Jim Martin on NGSS

Jim Martin on NGSS

Active Learning:

Is this something our pre-service education equips us for?

I’m interested in the Resource section on the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) web site (http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources). At the very end of the materials, there is a link to the Vision Framework table (http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVision.pdf) which indicates where science education has been, and where it is expected to go: From teacher-centered/didactic to student-centered/constructivist, along with an emphasis on active learning. My experience and perennial hopes tell me that this is what should happen. In the long run, it will produce a better-educated electorate.

15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVisionOne thing I don’t see is how this change will be effected. There is little evidence of funding to facilitate this movement from teacher-centered to student-centered deliveries, especially when so many science teachers haven’t made the move. And for good reason: a large fraction of teachers don’t have the college-level preparation this change entails. And, historically, this has been the case since I started tracking it in the early 1970s. There is some talk of states taking up this responsibility, but not many states seem willing to spend more on education. As in most education initiatives, it will be up to the teachers to bring themselves up to speed.

That said, my hope is to be able to take a science activity and walk it up the NGSS from K-12. This started with a simple food web, which we’ll continue to use with questions it raises to stray into other areas of the Life Sciences standards. I’ll try to use examples which can be applied at any grade level. I have no certainty that I can do that, but I’ll try.  Several possibilities for assisting teachers to make the transition to effective use of the NGSS in their classrooms are briefly described in the NGSS Resources section, such as the effort the Delaware and Rhode Island (http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/DE-RI%20Collaborating%20for%20NGSS%20Alignment%20June%202015.pdf) collaborative effort to build effective ways to deliver the NGSS. Most efforts are still in the works, or pending work. The Delaware and Rhode Island effort’s final statement is instructive: “This work takes time: Participants’ knowledge of the NGSS, the rubric, and what makes for good feedback and suggestions for improvement grew over time, especially through the process of sharing their work with other members of their state team and across state teams.” Progress, but definitely not a final product.

next-genMany Classroom Sample Task plans described in the NGSS Resources section are “coming soon.” In one which is here now, Where Did the Water Go?: Watershed Study – Middle School Sample Classroom Task, the Introduction to the sample task describes what could become a student-centered activity, but the description of how to teach the lessons is largely teacher-centered. Overall, it doesn’t represent a student-directed inquiry, and provides little effective advice for teachers who are employing active learning for the first time. I suspect it will be up to individual teachers to reorganize the NGSS Resources offerings to make them student-centered inquiries. I’m concerned about this because teachers are under the gun to deliver on the NGSS, but are receiving precious little assistance to do so. And so we must train ourselves.

Let’s look at the wording in K-LS-1. Its performance expectation reads, “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.” This is further clarified: “Clarification Statement: Examples of patterns could include that animals need to take in food but plants do not; the different kinds of food needed by different types of animals; the requirement of plants to have light; and, that all living things need water.” Then, elements from the Framework for K-12 Science Education are listed: “Analyzing and Interpreting Data – Analyzing data in K–2 builds on prior experiences and progresses to collecting, recording, and sharing observations. Use observations (firsthand or from media) to describe patterns in the natural world in order to answer scientific questions. Connections to Nature of Science: Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence – Scientists look for patterns and order when making observations about the world. LS1.C: Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms: All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow. Patterns: Patterns in the natural and human designed world can be observed and used as evidence.” Lots of jargon, but it does contain useful information. We can draw on these elements to integrate what we observe in the real world with the semantic world of the NGSS. If we succeed, our students will be learning for conceptual understanding rather than to connect particular standardized test question stems with memorized, but not conceptualized, facts. We need to be able to do this.

We started to use a food chain to begin to address this standard. If we were to use the delivery modalities described in the first row of the Vision of the Framework table at the end of the NGSS Resources web page we would have two choices. One is teacher-centered, “Rote memorization of facts and terminology.” The other is student-centered, “Facts and terminology learned as needed while developing explanations and designing solutions supported by evidence-based arguments and reasoning.” That’s a rather densely concept-populated sentence; a sentence with a top-heavy concept load. (Concept Load is one of the things we all need to be careful about when we’re speaking or writing. It’s certainly a common problem for me.) In spite of that, it does open the door to teachers who allow their students to develop their own questions from time-to-time, and to develop investigations to answer them, collect and analyze data, interpret their findings, and communicate them. (You’ll notice my problem with concept load in that sentence.) In the process, students’ own questions and investigations force them into the books and the web to find needed information. Because they’re not going after it to answer a test question, it will be stored in conceptual memory, where it can be brought out to use when needed. That kind of work fits what the NGSS states it wants students to do. That opens the door to real, competent learning. We need that.

