Lessons for teaching in the environment and community -2

Lessons for teaching in the environment and community -2

Photo courtesy of Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School

“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 2: Developing Capacity

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

“And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.”
– William Shakespeare

Why creep, unwilling, to school? Could it be that school is, itself, unwilling? Unwilling to allow its students’ brains, wonderfully autonomous learning machines, the freedom to learn, to engage their world and discover its nature, become empowered within it?

We evolved to survive in wild environments by learning them. Our brain did this learning by finding and exploiting patterns in the world it encountered. In the end, our brain has developed into an autonomous learning machine. Students have demonstrated in many schools that engaging in inquiries in the places where we evolved causes them to become involved and invested in their educations, and empowered as persons. While significantly improving their scores on the current barometer, standards exams. Use this innate capacity we humans are born with to touch, think, learn, assimilate, to structure your curricula. Those who have are successful.

Here’s one I personally know: The faculty of the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS) in Salem, OR, decided to build their curricula around experiences in the world outside the classroom. Each student’s journey is developmental, culminating in groups doing self-directed inquiry in various places: a farm in the country, a coastal estuary, the Oregon Zoo, a forest in the Coast Range. The school’s focus is not on preparing students for the state standards tests. Instead, they give their students a solid and empowering education. The last time I visited JGEMS, their students racked up an impressive record: 100% passed the science standards, and the reading and math standards in the high and middle 90s. (Check their school out yourself at www.jgems.net.) Students who begin their learnings in the world in which they will live out their lives become involved and invested in their educations. The education establishment doesn’t recognize this accomplishment of classroom and environmental educators, but it is real. And doable.

There are many places you can start the journey toward effective, empowering education. One is with what I call Developing Capacity. When you have the capacity to teach science as it should be taught, you can start a science unit with words like these where you describe a spider’s web, against the morning sun, with dew glistening on its surface;

This is what life is like: The cells which make living things are composed of molecules which have been selected and put into place by little pieces of sunlight. Together, when these cells are organized into the organisms in foodwebs, they sparkle, and receive more little pieces of sunlight. As long as the sun shines, its light will add sparkle to life, and, intoxicated, life will gather more sunlight. Once entrained, this is a self-perpetuating process. Let’s study it as such an enchanting, self-directing phenomenon.

Note the difference in opening a unit on plant and animal cell physiology this way vs. saying that, in this unit, we are going to learn about the processes of photosynthesis and respiration, and the structure and functions of enzymes in cellular processes. The difference between comprehending the content you teach and knowing you can adapt your teaching to foreseeable contingencies, vs. relying on the words and suggestions in the teacher’s edition for your understanding of the content and its delivery. Altogether too many science teachers in this nation rely on publishers’ materials to prepare them to teach their curricula. This is unacceptable, and we need to do something about it now.

What follows may make you feel a little uncomfortable, like being out on a limb, sawing on the tree side. If it does, and you continue anyway, you’ll make it. In spite of the fact that you’ll never quite lose that feeling of being out there with the scratching sound of the saw in your ear. By then you’ll know there is nothing to fear, and will be on your way to taking charge of your curriculum.

Pick a project. Make it simple, but at your instructional level. Here are two to give you an example of what I mean. The first is a small flower bed your students will put into place on the school grounds. The second is planting and restoration work along a local trail. Somewhere in the continuum between these two projects, you should find something that fits your instructional level. (You don’t necessarily have to do these, but you must walk and think through the steps of the project you envision. Generating part of your curriculum in the real world wasn’t covered in most of our teacher education courses. It’s a very learnable process, you simply need to experience it and reflect on it.)

My goal here is teachers who are empowered with the capacity to build partnerships to facilitate their real world curricula. If you’ve never done a project, then you’re in the Acquisition phase of this learning curve, and simply hooking up with a local planting project done by someone else is a good place to start. Keep in mind that, while your students are there to plant, you’re there to see how the project works, who’s a good person to keep in touch with, materials you’ll need to acquire, etc. In short – develop your teacherly antennae. They’re very helpful things to have.

The first step is to check out the place where you’ll actually do the work. Look at the actual site, find where you’d have students work, envision what they would discover. Think of one piece of the curriculum you will soon teach and find it there. Get to know the place as part of your classroom.

The second, after you see a clear picture of the project, is to begin to develop helpful partnerships. These you’ll need, especially if you’ve never done a project outside your school building. For the school planting, the principal, custodian, and another teacher make great partners. For the second, you can call the parks and recreation department, a local agency, or an environmental group. You can have your students help develop a list of people to contact. This can be empowering work for them.

