marshallled together your understandings about those topics. You’d observed slides of dividing onion root-tip cells in a genetics course you took in college, and felt familiar enough with the process and observations that you would probably only have to review and practice to come up to speed in the mitosis activity. You’d also taken two botany courses because you’ve always loved plants, so felt you could understand the vegetation part of the overhanging vegetation activity. Temperature and dissolved oxygen in streams is new to you, so you decide to ask around about finding help. You contact the school district science specialist who recommends a field trip program which focuses on the riparian (streams and their banks) which includes water temperature and dissolved oxygen in its offerings. As a real bonus, the program includes measuring the effect of streamside vegetation on temperature and dissolved oxygen near the stream bank, and a field trip for you and your students. Offerings like the one described are fairly common! You do have to ask.

If your circumstances are different for your preparation to teach these two activities, how would you approach them? Leave your thoughts as a comment for others who will, you can be sure, be interested. Or, leave a question for me to answer!

Aside from knowing and teaching the learner inside each student who enters your door, your becoming comfortable with content and its delivery is something you cannot bypass. Its effect on your students is profound. Think of yourself as being assigned to perform as a heart surgeon, even though you’d never done it. Would you be satisfied knowing that, while you did have experience in knee surgery, you had none in heart surgery? Like surgeons, we directly affect the quality of our students’ lives, and must be certain we are delivering the best education possible. We can’t do that if we’re uncertain about our content understandings and delivery methodologies. Knowing is our responsibility.

If you know the learner who lives within your students, and are comfortable with the content you teach, then you’re ready to become comfortable developing and using what I call Effective Work Groups. These are small groups of students who know how to work together to accomplish tasks, and who can coalesce into larger groups to carry out projects. Humans are social beings, and can learn to work together effectively. Let’s look at the two examples of constructivist approaches to learning as they would appear from within an effective work group, or team. First, make the groups, then have each group discuss the work and decide how to organize it. After each session, they will discuss how it went, decide on any modifications, and then continue. When the work is completed, and it’s time to move on to more curriculum, they in their groups, then as a class, nail down what they know about effective work groups. (Be sure to call them that, and that they know this is a goal. Toward the end of the year, have them develop a description of effective work groups.)

Now, here is what one group has decided to do. Mitosis: Identify chromosomes; find different examples of chromosomes; each person will use a microscope because they all need to develop this skill; sort chromosomes out; declare the steps in mitosis; research what other scientists have found out about chromosomes; develop and critique their report; report to the class; assess their work. Communication is important here; one of the keys to becoming effective. You have them assess the role of communication in the effectiveness of their work after they have found and identified chromosomes, sorted them into a process, and have prepared their report to the class. They decide they’ll each observe their own slide, and will show others what they find and what they think it means. They assign tasks when they present. Streamside vegetation: They divide into temperature and dissolved oxygen teams; each team learns how to do the observation, then teaches the other group; then they divide the reach. After they arrive on site, they decide to assign a group of Mappers to map the vegetation. The group works on communication when they discuss data’s meaning, and divide jobs when they look up other scientists’ work on web and in books. You ask them to assess their roles in their group, and the outcome of their working together.

Active learning within a constructivist paradigm is effective, even at the college level. Many teachers engage it, but far from enough. It takes confidence in your students’ capacity for autonomous learning, and confidence in your capacity to do and facilitate this kind of work. And patience; lots of it. If you don’t believe students of almost any age can engage this paradigm, find a class of young students which uses it and observe them at work. When they are born, children possess wonderful potential. The environments they develop in determine, to a large extent, whether they will generate the capacity to achieve their potential. If their environment believes they cannot, more than likely they won’t. If their environment recognizes the learner within, they more than likely will. And feel this is normal.

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.”

Finding Lessons In the World Around Us: Bringing the Pieces Together

Finding Lessons In the World Around Us: Bringing the Pieces Together

Were You Assigned A Class You Have No Background or Preparation to Teach?


by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

One year, I worked with a middle-school mathematics teacher who decided to engage his class in some work on a wetland and lake bordering a large river. He did this partly as a diversion from classroom struggles – his background and training weren’t in middle school mathematics; there was no one else available to do the work. And, he was interested in the concept of engaging his students in their community – project-based learning.

So, we went down to the site and took a tour. As we walked and talked, he suddenly stopped, took a few steps back, and stood looking down a shallow slope to the lake, then up the slope toward a wooded copse. I waited a few moments, then he remarked in an excited voice that everything changed as you looked from the water to the slope, and on up to the trees. He said something made that change, and it had to do with the slope. Then, he described what students would explore on a transect along the slope, and how. Wow! His class did the project, and, within two years, he developed into a very effective teacher.

What happened here? He knew he wanted to do something. He knew where he was in his mathematics teaching. And he was interested in his students. But he didn’t get any further until he took a walk, talked about what was there and what students had done, and noticed a slope – geological and mathematical – and, in terms of subsequent progress as a teacher, clarivoyant. The pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together.