Your best way to master this new way of teaching is to take one piece and work on a way to deliver it via active learning. We’ll give that a first shot here. If we were to deliver the personal food chain activity described in the previous blog with a teacher-centered activity, we would provide students with the names of the plants, and where to place them on paper. Then we’d have the students write their own names above the plants and animals they ate, and draw arrows from each plant or animal to the student’s name. (We might ask them to write the animal names above the plant names and below their own names.) We’d then tell them they’d constructed a food chain, and begin to explain the arrows’ meaning. Whatever else we wanted them to know would be delivered in a similar way. Very little conceptual understandings would connect all of this information in a meaningful way or pattern.

“Pattern” is the operative word here. When we discover patterns, our brain’s Seeking system is activated, and the prefrontal cortex organizes itself to place all of these learnings within a connected conceptual schematum, which draws on information stored in various parts of the brain. The conceptual memory then ‘makes sense.’ Contrast this with memories created during teacher-centered activities, where memories are stored, but with precious few connections; little chance of developing into conceptual memories.

Now, to the right side of the Vision of the Framework table. Each of us teaches differently. I’ll describe this constructivist, active learning activity as I might do it. Think about it in your own way. That’s important. The differences may raise useful questions. Here we go. First, I assigned the homework task, “Tomorrow, write down all of the things you eat for breakfast. We’ll use this to look at one of the ways you’re connected to the world.” This will raise questions in some students’ minds. When a few of those articulate their questions, I’ll phrase in some way my standard response, “What do you think?” If the discussion seems fruitful, we’ll just see where it goes. If not, we’ll continue with what follows.

When they come in with their information the following day, I’ll ask them to work in partnerships to figure out a way to picture a relationship between the things they eat and themselves. After, we’ll report back what we find, discuss what we see and think, and then each group will build a picture to illustrate how they understand the relationship between the organisms they eat and themselves based on what they’ve taken away from the reporting session. That is as long as a fruitful discussion the day before didn’t lead to a better way to do this. Note: I’m talking about kindergarten or, K-1, since that is the level the standard quoted above is directed toward. But this activity does work at all levels with a little tweaking. The idea here is to prepare students’ minds for the learning about food webs that they will embark upon; and, to begin working on the NGSS LS1-1 standard.

We’ll post their pictures, then if I think it’s helpful, I’ll show them the way I did mine. Hopefully, I won’t have to. Since these are young children, I’ll simply say this is the way I thought of to do it. Then I’ll ask if their pictures provide any information about what plants and animals need to survive. This conversation can go many ways. My job will be to see that we learn that we all, even plants, need to eat. (Note: The NGSS K-LS-2 states that plants don’t need to take in food. I disagree with this assertion. Plants take in nutrients from the soil; that’s one of the reasons we compost and fertilize. Plant roots aren’t there just to absorb water and stabilize the plant. Roots work on their own and with microbes and fungi to bring nutrients in the soil into their own bodies. That’s taking in food, which the NGSS standard says plants do not. Oh, well.)

It is more difficult to write a set of standard directions for an activity delivered via active learning than via teacher-centered learning. Active learning allows so much room for minds to explore that it seems to have no direct path to the end. It actually doesn’t work that way, but you have to engage it yourself to discover that. There are little or no standard terminology or conceptual referents that we can use to describe active learning as there are for teacher-centered learning. Perhaps because it’s a relatively new function for most educators. Not for our brain. It learns best when it is seeking a pattern and/or answer to an interesting question. Helped us survive the Pleistocene. Somewhere along the way, school lost the capacity to use this powerful tool. We’re beginning to rediscover it.

In the next blog, we’ll look at the food chains the class produced, then see how we can use them to connect to other curricular areas.

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.”


Teaching Science

Teaching Science

Why kids need ecology now!