This is your self-directed inquiry. So, decide on a project at your instructional level, check out the place where students will work, and identify at least one or two potential partners. Next week, the blog will pick up with these examples and use them to discuss the myriad things it takes to effectively use the real world to generate curricula.

I’ll leave you with one final charge: find a teacher who already uses the environment to build curricula. If you don’t know one, your school district probably knows of at least one. Tell the teacher your thoughts and keep in touch. It’s an easy way to reduce the isolation of the classroom.

Remember; this is all doable. You just have to start.

This is the second installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that will explore 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.

Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science

Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science

Teaching Science:

Ripples in the Pond: Building Deeper Conceptual Understandings in Science

ripple_in_the_water-resized-600by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Flat, circular and smooth, the rock spat at the clean surface of the water, twisted slightly on its axis, and flew again. Dark and light, concentric lines speed outwards from its landing place. The rock’s path becomes a low curving arc until it touches the water again then flies toward its next destination. Flight paths shrinking, it finally stutters, rocks ever so briefly on the surface, then, laying on its side, sinks from sight.

We’ve all skipped rocks on the water. It’s fun and challenging. How far can we make one skip? How many times will it touch the water? We practice, search for flat rocks, try different methods, watch others then copy them, and practice some more. This is like teaching “the book.” Getting to Chapter 37 by the end of the year can be a real challenge in skipping rocks. We become creative in our own planning and preparation, go to workshops, attend seminars and institutes, pore through publishers’ offerings, observe what others are doing, and, by the time we retire, can skip through all 37 blindfolded. Students need to do science, then marshal relevant content to understand the results of their science. Just as scientists do.

But have we taught science? Science is a way of knowing, and beginning to understand the universe we live in. Do brief encounters with science content teach students to apply critical thinking to scientific or science related issues? I think not. For one thing, each encounter is so brief that it leaves no time for reflection or comprehension of scientific method or the concepts and processes enlightened by this method. No time for the reflection and contemplation so necessary to conceptual understanding. In too many classrooms, students are not provided the time to experience science as a process that lets us know. After completing a chapter, students may utter words which we ourselves have used, and make these words follow upon one another in apparently meaningful ways, but they may not comprehend the concepts that the words describe at all. These next words are important; think about them. “Science studies the world directly; it does not learn about the world from a text or canned activity. Our students must use the observational and critical thinking skills which science and our brain provides to understand and express their world.” When we do less, we do them, and ourselves, a great disservice.

When we touch on 37 chapters (representing 37 content areas with more or less complex concepts) we are like a rock, touching the water 37 times before it loses energy and sinks. Encounters with content or water are necessarily brief, leave a series of thin ripples, but do not make meaningful connections among the 37 visits except in the linear direction they travel. Even the ripples, once they touch, have lost most of their energy, and make no lasting impression upon their world. Nevertheless, we barge along, convincing ourselves, and our students, that they understand, that they have been taught science. However, if we take the time to check to see if we’ve done it right, we may find that even our best students entertain misconceptions.

One day during a cell biology lecture, I caught my mind stopping, then asking me a question, “Do they all see the same picture in their minds?” I couldn’t answer, and that floored me. What if none of them saw the same picture I did? So, I asked them to take a couple of minutes, draw a cell and a mitochondrion, and no more than two sentences about what we (I) had been talking about. As they worked, I scoped and zoomed, walking casually, but eyes and ears working to the max. (That’s an important part of teaching, if you want to know if and when students are learning.)

Their drawings fell into two basic categories: the mitochondrion was either inside or outside the cell. If it was inside, there was a small chance it was inside the nucleus. Otherwise, it could be anywhere inside the cell. If outside, it either touched the cell, or was some distance from it. I gathered from this that 1) I needed to start the lecture by drawing a mitochondrion inside a cell, and 2) I ought to find a way to probe for the pictures in their heads when I taught about what they couldn’t see. So, they immediately started drawing what they were learning. That helped me to know where I needed to take care to avoid misconceptions. A simple scope and zoom would clarify most misconceptions.