How do we move from teaching our curricula one piece at a time, a disconnected clutter of disparate parts? Parts, learned long enough to refer to in a test; then, lost in a long trail of discarded artifacts. We need clear, strong trails if we are to lead effective, self-actualized lives. Learning has the potential to help us organize our selves so that our lives produce clear, permanent trails. In his teaching the middle school mathematics teacher began to build these clear trails, both for himself, and for his students. Part of the secret is learning about the curriculum in the real world, and its connection to the disparate clutter of artifacts we teach. In the classroom and on environmental education sites. I suggest we need to integrate them.

BEETLES-2One thing this teacher did was to let the class in on the plan. Doing this at the start involved and invested them in the work, and began to empower them to take responsibility for its parts. Early on, he began to notice that students were doing good work, and that they brought different sets of skills and abilities to the work. This was a pleasant surprise for him, and he began to see the class as a group of individuals who could make the classroom work environment an interesting one to be part of.

Soon enough, he reorganized the class into work crews, each one responsible for part of the job of assessing a transect up the slope from water’s edge to wooded copse. Accomplishing this was an utterly new experience for him, but he took to it as if he’d done it for years. Within a few weeks, he was beginning to coordinate his curriculum to the work on the slope. Aware of the mathematics curricula he was charged with, he organized the school week into days dedicated to mathematics and to the project. Students didn’t divide their new sense of personal investment in school. They became reliable students each day. Why? I think, because they were learning as humans evolved to learn. How their brain is best organized to do that job. Go into the real world, find real work to do, then focus all resources on this.

I think there were several vehicles which enabled this classroom to navigate from struggling to self-powered learning place. Specifics varied among teacher and students, but each vehicle carried them through its part of the course. The teacher was charged with teaching mathematics, for which he wasn’t well-prepared to do. He was both interested in improving his teaching, and in engaging his students in learning projects in the community in which they lived. Then he saw something, a slope in a landform, that brought these two seemingly disparate entities into a dynamic construct, a conceptual foundation for real learning, learning for understanding.

His students also boarded their first vehicles: crews, embedded curricula, brain work. At first, their commitment varied, but nearly all became interested in the project when they heard about it from the teacher. At the beginning, they were randomly assigned to their groups; but, as the teacher became more aware of them as individuals, he began to reorganize them into effective working groups, crews organized to execute particular parts of the plan.

So, the relationships among the people in the class began to morph. The teacher became the project manager, and the crews became technicians and staff working with a crew leader. Project manager and crews learned to reach out to local experts for advice. The teacher, because he was managing the project, and feeling responsible for teaching mathematics, began to use the mathematics embedded in the work site and the work itself to deliver part of his curriculum.

Locating embedded curricula seems difficult at first thought, but once you try, it becomes relatively easy. For instance, students can measure the maximum width and length of a leaf, and calculate the width to length ratio. They repeat this with other leaves from the same tree to see if that ratio holds true. Then they can see if there is a ratio for the maximum width of a fir or pine cone and its length that is consistent among a sample from the same species. As they do, ratio and proportion becomes sensible, a conceptual tool to use, rather than something to memorize for a test.

This doesn’t apply just to mathematics and science. Look for examples of alliteration in a natural area or in the school’s neighborhood. I’m looking at an example just now – a small tree whose leaves are attached to thin branches in an alternating sequence. When I see a set silhouetted against the sky, their leaves tripping along the branch, I see alliteration. Looking out the same window, I see many metaphors. Metaphors which can activate the same parts of my brain that are activated when I am engaged in close pursuit of the answer to an inquiry question. A very useful brain tool.

Looking past the leaves and metaphors, I see examples of social studies, music, art, drama, history. It’s all out there, the curricula we teach, in a form our brain is organized to use. Once it is engaged, we can then move into the prepared curricula which lives in classrooms. With one difference – this curricula will come to life because it will be engaged by a need-to-know generated by the world we live in. And learned in a way that ensures it will be used. In time, you will find that you can milk the prizes found on one excursion from the classroom to the schoolground, neighborhood, or riparian area for more than the embedded curricula you find. What you find and use generally has links to other curricula, and you can extend these threads quite far before you’ve either used them up, or have become tired of them.

These are things the teacher I worked with learned during the time we explored learning for understanding. By moving into the world we live in and discovering the curricula embedded there, and the involvement and investment the experience invoked in his students, he began to reorganize his teaching. The mathematics he discovered on site clarified what he was trying to teach in the classroom. The energy and growing expertise his students brought to the work helped him learn them as persons, to know when they engaged what I call the moment of learning, and to use their individual strengths to overcome their weaknesses. And they all grew. Because, in my opinion, they engaged their brains in the way brains evolved to learn and cope. Once engaged, they were ready to enter the more formal, abstract curricula which lived in their classroom. To learn it, not to pass a test, but to build their lives.

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.”

Integrating STEM and Sustainability through Learning Gardens

Integrating STEM and Sustainability through Learning Gardens


Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens:

A Place-Based Approach to the Next Generation Science Standards

by Sybil S. Kelley and Dilafruz R. Williams; Portland State University

O2ur ecological and social problems are deeply interconnected. Climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, air and water pollution, along with innumerable other environmental problems, are increasingly related to issues of equity and social justice. Addressing these problems requires a citizenry that is both scientifically and ecologically literate, ensuring that all people are empowered with the understandings, dispositions, and skills to address the challenges of this modern world.