Teachers, as well as science majors and graduate students, need to understand the process of science. And they need to be able to argue it, discuss it, suggest novel perspectives, give and respond to criticism. Does our inservice education deliver this to us? Especially critiques of current practice? The Vision of the Framework for K-12 Science Education Vision table and, some of the descriptions of the New Generation Science Standards indicate that all science teachers will need to understand both the process of science and the process of student-centered science education.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Magazine Associate Editor

G2lobal warming; hot topic, little consensus. What if students were learning the ecology and environmental science they needed to understand the nature of global warming: its history during the tenure of life on Earth, the similarities and differences between this episode we’re experiencing now and others, the nature of food webs and their connections to the concept of species diversity, the connections between temperature and habitat? What would be the effect of this work on students? They are young citizens, and will be among the adults, as will their own children, faced with the results of our generation’s effect on global climate. How much curricular time do we devote to these topics? Are we allowed to? They’re definitely good science; but, are they currently culturally correct education?

Do these topics conform to our expectations of curricula meeting New Generation Science Standards (NGSS)? The NGSS have addressed a relatively small part of their standards to ecology. Students in schools today, and their children, need to know ecology at a level which makes it, especially at the conceptual level, clear and comprehensible; fits the understandings we need to cope successfully with the effects of global warming. They’ll be dealing directly with these effects in their lives. Will they understand and use what they know of, say, food webs and the effects of global warming? Concepts like thermal tolerance? Species replacement? The concept and applications of niche? What can we do to help? Knowledge of environments and their biota are important components of our response to global warming. We do a better job of responding to issues when we understand their pieces.

While the NGSS call for active learning in their delivery, there is no advice in the Resources Section at the NGSS web site (http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources) that assists teachers to employ active learning and learning for understanding in the classroom. They do provide brief descriptions of active learning, but provide no examples. Nor do they provide inservice instruction that will prepare teachers to engage students in active learning and acquire the requisite curricular understandings they will need to do the job well. We need to attend to this.

At the end of the NGSS Resources section[1], there is a table at the end of the NGSS Resources section which describes changes in the way science will be taught when it is aligned with the standards; how science was once taught, and how it will be taught as the NGSS is implemented. The transition moves learning from teacher-centered delivery to active, student-centered, constructivist, self-directed inquiry on the part of students, their preferred delivery modality. My experience teaching, and working with teachers, tells me that this transition is difficult, and needs time and support to do effectively. Done by confident teachers, it is always effective, involves and invests students in their learnings, and empowers them as persons. The didactic, teacher-centered modality is effective when you’re teaching how to use a dissolved oxygen probe, but for most learning, the constructivist, student-centered, active learning modality works best.

I’d like to spend some blogs describing how this transition in delivery modalities might work at the various grade levels. To facilitate this, I’d like to discuss a paradigm which is easily assimilated by humans of all ages, and which helps some of the more esoteric ecology standards make down-to-earth sense: food webs. (Note: Food Webs are also called Food Cycles. Both Food Webs and Food Cycles are composed of Food Chains, which show the chain of animals which eat a particular Producer. I favor Food Web because it infers a complex of interactions, which are the means for maintaining ecosystems.)

We’ll start with students’ (and your) own food chain. I decided to do this to illustrate the process of constructing a food web. After that, we’ll do a food web on a school ground or neighborhood for our initial food web, and amplify it as we move up the LS2 grade levels from K to 12. While we’re working, we’ll use the Vision of the Framework table to see how active learning works, and what we can do to facilitate it. I suppose that this means that there will be many blogs to follow.


Here’s how I constructed my own food chain (Since I’m the only consumer eating what I eat, a food chain will have to act as my food web!): I wrote down what I ate for each meal for a day, then looked up on all package and can labels any ingredients which were included in the prepared foods I ate. They were all derived from plants, so I placed all of the plant species’ names on the bottom row of the diagram, (Figure 1), and the things which eat them above that row. Next, I drew lines from each plant species to what eats it. (Some draw lines from the eaters to what they eat. Either type of placement does the job.) In this case, that was always me. I’ve added salmon and mackerel to my food chain, even though they don’t eat the plants I’ve listed. I did this because I eat those fish too. If I wasn’t on a vegan diet for my health, the list of one label’s ingredients would make my food chain too cumbersome to draw. As it is, the ‘web’ looks like a mess.



            Figure 1. My Personal Food Chain. First Pass.


If you have started your own food web, and got this far, you might entertain the same feeling. Why do you think this, my personal food web, seems so confusing? Unnatural? Perhaps because it is. In the first place, it is a food chain, not a food web. If I were to trace each ingredient to the place where it lived, there would be very few which lived near where I do. Is this true of all organisms living in ecosystems on Earth? Do you know how to find out? Do you know enough about ecosystems to make informed opinions and decisions about our response to global warming? Should our children’s educations provide them with this capacity?