You can learn to tell when your students are learning. It just takes practice and careful attention to how each student telegraphs learning. Can you ensure that they are learning for understanding? If they are, then most misconceptions take care of themselves as students negotiate meaning. Small, ongoing probes help you do this. They become a habit. Another way you can enhance understandings and reduce misconceptions is to use the science your students are doing now to extend these learnings into a new topic. If the new topic is closely related, the transition should be obvious. If it seems distantly related, you have to search for your own understandings to find an appropriate vehicle to manage the transition. Usually, you can find it embedded in what the class has recently been learning.

Let’s say you are completing a unit on DNA and the function of operons in producing protein. Next you plan an abrupt change to study plant taxa. Two apparently disparate topics, and generally viewed as such. This happens so often that our students think of the topics as having no connection to one another. Why not initiate the transition by referring to interactions between operon and environment? If you’re starting the unit on plant taxa with the idea of using this new knowledge to work with an environmental educator to do a stream bank restoration project, you might have students use the idea of DNA and operons to think of reasons that the plant taxa you will be working with are different from one another in appearance and habitat preference. And might account for why they will be planted at different places in the riparian. Or not planted there at all. So, instead of leaving one topic and leaping to another, they will use what they know to navigate toward a new topic along a course they’ve sailed before. The rocks no longer leap from place to place then skitter to a stop.

There are innumerable transitions you can envision. Each one contains the capacity to produce comprehensive understandings, larger and larger conceptual schemata. Learning for understanding. When you begin to search for these transitions, your own understandings become stronger, as does your confidence to teach for understanding. This reverses my methaphor: The rock represents the trajectory of transitions, and the ripples your growing connected web of understandings. (I’m much more comfortable with this version.) What if your students were finishing a unit on weather, and next, were going to prepare to study the macroinvertebrate organisms which inhabit streams? How many transitions can you imagine up? How can you use one of them to enlarge the compass of your students’ current conceptual schemata?

When we simply jump from one topic to another, the rock touching and flying, what does this say about how well we comprehend the subdisciplines we teach and their connections? Should we do something about this? A good place to start is where you are. You’ve got your class engaged in a topic, and soon you’ll move to another. Visualize the connection you’ll use to transition to this new topic. Where, in the new content, do you want the transition to lead? How will you initiate the transition? Now, when it is time, start the transition. We need to learn how to take the time to develop quality transitions from one topic to another. Once in that new topic, take the time to nail down the understandings contained in this connection; both for the old topic, and for this new one. Then, the course the rock navigates will carry it home to deep conceptual understanding.

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.”

Community-based Science Teaching: A Journey of the Mind?

Community-based Science Teaching: A Journey of the Mind?

FreshwaterTrust2By Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

T3he young woman carefully pours hydrogen peroxide into a graduated cylinder, presses a key on a computer keyboard, then measures ten drops of liver homogenate into the cylinder.  The surface of the hydrogen peroxide seems to leap at the first drop of homogenate, then the drop begins to froth and spin as it is carried deep into the cylinder, trailing a growing, spinning plume of bubbles.  Each drop increases the frothing turbulence in the cylinder until it seems enveloped in a pulsing explosion of bubbles.  Meanwhile, the young woman’s glance moves from a developing graph on the computer’s monitor to the activity in the cylinder and back again.  Science is being done.

If we could see into her mind, what kind of thoughts must we find there?  What must she have done and thought to get to where she is at this moment?  How will her thoughts change when the reaction has gone to completion and she reviews the data?  One thing is certain:  this young woman has a history of doing process science.  Another thing is certain; her work presents her with conceptual schemata which require filling out with specific facts; the work she does generates a need to know. This need can drive her into the books and the web to find out. Can we capture this kind of science in our classrooms?  Can we accommodate her experiences into a model of science pedagogy?

How might this scenario play out in a stream, where the young woman is measuring water quality, collecting and identifying macroinvertebrates, and entering her data into an iPad? Is there any substantial difference in her experiences in the two environments? Certainly there are logistical differences, but I submit that these are an emergent phenomenon which arises from our traditional concept of what school is. Is school a journey of the mind, or is it a place with boundaries, where we learn to pass tests? In both places, she is engaging similar mental concepts, and procedural processes. Our bodies and brains are able to work in both environments. The significant thing is that what the mind and body are doing has to be meaningful. In the case of this young woman, what she is learning is related to what she knows of other knowledge; it is being learned within a familiar context. If she were learning for a test, she would learn the facts, but they wouldn’t necessarily be learned in order to understand. The kind of learning this young woman is engaging is active learning, in which she is constantly comparing her experiences with what she knows. Whether she is consciously aware of it, she has learned how to learn. That’s a powerful skill.