CLEARING readers are likely familiar with another crisis of our times, the idea of “Nature Deficit Disorder” that Richard Louv (2005) so poignantly described in his landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv and numerous other leaders of the No Child Left Inside initiative have done a remarkable job pointing out the parallel phenomena of increasing numbers of children with ADHD and loss of time spent in nature, particularly unstructured time to explore, engage in imaginative play, and utilize all the senses. Nonetheless, time that children spend in school has become more rigid, siloed by discipline (e.g. 90+ minute literacy blocks), and disconnected from students’ daily lives and lived experiences.

As a society, we place unrealistic demands on educators. Classroom teachers are continually expected to do more with less—less money, less support, less time—with increasing mandates and pressures of accountability, whether from No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. Informal educators provide a remarkable array of learning experiences, yet many teachers do not have the time or capacity to make use of these opportunities, particularly since in most cases, field trips have to be rigorously defended and justified in context of the school-day curriculum. However, since the early 1990s, the school garden movement has been working to mitigate traditional schooling taking place within the four walls of the classroom by bringing students outdoors on school grounds right where the schools are housed.

The adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by 26 states has the potential to transform teaching and learning in and out of schools. The focus of the NGSS is on 12 “big ideas” in science (the Disciplinary Core and Component Ideas, NRC, 2012), bringing these together into process oriented learning goals (learning performances) that bridge scientific content with the practices of science and engineering, and crosscutting concepts that span all the disciplines of science (e.g. patterns, cause and effect, and systems and system models). The NGSS raises the bar for science in schools, and will require that much more attention be paid to science starting in elementary school. To help in this process, the NGSS are integrated by design. First, science education has been integrated into STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), elevating the practices and content of engineering design to the level of scientific inquiry. Further, the NGSS provide connections and links to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), making them much more useful for developing integrated, project-based units of instruction. We believe that school gardens provide a rich milieu to put the NGSS into practice, making science relevant to the lives of students as they engage with their own place in meaningful ways across disciplines.


STEM and Sustainability Education: Sense of Place

As an individually and socially constructed phenomenon, relationship to place is complex and so is the creation and development of meaning, attachment, and identity based on this relationship. To know one’s place is prerequisite to knowing one’s self. According to several scholars, sense of place is recognized as a key component of sustainability and sustainability education. Wendell Berry (1990) tells us that if we do not know where we are, we cannot know who we are. David Orr (1992) explains that people with a sense of place become “inhabitants” who dwell deeply, steeped in connections. Similarly, David Sobel (2004) asserts that people tend to protect what they love and know; therefore the actual places where we live, work, and play, become an explicit part of sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability education takes a holistic, systemic view of the world, is place-based, experiential, and transformative. Effective, high-quality STEM teaching, which should include learning experiences that are relevant and meaningful to students’ lives, are active and interactive, and make use of observation and evidence to develop meaning and understanding (knowledge claims). STEM and sustainability education are complementary and should be brought together in mainstream education.

Not only do we need to weave STEM and sustainability education together, we need to elevate both more prominently in schools. Recent studies have illuminated statistically significant reductions in science instructional time in elementary classrooms (Blank, 2013). These findings are quite troubling considering the need for scientifically and ecologically literate graduates. If we wait until middle and high school to emphasize science, we have already lost a tremendous number of students, most typically students who are already marginalized in mainstream educational (and other) systems. Making use of learning gardens can provide a solution. Teaching and learning in gardens is a way to increase student engagement in learning, and also to support different learning styles, integrate various disciplines, and revitalize schools and neighborhoods.

Using “living soil” as a metaphor for re-envisioning education, Williams and Brown (2012) state,

Gardens present an appropriate life-enriching ecological practice that guides curriculum, teaching, and learning. In an era characterized by educational malaise and apathy and amidst a repetitive discourse of racing to the top, gardens offer an alternative and regenerative model for bringing schools to life that differs significantly from mechanistic techno-scientific reform efforts oriented toward economic globalization. (p. 22)

In other words, school gardens and the living soil within them can provide a place-based context for teachers and students to learn together, alongside other community members, including the non-human members, developing a sense of interconnectedness and understanding of our place in ecological systems.

Williams and Brown (2012) outline seven pedagogical principles that are foundational to garden-based education, and that shift learning from a dry, disconnected model to one that is active and alive. Learning gardens cultivate a sense of place, awaken the senses, and foster wonder and curiosity; further, through practical experience, learners observe rhythm and scale, develop understandings of interconnectedness, and value biocultural diversity. Much of schooling focuses on visual and auditory learning modalities. Learning gardens on the other hand provide multisensory, kinesthetic learning experiences for children (and adults). They provide accessible places to build connections to nature—allowing learners to see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the wonders of nature. In our own teaching and working with teachers in low-income schools in particular, we have found the desperate need for this connection among adults and children alike.