What else do I eat? Some of the food sources listed, prepared or simply harvested, contained microbes, insects, etc., either whole or in part within them. That’s just how food happens. How do I account for them? Another fact about my food chain: The mackerel and salmon I eat are part of other food webs. Do I show them? While they are consumed by me in my own food chain, I affect theirs. Migratory animals’ food webs do this as they move from one ecosystem to another, but I stay where I am. (They become transient parts of those food webs. I’m a permanent part of mine. But mackerel never swim past my house!) These questions suggest to me that my food chain needs attention. (Exploring this might present a nice activity for students of any age.) If we are to survive the effects of over-population and global warming, I think a first thing to understand is that we are members of an ecosystem, and need to be contained within it. At least, as much as is possible. Constructing a food chain is the first step in this process.

So, what will I do? I’ll cut down my producers (plants) to those which grew here. I’ll pretend all of the salmon are from here, but eliminate the mackerel. What does it look like now? (See Figure 2) You may see that this is complex. What I’ve written so far may not seem like exploring what students need to know about species diversity and the connections between temperature and habitat. I think that exploring those two topics will work best if we can envision their effects on food webs. We’ll go through this a step at a time as I do mine, and expand to a food web in a riparian area. (Is this what I will do?)


 Figure 2. My Personal Food Chain. Second Pass.


I could show what Salmon eat, and that would make this a more realistic food web; more informative by placing me within an ecosystem. And I could add the herbivores who also eat the oats in my food chain. (Rest of paragraph needs work.) But, it wouldn’t be Mine! Instead, I would begin to become part of a food web based on the ecosystem I live within. Hmm . . . . Closer, perhaps, to where I should be? A further step: I can add other animals which eat the producers I do, and animals that eat them. I could even show the organisms which decompose them, and those who redistribute our parts when we die or lose them. A more realistic food web, and one which would make me a better-informed citizen when I am engaging or reading about our efforts to compensate for the effects of global warming. Just what today’s students need.


[1] (http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVision.pdf)

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.”

Jim Martin: Arts and Humanities in the Sciences?

Jim Martin: Arts and Humanities in the Sciences?



Arts and Humanities in the Sciences? Is that incongruous, or what?

By Jim Martin

Have you ever ‘felt’ the weather as cloud formations began to change? I love to watch Mares’ Tails form; multiple long extensions of a cumulus cloud that race out ahead, then turn up and curl back. They signal a change in the weather; an eye-catching choreography in the sky; a dance students could perform to learn about weather. I started teaching biology to college students in 1970, and had no thoughts about using the arts and humanities in my delivery. I was open to them; my childhood and youth were infused with them. But I saw no way to employ them because it seemed to me that they were an adjunct, a vehicle I would have to tack onto an already overloaded syllabus.

Then, a few years later, concerned about the quality of my general biology (Bio 101) students’ understandings, and wondering what they were learning during their K-12 years, I accepted an opportunity to teach a 7th grade self-contained classroom. Before the first day of school, I decided not to use the school’s language arts texts and workbooks. They were utterly boring; pages to go through so you could answer a few tedious questions. So, I organized my own curriculum. In one part, the delivery vehicle was drama. We stretched sheets across the length of the classroom, and began to write and perform scripts.

I used these scripts, and their repetitious deliveries to teach topics like DNA and protein synthesis, natural selection, and more. While doing that, I discovered that certain pieces of the science were learned well with this method, so this integrated way of teaching started to become a vehicle I used to teach multi-disciplinary units in language, performance arts, and science.

This is beginning to sound ominous! Don’t despair. I did these things because I was comfortable with them. For one thing, I was teaching both language arts and science to this class. Since we were in the same classroom all day, it was an easy thing to do. I can tell you this: If you can find the courage to try to use one piece of the arts and humanities in one science activity, you might discover the strength of this method in helping students understand the concepts they are studying. And, developing critical thinking and executive functions you might not have noticed they carry with them.