In school, we tend to move from one topic directly to another as if this is what education is about. Many of us do this in our personal world, racing through life, leafing through it as we would a magazine in the doctor’s office, never pausing to contemplate what it is, what it means. We should take the time to absorb life so we can live within it. The same goes for school. Instead of zipping on to the next topic as soon as we’ve covered the current one well enough to test on it, we should probe for students’ attainment of the concepts embedded in the topic to see if they’ve nailed them down. We ought to give students a chance to think about what they’re learning, and design a repeat investigation to nail down their understandings. We need to explore ways to transition what we have just learned to what we will be learning. Even though they can parrot words we’ve used, they may entertain misconceptions and may well not actually understand what we assume they know.

This applies also to teachers. Our pre-service preparation and most of our in-service learning was done with this industrial assembly line model, zipping us through a ritual that eventually placed us at the head of a classroom. About twenty years ago, I was doing a wetlands ecology institute for teachers, and a question came up among the staff about what to do after the teacher participants’ first afternoon in a local wetland. One opinion was, “Okay, they’ve done their first study. Let’s get them ready to go to the coast for their second study.”  The other opinion was, “They’ve done what amounts to a casual observation, which might have raised some questions they could follow up with a second investigation.” Fortunately, the second opinion won the day; the participants asked questions which arose as they processed their observations, and they used these to design the following day’s study at the same wetland. Having done that inquiry, once at the coast they hit the beach running, the well-oiled machine, and they nailed down what they had been learning about wetland ecology. It took time, but it moved them further up the learning curve.

After their original casual observation, we could have left them where they were, some in the Acquisition phase, some entering Proficiency. This is what many in-service educators do. We assume the teacher will move to Mastery, but only a few have the self-confidence to do so. Instead, we leave them knowing that they could know, but not ready to take the next few steps. Dryas and I had a mutual friend, who was in late middle-age. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah had decided to leave an emotionally abusive relationship, but had no idea what to do, nor did she have the confidence to try. A few of us located a place where she could stay, and I agreed to meet with her once a week to help her develop a business plan for using art to explore relationships as a way to earn a living. Over a period of three or four months, we’d meet once a week, and she’d bring out what she’d accomplished on the plan. Her Acquisition phase was long, about six weeks, but then she started accelerating into Proficiency. Sarah had been making collages to express her feelings then interpreting them. This is what she planned to teach others. After moving into Proficiency, each week her collages portrayed a bird, first totally enclosed in a sealed room becoming a bird looking out the window, seeing life outside the window, perched on the window sill, and finally freedom – soaring in the air toward the Sun. The slow but steady movement from locus of control far outside the body, to deep within and freedom to live her life. It takes time, but moves us up the learning curve. We need this in our emotional life, but also in our cognitive, conceptual life.

What’s the difference in insecurity about living in a relationship and insecurity about teaching in a content area? You could leave the relationship because the other isn’t likely to change. But, understanding the science means you’re in a win-win situation, and don’t have to leave, much as you would be in the relationship if the other decided to go into counseling. The young woman pouring hydrogen peroxide obviously understands what she is doing and why. She’ll continue this relationship. That’s what we want.

Are we adrift now? The point is that, like all things we do, they’re done by humans. We bring our small, effective human arsenal to bear on a large number of issues, all manageable with what a well-understood arsenal contains. In school, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to teach, just as in your personal life, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to manage a relationship. Likewise, a student’s confidence in the content and concepts determines her ownership of her learnings. We need to bring them to confidence, then we’re all ready to move to the next topic. How do we do that?

Working with Meredith, the middle-school teacher who takes her class out to the creek at the edge of the school yard, we’ve seen how she has learned to have her students repeat investigations to move along the learning curve. Like a booster rocket, they’ve got altitude and velocity; just need that extra push to get them into orbit. The first time through their work on the creek, they figured out how to do it. Setting up more than one station per group, one at a riffle, at a glide, and at a pool, would ensure students had ample opportunity to move to Mastery. At each trip to the creek, students might repeat their observations more quickly, and could move in to explore new curricula in the time saved. While moving their understanding of, say, macroinvertebrate collection, identification, and interpretation to Mastery, they could be moving their understanding of the roles of the rest of that ecosystem in generating a healthy habitat for the animals they are studying through Acquisition into at least initial Proficiency. That puts Meredith in charge of her curriculum. Which is where she should be; on the road to building competent, empowered minds.

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.”

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.”