As districts, schools, and individual classroom teachers work to implement the NGSS, innumerable, place-based opportunities exist to address national, state, and local goals within the context of learning gardens. Nonetheless, it will require leadership at many levels to reach the vision of the NGSS and the school garden movement. Principals need to see the value of garden-based education and embrace this type of teaching and learning by supporting and protecting their teachers. As professionals and leaders working directly with students, teachers will need support in developing relevant, place-based lessons that address the NGSS. Teachers must be integral players, bringing their expertise and experiences to the process.

In our summer professional development course entitled, Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens, classroom teachers, garden-based educators, and graduate students in the Leadership for Sustainability program work together to implement a place-based curriculum with elementary students in a summer garden program through SUN Schools (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods). In the afternoons, this diverse group of educators has the opportunity to grapple with the content and design of the NGSS, and to work collaboratively to develop integrated, standards-based instructional units that are contextualized in school learning gardens. For the NGSS to become a reality, teachers will need more professional learning experiences that empower them to put their expertise and knowledge of their students (their place) into the design and implementation of well-planned instructional units. NGSS and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) from which they were developed provide the structure and scaffolding for building curriculum, but efforts led by teachers and partners from higher education and the local community will provide the flesh and details for implementation.

In the following paragraphs, we will highlight some examples of what the NGSS in learning gardens can look like in practice. The first scenario provides an example of an engaging encounter that could open the door to numerous explorations, while the second is an actual lesson we have used in the summer garden program. Both highlight the rich learning opportunities that emerge and are literally just outside the classroom door.


Figure 1: An unexpected discovery of a Goldenrod Crab Spider feasting on an unsuspecting honey bee yielded immediate fascination and interest among students and teachers alike.

In science, teachers are often encouraged to use the “5E” instructional model (Bybee et al, 2006) that includes “Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate.” In the garden, all five E’s can be woven together, but “engage” and “explore” are particularly ripe. Last summer, a group of teacher candidates and youth ranging in age from four to twelve years old were thoroughly engaged and excited by this predator-prey discovery. For teachers, such wonders provide an anchor for numerous learning experiences.

For example, a Kindergarten teacher could help her students investigate the needs of different plants and animals in the garden. By gathering age-appropriate data (perhaps a simple table with a name and/or drawing of the organism and what the students observe each organism eating), students can develop an explanation of how different animals eat different (and in some cases the same) things. This would directly address the Kindergarten NGSS related to structures and processes in organisms, specifically the component concept about matter and energy flow in organisms (from NGSS (2013), K-LS1-1. Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive). First grade teachers and students could build on foundations laid in kindergarten by focusing on the structure and function of plants and animals, and how an organism’s structures help it survive and grow (1-LS1-1. Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs).

As another possible direction, this initial discovery could serve as the platform for introducing the 3rd grade standards related to heredity and biological evolution. By combining hands-on data collection in the garden with internet research, or perhaps inviting a local scientist/arachnologist to visit the class, students could compare the variations among this particular species of spider (e.g. some have red strips, others do not), as well as traits of other spider species. Using their data, they could construct an argument about why some species are more likely to survive in particular habitats over others (3-LS3-2. Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment; 3-LS4-2. Use evidence to construct an explanation for how the variations in characteristics among individuals of the same species may provide advantages in surviving, finding mates, and reproducing (NGSS, 2013)).

Figure 2: Students collaborate to gather data about the number and diversity of species they can observe and record in their habitat sampling area.

Figure 2: Students collaborate to gather data about the number and diversity of species they can observe and record in their habitat sampling area.

In each of these possible scenarios, there are also numerous interdisciplinary connections to reading and math expectations in the Common Core State Standards (CCCS) and to real world issues. For example, as third graders learned about the relationships between species and their specific habitats, they could also read a variety of texts describing the flora and fauna, as well as abiotic components, of different ecosystems. They could read and discuss the role of pollinators in ecosystems, and how pollinators are so crucial to our own food sources, particularly those in a specific location—i.e. for this place. As a culminating product, students could create a short video or poster that argues why sustainable agriculture practices are vital to food security and the planet as a whole.

The second example is one that we have experienced first-hand in the summer garden program connected with the Integrating STEM and Sustainability Education through Learning Gardens course—Is Soil Alive?—the driving question behind two days of soil explorations. The first day was spent collecting samples to test for soil composition. As students waited for the layers of sand, silt, and clay from various locations around the school yard to settle in their jars, they explored decomposers in the compost and worm bins, and those found in the garden. As a culminating activity (that could also serve as an assessment), students were given a worksheet that asked them to draw what they had observed above and below ground in the garden. The overarching question, “Is soil alive? Explain your thinking” guided students.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

This cluster of lessons provides several clear connections to the NGSS, particularly related to “Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems,” “Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems,” and “Biogeology” of Earth’s systems. But equally important, an open-ended question such as “Is the Soil Alive?” helps students and teachers grapple with the nature of science. In this particular example of viewing soil as an ecosystem, students were provided with a concrete example of some relatively abstract, complex ideas. It let them think and learn about systems, interconnections, cycles, and flows, laying a strong foundation for further exploration and learning in upper grades. Students had the opportunity to engage in logical reasoning and discourse, using empirical observations to support their claims. Some of the more complicated explanations of why the mineral portions of soil are non-living while the system as a whole can be considered alive, at the most basic level, were understandable to the elementary-age students. If teachers had given “the right answer” as is traditionally related to properties of living and non-living elements of soil, they would have discouraged students from thinking, imagining, inferring, and looking for evidence. Furthermore, a response that declared soil as not being alive because it is made up of sand, silt, and clay could have denied students a deeper exploration into the microbial ecology of soil and compost.