Be patient. Let me finish this reminiscence, and we’ll get to the pragmatic details of how you might try one small activity; and assess it. Not long after, I found myself learning what I could of the human brain; how it learns, how it expresses these learnings. This set me on a journey I still travel. An interesting viewpoint on that journey was one where I could see the parts of the brain, and their connections (critical piece there) that were used to conceive a visualization of a piece of art, then execute its expression in the finished piece itself. Contrary to what I’d always assumed, that art and science used different parts of the brain for their work, both used nearly the same parts and their connections. No wonder my tentative attempts to teach art and science together seemed to work! While we isolate and jurisdict the disciplines, the brain does not.

It’s challenging to meet science standards and benchmarks by using the arts and humanities as vehicles for teaching to these standards. The main reason teachers who do this continue the practice is that students’ learnings stay with them. After they take the test, they don’t forget what they have learned. The Seeking System, as described by Jaak Panksepp, is a coordinated effort between the limbic system and the cortex which can lead to conceptual learnings, encourages conceptual learning by engaging learners in an active learning inquiry which builds on students’ curiosity. It’s this state of expectant curiosity which keeps students on-task, seeking an answer, finding out. Like observing paramecia flitting about among algae on a microscope slide. What are they? What are they doing? Where are they going? Curiosity a fair wind which drives their sails, students will devour the books and internet for information they seek.

While this state is initiated in the limbic, a part of the brain which does little thinking, it engages, via prompts from the limbic to the prefrontal cortex (pfc), which processes students’ thoughts, engages critical thinking, brings to working memory in the pfc other relevant information, and performs the executive functions which keep learners on task, following their plan. Learnings there then move back to the cortical regions brought on line, where they become connected; long-term memories, which can be called out via any of the neural circuits brought to the pfc to deal with this new experience.

Let’s look at an activity which incorporates the arts and humanities to drive a science unit in weather. Teachers have used dance to help their students learn the meteorological processes that cause phenomena like Mares’ Tails. You can do the observation any time in the year, then recall it when your class does meteorology. Or, start the dance when you make the observation, and finish in the appropriate unit. When students observe Mares’ Tails, then build a dance around what they have observed, they follow an interesting trail into meteorology to discover the processes involved in producing Mares’ Tails. And, even better, their connection to subsequent weather. Then, students and the teacher can use this newly learned information to better inform the choreography they are constructing.

As they observe and find out about Mares’ Tails, the fact that they are also observing for the clouds’ dynamics will engage the Seeking System in many students; the quest to find out. Engaging the idea of dance and Mares’ Tails will pique the curiosity of others. And, a very nice coincidence, both alert the prefrontal cortex and initiate the critical thinking and executive direction capacities of the brain as they build an abundance of routes to relevant memory, which your students use to move effortlessly through the landmarks delimited in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

While relatively simple, the teaching and learning in an activity like this is challenging for teachers. It is definitely not part of most of our pre-service and in-service professional educations. We all want to teach well, and to understand what and how we are teaching. If, like most Americans, the arts and humanities aren’t an integral part of our teachers’ developmental experience, incorporating them into our teaching is uncomfortable at best. In spite of this, in time, this sort of integrated teaching will have wider acceptance, but just now it seems like an adjunct to most education. I say this: The education establishment in America is woefully unfamiliar with the brain and its processes in learning, and its relationship with the rest of the body currently being described in the area of embodied cognition; the close coupling of processes in the brain and processes in the rest of the body. We need to have the courage to begin to explore this lucrative, brain-based teaching modality. The brain is the organ of learning.

By actively participating in the process of using dance to begin to learn about Mares’ Tails, both teacher and students incorporate the learning in long-term conceptual schemata they will carry with them. This is because the conceptual information they have learned is available via multiple neural pathways; much better than being accessed only by reading a question stem. Both the dance and the science inquiry follow similar trails through the brain. This is in contrast to the effect of relying on what Panksepp terms the limbic’s Fear System; the anxiety of some degree which is associated with learning science facts in order to pass a test. In this case, the information is stored by itself, un-connected to other relevant conceptual information stored elsewhere, and with no connection to the real-world memories produced during active learning. If students are to carry what they learn into their lives, they need to learn it in authentic ways. Seeking’s learnings are remembered; Fear’s are forgotten after the test. This means that the teacher has to be committed to this learning modality. And, committed to taking on only that which she is comfortable with. Should you want to try, but are unsure, you can contact a dance teacher to help, or a colleague who has taken dance. Lots of them around. You could even check a dance studio. Most people who work in the arts and humanities are open to help.

Here is a breakdown of planning steps a hypothetical teacher might take in preparing to deliver the Mares’ Tails meteorology/dance section of a unit on weather. As you read each step, ask yourself if you could do it now. You might surprise yourself.

1) Observe Mares’ Tails; either a serendipitous observation, or consult a meteorologist to find out when to expect them. Difficult until you’ve positively identified one; fun and easy after that. Students can do this as homework, or as a whole class if Mares’ Tails occur during a class. (You may have noticed that weather doesn’t program itself to coordinate with school schedules. Or their needs.)

2) During the observation, have students note any dynamics in the clouds. This is a good time to suggest the idea of clouds dancing.

3) If their interest is piqued, raise the idea of a Mares’ Tail dance; otherwise wait.

4) First approximation of the dance. Note questions which arise within groups.

5) Ask the class what more can they find out about Mares’ Tails. Give them time to find out.

6) Incorporate this information into the choreography. Name the dance’s sections from meterological learnings. (Note: I was feeling creative, in Seeking mode, by this time, and that’s when my pen wrote, “. . . (n)ame the dance’s sections from meteorological learnings.” Words and a visualization just popped up. Evidence my prefrontal cortex was coming on line. One of the things Seeking does.)

7) Perform the dance for an audience, and explain the meteorology; perhaps by dance section.

8) Two assessments or tests: Yours, based on their work; and a standard test from your publisher or the web. Compare results.

9) Assess the project: you, your students, their audience.

10) Write an article for Clearing and send it in!

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.”

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.”

Jim Martin: Is Science Communication?

Jim Martin: Is Science Communication?

Is Science Communication? Can students, moving around and talking, do science?

Ocean Literacy & OCAMP
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

You’re trying to answer a question. Student work groups have designed their own investigations to understand the question, develop inquiries to investigate what they have found and thought about, then present their findings to the other work groups in a symposium. There are many processes going on here. Let’s look at a few as they engage them to see what emerges in addition to discovering and testing possible answers to the original question.

Start small. In groups, you help students learn to communicate effectively. How to say, “Here’s what I think, and why;” and to listen and respond when other group members do the same. This is very basic to developing effective work groups. You have them keep notes on these conversations, and use them to elicit concepts, plan work, etc. (Basic, but essential. They need to know why they think what they do, and make what they think and why clear to others. And to learn to be advised or informed by others in their group.)

When your groups are communicating effectively, you observe for outcomes of their collaborative discussions. Do they understand their data, its patterns, its shape in graphs, etc. Are they showing signs of being able to relate data patterns to their question: Is it answered? What is the convincing evidence? What if the evidence doesn’t support their guesses about the answer to question? Or, does their question itself come into question? Are they becoming less mechanical and more purposeful in their work?

Further questions can move the groups along the learning curve by developing their critical thinking capacities: Are their interpretations of data supported by evidence? How confident are they of their data? Can they explain or justify data interpretations they have made, and their validity? What do their interpretations say about possible next steps?

You can continue to build on this conceptual foundation, each step easier because the foundation is becoming broad and more stable. You have them assess the design of their investigation and interpretations of data: How certain are they that they got the right data and used the best techniques of data acquisition? How certain are they that their data do, in fact, tell them what they need to know? Has their knowledge and expertise increased during this process? How much do they really know? Questions like these will tend to focus their thoughts on how they are learning and doing. Metacognition. Students who know how to learn know how to learn. Communication within effective work groups helps generate this capacity.

When they are ready, you have the groups report in a symposium. This is where their communication skills will be called upon to build conceptual understandings. How familiar are they with their evidence and its interpretation? How well do they comprehend other groups’ data and interpretations? How well do they generalize what they’ve learned and developed about collaborative communication within their work groups? Do they move it outward to carry on effective discussion with all of the work groups in the class? When an entire class develops the capacity to engage in substantive conversation about what they are learning, they’ll learn and nail down more than you could ever teach them using the publishers’ prepared materials and recommendations in the Teachers’ Editions.

Learning about science, but not doing science, does not develop the capacities described here. By only collecting and reporting data, students don’t engage the critical thinking capacities of their brain. I’ve observed science classes in which students looked up the boiling point of a liquid, say water, boiled the liquid and noted that it did boil at that temperature. What do they communicate amongst themselves? Is communication actually involved here? Or, are they simply engaging a perfunctory ritual? Might they have learned more if they had heated 3 or 4 liquids, noted their boiling points (or figured out how they’d know the boiling points, then test that), then looked up boiling points and made a guess about what their liquids were?)