Figure 4: While observing and recording the decomposers found in the compost bin, a student observed this black soldier fly emerge from its pupa. It is hard to imagine doing a better job of explaining life cycles than an experience such as this can provide.

Figure 4: While observing and recording the decomposers found in the compost bin, a student observed this black soldier fly emerge from its pupa. It is hard to imagine doing a better job of explaining life cycles than an experience such as this can provide

Recommendations/call to action:

School and community learning gardens provide rich, easily-accessible contexts for integrating STEM and sustainability education. Learning experiences that are multisensory, place-based, and interconnected come to life in the garden, making teaching and learning relevant and meaningful to students and teachers alike. The recent adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize application of knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and demonstration of proficiency through performance, present the educational community with a unique opportunity to make better use of such spaces for teaching and learning. To help move our community closer to this vision, we offer a few suggestions to help in this process:

  1. Think big, start small—meaningful change takes time. It is important to spend time envisioning and planning in the early stages so that your garden-based aspirations can be turned into reality.
  2. Whether you are new to outdoor, garden-based education or an experienced practitioner, it is important to set shared expectations and norms with your students. Too many children have not spent a lot of time outside in nature. Furthermore, when they have been outside during school hours, it is often recess, not learning time. It is important to be clear that even though students are outside the classroom, it is still time for learning.
  3. Related to number two, get outside regularly. As students become more familiar with the garden routines, they will be more comfortable and “on-task.” Consider learning outdoors to be equally essential as learning with technology. Nature time is as important as screen time.
  4. Share your successes (and challenges)—with colleagues, your principal, parents, and your students.
  5. Connect with other educators and resources. For instance, the following websites can provide even more links to others interested in learning gardens: Oregon School Garden Summit (http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=4202), OSU Extension’s gardening program (http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/), Learning Gardens Laboratory (http://www.pdx.edu/elp/learning-gardens-laboratory) and many other local, regional, and statewide organizations.
  6. Most of all, have fun! Learning should be a fulfilling lifelong endeavor. That will only happen if it is fun, engaging, and meaningful. Learning gardens are the perfect mileau!

Photo Inspiration:

Figure 5: Learning gardens also provide numerous opportunities for arts integration.

Figure 5: Learning gardens also provide numerous opportunities for arts integration.

Figure 6: Arts integration and bilingual language development—gardens can provide a cultural entry point for many students from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 6: Arts integration and bilingual language development—gardens can provide a cultural entry point for many students from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 7: Collecting daily measurements of temperature and weather conditions helps students develop understandings of hard-to-grasp, abstract concepts. Additionally, they can observe change over time, make predictions, and record and analyze data.

Figure 7: Collecting daily measurements of temperature and weather conditions helps students develop understandings of hard-to-grasp, abstract concepts. Additionally, they can observe change over time, make predictions, and record and analyze data.

Figure 8: A one-on-one exploration of roots and soil.

Figure 8: A one-on-one exploration of roots and soil.

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Figure 9: Early literacy skills can be developed and enhanced through journaling and data collection. Even the youngest learners can feel successful.

Figure 10: Teacher candidates discuss and reflect on the day's activities with a small group of students.

Figure 10: Teacher candidates discuss and reflect on the day’s activities with a small group of students.


Berry, W. (1990). What are People For? Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Blank, R. K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap?. Science Education, 97(6), 830-847. DOI:10.1002/sce.21078.

Bybee, R., Taylor, J. A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Carlson, J., Westbrook, A., Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. North Carolina: Algonquin Book of Chapel Hill.

National Research Council [NRC]. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Orr, D. W. (1992). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: Connecting classrooms & communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.

Williams, D. R. & Brown, J. D. (2012). Learning gardens and sustainability education: Bringing life to schools and schools to life. New York, NY: Routledge.

About the authors:

Sybil S. Kelley, PhD,is Assistant Professor of Science Education and Sustainable Systems at Portland State University in the Leadership for Sustainability Education program. In addition, she teaches the Elementary Science Methods courses in the Graduate Teacher Education Program. Sybil has spent nearly 15 years working in formal and informal educational contexts. Her programming and research focuses on connecting K-12 students and educators in underserved schools and neighborhoods to authentic, project-based learning experiences that contribute to community problem solving. Taking a collaborative approach, Sybil supports teachers and community-based educators in aligning out-of-school learning experiences with state and local academic requirements. Her research focuses on investigating the impacts of these experiences on student engagement, thinking, and learning; and teacher self-efficacy, pedagogical content knowledge, and instructional practices. Prior to her work in education, Sybil worked as an environmental scientist and aquatic toxicologist. Correspondence can be sent to sybilkel@pdx.edu.