Nor do they develop their capacity for conceptual learning when they simply learn about science, and commit science facts to memory. When students do engage in self-directed inquiries, examine the relevance of their collected data, critique it and the process of collecting it, and formulate interpretations they agree upon, they become involved and invested in the work, and empowered as persons. Engaging life. Engaged students are learning students. What our schools need today.

There’s not a lot of information out there on how to engage this part of teaching. There should be. This kind of work supports critical thinking, so it is of value. Critical thinking uses a part of the cortex that is especially well-organized for conceptual learning. That’s the prefrontal cortex, where relevant information from associative memories throughout the brain are brought together in working memory to nail down this new learning, then send it back out to associative memory; not as a fact to memorize for a test then forget, but as something more akin to common sense – something integrated into associative memory that you ‘just know.’

This critical thinking system turns on when you ask a question that is meaningful to you, and seek an answer to it. Science inquiry is a perfect complement and extension of this cortical learning system. In contrast, learning simply to prepare for a test won’t, of itself, entrain critical thinking. Instead, because of its aversive nature, learning content in order to answer test questions is accompanied by some level of anxiety, and entrains the limbic system, which isn’t good at engaging critical thinking. At least in this context, learning facilitated by anxiety about passing a test.

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) continue to influence teachers’ and students’ experience in school, they present some level of anxiety to many, whether from an unfamiliar expectation for performance, change from structured, curriculum-directed teaching and learning to a more open-ended, active learning model, or from increased paperwork and accounting with no accommodating increase in free time for such work. Anxiety is processed through the limbic system, which impacts how the brain learns; which of its resources are freed for the task. As student and teacher stress levels increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage critical thinking. Instead, the limbic system, busy processing anxiety, increasingly limits communication with the prefrontal cortex, where critical thinking does its work. Instead, learning is limited to simple thoughts, which remain connected solely to the need to pass questions on a test, with little or no integration into associative memory, as occurs in critical thinking.

On the other hand, when students and teachers are free to explore new learnings (which the CCSS and NGSS seem to be interested in), to ask questions and seek answers to them, the limbic system supports this work with a heightened sense of pleasure and excitement, and feelings of well-being and inquisitiveness. And by assuring the doors to the prefrontal cortex are open.The different limbic involvements in learning are entrained by the properties of the learning environment. As they were when our brain evolved in the savannah during the Pleistocene. Might we use that history to revisit how we teach? How we organize student-student interactions while they learn? In the classroom and on-site in the natural world? In these cases, the limbic supports the work of the cortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, where working memory resides, and the brain’s conscious executive functions do their work. Work in which goals direct effort, reasoning and abstract thought are supported, and critical thinking takes place. Where we actively construct knowledge and commit it to long-term associative memory; ask questions, design investigations, develop needs-to-know which drive us into the information we seek, desire to complete and communicate our work.

When we are driven only by anxiety about not being able to answer questions on tests, this wonderful part of our brain is lost to us. The limbic system limits its use, and we simply memorize disconnected bits of information long enough to use them on a test, then forget. Are we teaching for fight or flight, or for higher-order critical thinking?

Used knowledgably, communication as practiced in doing science has the capacity to produce a foundation for critical thinking. By the information it generates, the testing of the information, and its processing and communication, it involves and invests students in critical thinking; in using their prefrontal cortex, its executive and working memory functions. The key feature is that the students, not the teacher, are involved in constructing knowledge. The teacher, while responsible for producing an environment where a constructivist approach to learning will probably happen, becomes a facilitator of their work. A difficult transition for many of us to make. I went into it willingly, but once committed, sorely missed lecturing and wowing students with the wondrous things I could show them in the lab. In spite of this, when I would pull out my old lesson plans, it would be immediately clear to me that this constructivist model was much, much more effective and empowering. And I eventually discovered this was because it used those sites and connections in the brain which were organized to engage conceptual learning. Something my pre-service and graduate education in teaching never addressed. It should have. Had it, and we learned as our brain is organized to learn, we just might have learned well.

Communication, when it is substantive, has the capacity to facilitate critical thinking. It does this by requiring us to consider what we are saying and doing, which is a readily useable road to the prefrontal cortex and working memory. Sort of like working in a shared workspace, a place with all the resources and facilities you need to focus on what you are learning, and the executive capacity to follow up on what you have learned.

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.”