Dilafruz R. Williams is Professor, Leadership for Sustainability Education program, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. She is co-author of Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life (Routledge, 2012), and has published extensively on garden-based learning, service-learning, urban education, and ecological issues. She was elected to the Portland Public Schools Board, 2003-2011. She is co-founder of Learning Gardens Laboratory and Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland. Additional information about her can be obtained at www.dilafruzwilliams.com


Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

Teaching Science:

SalmonWatch1811-72Share Your Standards to Integrate Your Teaching

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Let’s say you wish to incorporate an activity in the neighborhood of your school into a unit you are planning in science, and have been thinking about asking the math teacher if she would be interested in working with you. Then you learn from a friend that plants on the bank of a stream, when they are in leaf, pull water from the ground to use for photosynthesis. In fact, she tells you, they pull so much water up that the level of the stream drops visibly. This observable change in the height of the stream seems to you to be a door to math, writing, science, and perhaps even art. So, you begin thinking.

There is a creek which runs past the southeast corner of the school grounds, and you decide to use it as the site where your students will make their observations. You check it out, and find a spot where they can set a meter stick on a flat bottom rock to take their measurements. The creek is no more than twenty inches deep at its highest level on the bank, so you don’t have to be overly concerned about student safety while they take their measurements, and you decide to plan for doing the work.

Students will work in groups of four, which, for this class, means seven groups. If the creek traveled farther through the school grounds, you could have each group set up its own measuring site. Since that’s not the case, you decide to have the groups make quick depth measurements so that you can walk to the creek, take measurements within 15 minutes, and return to the classroom. As they wait their turn, each group estimates the percent leaf cover, based on what they think 100% leaf coverage would look like. You could have had the groups observe different aspects of the creek, but decided that would involve too much planning and confusion. This is your first effort outside the classroom, and you just don’t want to make it more complicated than it already is. A wise decision.

Now, you have to work out how the observations they will make tie to more than one curricular area. This is the tricky bit. You decide to have each group hang a data sheet on the classroom walls, depicting the data they have taken in ways they feel best illustrate their observations and interpretations. To enable them to do this, you and a math teacher help them learn to make data tables, how to organize these tables to make best sense of the data, learn to graph the data and how to make decisions about what to place on the x- and y-axes. As the work progresses, you and the math teacher have students review and assess their tabulation and graphing practices. Here’s a question for you: Are any of the above activities covered in the math standards?

As students move through this work, you coordinate with their language arts teacher to build in writing and reading activities which are tied to standards that teacher is working on. For instance, you want your students to describe what the project is about, how they are making their observations, what they think these will show them, and how this whole system works from the time rain falls from the clouds until it is either incorporated into carbohydrates, or enters the creek. How many disciplines’ standards describe this kind of work?

Thinking about this, you decide to ask their art teacher if there are ways they can use her curricula to communicate student work in this project. She replies that she’ll think about it, and may be able to work it into what they will do later in the year. Encouraged by this, and the willingness of the math and language arts teachers to work with you, you decide to start exploring standards to see how they play out in the work as you’ve visualized and planned it.

What follows are three broad phases of this project, and up to three standards each addresses in each discipline. I chose 6th grade because it is at the middle of the K-12 experience. Note that the standards named in each area were chosen from a myriad of possible standards. Some may involve more than one part of the project, but are mentioned only once. Here they are:

• Choosing the location for the project, discussion and decision to estimate leafout and measuring depth of the stream, the processes it will involve, and who will carry them out. Students perform a preliminary assessment of the site via sketches which will inform an annotated collage/painting produced in the final stages of the project. Together, they involve aspects of these standards:

Art – Make connections between visual arts and other disciplines. Create a work of art, selecting and applying artistic elements and technical skills to achieve desired effect.

Language Arts – Apply more than one strategy for generating ideas and planning writing. Generate ideas prior to organizing them and adjust prewriting strategies accordingly (e.g., brainstorm a list, select relevant ideas/details to include in piece of writing). Delegate parts of writing process to team members (e.g., during prewriting, one team member gathers Internet information while another uses the library periodicals).

Mathematics – Use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem that change in relationship to one another. Model with mathematics. Describe the nature of the attribute under investigation, including how it was measured and its units of measurement.

Science – Explain how the boundaries of a system can be drawn to fit the purpose of the study. Generate a question that can be answered through scientific investigation. (This may involve refining or refocusing a broad and ill-defined question.) Describe the water cycle and give local examples of where parts of the water cycle can be seen.

• Students make their observations and carry out the plan for their investigation. This involves these standards:

Art – Choose and evaluate a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas. Recognize and describe how technical, organizational and aesthetic elements contribute to the ideas, emotions and overall impact communicated by works of art. Describe how elements of art are used to create balance, unity, emphasis, illusion of space and rhythm-movement.

Language Arts – Maintain a journal or an electronic log to collect and explore ideas; record observations, dialogue, and/or description for later use as a basis for informational or literary writing. Understand and apply new vocabulary. Use multiple resources regularly to identify needed changes (e.g., writing guide, adult, peer, criteria and/or checklist, thesaurus).

Mathematics – Graph ordered pairs of rational numbers and determine the coordinates of a point in the coordinate plane. Represent a problem situation, describe the process used to solve the problem, and verify the reasonableness of the solution. Find a percent of a quantity as a rate per 100 (e.g., 30% of a quantity means 30/100 times the quantity).

Science – Plan and conduct a scientific investigation (e.g., field study, systematic observation, controlled experiment, model, or simulation) that is appropriate for the question being asked. Work collaboratively with other students to carry out the investigations. Predict what may happen to an ecosystem if nonliving factors change (e.g., the amount of light, range of temperatures, or availability of water or habitat), or if one or more populations are removed from or added to the ecosystem.

• Students are conducting the analysis and synthesis of their data, and constructing, critiquing, and presenting their reports. This work involves these standards:

Art – Respond to works of art, giving reasons for preferences.

Language Arts – Use a variety of prewriting strategies (e.g., story mapping, listing, webbing, jotting, outlining, free writing, brainstorming). Produce multiple drafts. Publish in a format that is appropriate for specific audiences and purposes.

Mathematics – Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Analyze the relationship between the dependent and independent variables using graphs and tables. Determine whether or not a relationship is proportional and explain your reasoning.

Science –Summarize the results from a scientific investigation and use the results to respond to the question or hypothesis being tested. Organize and display relevant data, construct an evidence-based explanation of the results of an investigation and communicate the conclusions. Recognize and interpret patterns – as well as variations from previously learned or observed patterns – in data, diagrams, symbols, and words.


To me, the project, outside and inside the classroom, appears to act as a vortex, drawing several disciplines into it; integrating them in the process. The effect of this activity in the students’ brains must be related to their involvement and investment in the work, and empowerment as persons that teachers and others report when they describe student work in the world about. In most cases, this outcome is also associated with success in passing the annual tests students take to measure their accomplishment of state and national standards.

It takes courage for a teacher in today’s schools to attempt something like this. What we need are teachers and environmental educators who have done this kind of work to mentor those who haven’t, but would like to. A good place to start that would be at annual state science teacher conferences, and at state and regional environmental educator conferences. I know from my own personal experience teaching and working with teachers that a little help goes a long way. If you’re interested in the idea, leave a comment. Or, better yet, write an article and post it here. Or (where did I find this thought?) be a conference presenter.

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.”


Embedded Curricula: Environments hold a treasure of effective curricula we can learn to teach

Embedded Curricula: Environments hold a treasure of effective curricula we can learn to teach

SalmonWatch1790-72by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Embedded curricula. The curriculum that you can find just about anywhere you go: Fractions, transportation, velocity, acceleration, centrifugal force, metaphor, alliteration, poetry, drama, communities, transportation, and on. Topics we study in school, complete with real examples. Everywhere. We need to learn how to find it in natural places, and how to help our students use it in meaningful, empowering ways. Using it means we have to pay close attention to how we teach.

The way we teach directly affects the way we learn, and what we learn. Let me illustrate two poles of learning with a real-life example, two teaching methods that affect how and what students learn. This is a true story about two field trip station leaders, one who engages a centuries-old teaching paradigm, another who engages a paradigm based on the current state of knowledge about the neuropsychology of learning. One field trip leader stands ankle-deep in a stream, and tells eight students lined up on the bank about dissolved oxygen, its importance to life in the stream, and the range of dissolved oxygen concentrations which contribute to a healthy stream habitat. Then he measures the actual dissolved oxygen level where he stands, compares its value to the range for a healthy stream, and declares this stream healthy. After that, he moves on to do the same with turbidity.

salmon9altAnother leader shows her eight students how to measure dissolved oxygen, and has them do two practice trials, one in each working group of four. Then, she has them combine to do a third test on their own. The students talk about the numbers they derive, and decide to calculate their average since all three are similar. The leader congratulates them on their careful work, and sends them to reference material on the stream bank to find out what their average dissolved concentration means in terms of stream health. Students scramble, pages fly, eyes and mouths communicate, and the group returns to announce that their average dissolved oxygen concentration is healthy. They attribute that in part to the riffle just upstream, and in part to the cool temperature of the water, phenomena which they learned about while reading. Based on their readings, they think that, in addition to the oxygenation of water by riffles, the cold water holds more oxygen than warmer water. Which group learned most? Best? Will recall what they learned next Spring? Will always see riffles as oxygenators when they view them in passing? Which station would you prefer if you were learning? Why? Teaching?

Think about the last word in the previous paragraph. We won’t all respond to it in the same way. When I first began to confront the realization that how I taught affected how and what my students learned, I eventually asked, “Am I an automaton who simply clerks what I receive, telling my students what I have learned, at least the part that was in the texts I used, and asking them to tell it back to me, or am I a professional educator who can build my own effective curricula?” I began to ask myself about the excitement of science, my own personal thoughts about it. And about the topics I was teaching; some were pertinent, others rather meaningless space fillers in a section that needed more lessons to make it seem complete. Could I transmit the joy of science to my students? The natural interest in science that we’re all born with? This posed a problem for me, something I found I needed to resolve, and slowly led to better teaching and more involved and invested students. Doing this, I learned two things: I have to be the person who decides what and how I teach; and I really have to understand how brains learn.

brainHow does our brain learn? There is good evidence that we learn best when we begin new learnings by handling real objects in the real world. Do we really need to be physically involved in a learning to master it? Shouldn’t we simply be able to listen, write, and recall what is taught? Do we have to engage objects in the world to learn about them? I say that the answer to this is yes and no; there is a place for a didactic:deductive delivery, like that of the first station leader, and a place for a constructivist:inductive delivery, like that by the second leader. For instance, if the students in the first group had previously done inquiries in which they measured water quality and discussed the results of their inquiries, there would be no need to help them learn how to make the measurements, and the relationship of the station leader’s observations to a set of water quality standards would make good sense, and they could move on from there to new learnings. Once we have engaged content and concepts in the real world, we can enhance our learnings by reading, listening, and writing. And they can be extended in the real world via homework assignments that place students there. There is an appropriate time for reproducing knowledge and one for creating knowledge. Each way of teaching engages particular parts of the brain, and generates a particular kind of learning.

Ftemp_mon2or instance, a teacher has his students identify trees along a riparian transect, and they use this information to assess that small piece of watershed. Students are shown how to start a transect at the water’s edge, and carry it, perpendicular to the stream, 100 meters up the stream bank. When they start at the water’s edge, they record this as Meter 0, and use a manual to name the trees within a 5-meter diameter and their trunk diameter and heights. Then, they move 10 meters up the transect, and record the same information within a 5-meter diameter centered on the tape measure’s 10-meter mark. They continue until they have assessed the trees in this way along the entire 100 meters, then use this information to determine the ranges of each tree species, and formulate questions based upon their distributions. When they return, they will carry out inquiries based on their questions. (They started by being told what to do, how to do it, and why. In the end, they were telling themselves what to do and how to do it because they were becoming capable of working on their own. Are they transitioning to the teaching model illustrated by the second field trip station leader?)

Back at school, they discuss their results and formulate questions they will attempt to answer the next time they are in the field. Here, they will engage the real world and try to make sense of it in terms of what they already know, and what they will find out. The next day, their teacher has them start a new unit, a street tree inventory in which they will count trees by species, height, diameter, and distance from the corner of the block they are on. So, now their transect is the block the trees are on; a transect determined by the block face and tree locations rather than 10-meter intervals on a tape measure. They’ll use this information to make inferences about CO2 absorption by leaves, but the teacher’s plan includes using the work to transition their math class into the study of ratio and proportion. He does this by establishing the protocols for measuring the distances of the trees from the corner. Students will measure their stride, then count steps as they walk from the corner to tree to tree. Before doing the work, each student carefully measures her or his stride to the nearest inch. When they make their measurements on the block, they’ll attempt to consistently walk with the same stride. They’ll use the ratio of one step to feet and inches to convert their steps walked on the block to feet and inches of its length. They make the calculation by multiplying feet and inches per step by the number of steps. In math, students will use the steps they used to convert their stride along the block to feet and inches by developing ratios and using them to make the distance calculations.

So, they start at the edge of a corner, pace to the center of the nearest tree, and record the number and fraction of a pace to get there. They continue this way to the end of the block. He’ll have them continue the work until they’re comfortable, then start the ratio and proportion unit in math. He’ll also assign them to do the same study on the block they live on, or one with trees if theirs has none. They’ll do this as a homework assignment. Now, he’s identified and used an example of embedded curricula in the real world. The curriculum is out there; we have to learn to find it.

Embedded curricula is effective curricula, probably because the student has to discover and exploit it, something our evolved brain is very good at. (I say, ‘brain,’ but I mean ‘central nervous system,’ the total set of nerve cells in the system that is coordinated by the brain.) If the brain is where we learn, then why not use it in designing the ways that we learn, both in school and on-site?

By the time the class goes out to implement the investigations engendered by their inquiry questions, they will be in charge of their learnings. The teacher has transitioned his delivery from didactic:deductive to constructivist:inductive. He started with an activity that he thought might generate students’ interest, then used that interest to engage them in self-directed learning that met his curricular objectives in science and mathematics.

Environmental educators can help teachers engage their students’ brains in effective ways. It doesn’t matter what the environmental educators offer, their sites contain embedded curricula, just waiting to be mined. They also know the classroom teachers who are serious about what they do. Put two of their heads together, and they can locate and describe curricula available on site. A team like this would be invaluable to Meredith. We have the power to bring them together, and might do that.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate how curriculum discovered on site empowers students. Several years ago, some teachers in a middle school decided to exploit some man-made ponds and a ditched creek adjacent to the school to develop the curricula embedded there. They did this for most of the school year, then participated in the school’s Parent Science Night. That evening, the halls were filled with students who manned tables exhibiting science projects they had worked on. Parents and other adults wandered around, checking out what the students had done. The students whose projects were developed in the standard science classes used their texts and lab books to explain the experiments they were displaying. When asked a question, they inevitably read either from their books, or from notes they had written; often with a finger moving along the words. Students who worked on the ponds and creek spoke from what they knew, from what was in their heads. They answered questions, sometimes after quiet thought; always with confidence, with ownership of the learning and personal empowerment in their eyes. I’ve observed this often, but never in such fortuitous mixed company. We can learn for understanding and empowerment, but we have to do it using our brain’s evolutionary history to guide the ‘how’ of the learning.

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.”