Developing Questioning Strategies: Learning to become a science teacher

Developing Questioning Strategies: Learning to become a science teacher

“All anyone really needs is a coal bin and a friend.”

By Jim Martin

A storm of children, shouts, swirling bodies, and dust swept me out of the yard. Up the street, neighborhood kids whirled around some coal bins between two wartime shipyard houses. I can see and hear them now, the kids, a bicycle, the coal bins, the houses and trees behind them, the noise. Propelled toward them by their intense energy, I became madly aware that they were riding a bicycle. I wanted to ride too. This was 1947; kids didn’t have bikes during the war, and few had them now, two years after the armistice.

Nor were there such things as training wheels. Getting onto a 26-inch bike with a running start was so intimidating that I had shrunk from attempting it. But this day was different. Kids were riding the bike by balancing themselves between two coal bins which were set about three feet apart, making a narrow chute. They would put the bike in the chute, climb onto a coal bin, lower themselves onto the pedals, scoot out to the edge of the bin, push off, and ride! This, I saw so clearly, I could do.

I ran up the street and begged for a turn, mounted, scooted out, pushed off and rode in a large circle in the driveway, lost my balance, fell sideways, caught myself and the bike before we both fell to the ground, stood up and wheeled it to the next kid in line. I had done it! You could, too, with a little help from a coal bin and encouragement from your friends.

The coal bin gave me just that bit of support and encouragement that I had lacked. With it, riding a 26-inch bicycle became something I could do. And I did.
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The thought of teaching science can be as intimidating for many teachers as the thought of riding a bike was for me. We all experience a sense of uneasiness when we try something new. This is how we overcome inertia in the face of what we perceive as difficult. I call these hesitations in the face of something new “twinges of doubt.” When I first began teaching, I had a twinge of doubt that I’d understand the biological concepts I’d learned well enough to teach them. Doubt dissolved as soon as I engaged a familiar content; but the fact that the twinge was experienced is significant. If, having a strong background and interest in biology, I felt it, what must an elementary teacher, with little or no background or experience feel? Science has so much content, so many facts. How can we possibly master the subject well enough to teach it? Well, we don’t need to master science in order to teach it. What we need is to experience how science works. Knowing how science works, believe it or not, makes teaching science doable, it builds a sense of self confidence, a sense that this bicycle is not a formidable adversary; it can be ridden, it is fun to do. How do you gain the confidence it takes to enjoy teaching science? First, climb the coal bin; learn what science is. Science isn’t books of facts; it is a cognitive kinesthetic process, a way of knowing, a way of organizing our thoughts and action. Science as process produces facts, but it is not the facts themselves. Here are four basic pieces of process science that you can try today:  1) ask a question,  2) decide how to answer it,  3) follow through on this decision, and  4) compare the results of following through with the question you asked. This is manageable, and, with a little support, you can do it. Here’s how:

1. Find the coal bin (a question). Take a first step; ask a question answerable by an observation. No one will see you or know that you are taking a personal risk. Our environment is more familiar to us, so let’s try it first. Go outside and try one of these:

Pigeons – where do they spend most of their time? How do they spend their time?

Ants – where do they go? Do they all travel in the same direction? Do the same thing?

Squirrels – how close can you get to them before they run away? (Notice that you can answer these question just by looking, which is making an observation). Pick one of these simple questions, choose one of your own, or substitute the subjects of your observations for, say, pill bugs, potato bugs, spider webs, weeds, and so forth, then continue reading.

2. Scoot out to the edge of your question. First, make a guess about what you will find out. If you are looking at ants, make a guess about where their main door is, or in which direction the majority of those near the door are traveling. Decide what you will look for. For instance, the number of ants who enter and leave the door. Rite this down. We don’t write enough. Humans clarify their thoughts by writing, acting, or drawing them. Our written expressions become records of the thoughts we all too easily forget. This is important; you must articulate your simple plan of action. Science is a wonderful vehicle for delivering critical thinking. Critical thinking happens best when we write out our thoughts. It is a formal commitment of our thoughts to paper. Now, put this article down and go out, follow your directions, and observe for ten minutes. Write down what you see, one minute at a time. Just ten minutes. Easy

3.  Push off (follow up on your question). Go back to the classroom and put the results of your ten-minute observation on the board. Do this as a visual: a picture, a graph, a diagram, etc. Mak it into a representation of what you saw, and which makes sense to you. Ask yourself how to put the results up so they tell you whether you’ve answered your question. Discuss these results with yourself, or call in a friend or colleague. Better yet, discuss your results with a student. Did your observations answer your question? What did they tell you about the animals you observed? What did you learn about the process of observation itself? Did you find it necessary to change your observational plan? Did you find you had to change what you meant by, say, moving in a particular direction? Think about this and thin about the phrase, “science as process.”

4.  And Ride. What questions or ideas does the information on the board raise? How about your observations; did they raise any questions or ideas? Pick one of these to follow up. Write it down. Decide how to organize your observations, then go out again. (This time, you might invite your students. Dangerously close to curriculum now.) Make your observations, post and review your results, discuss their implications, raise questions. If your review the list in the previous sentence, you will notice that the words in the list name processes. Do you recognize any pattern in how these processes are applied? Can you add any to the list? Notice that, in seeking an answer to a question, you end up asking more questions. You’ve been paid compound interest on a small investment in critical thinking! What an investment opportunity for your students!

Nail down what you’ve learned so far. Describe to yourself what you can do now that you couldn’t do before. Describe what you know about the subject of your observations. Did you acquire new facts? (These are the facts of your science curriculum. These facts your students should, and will, remember because they make sense.) Describe how your experiences and understanding might fit into an integrated curriculum. Write these descriptions out. If you have done this with your class, then you can look back and recognize that you’ve generated a piece of your own curriculum. Go to the standards and see if you have addressed any of them. Did you address any in Mathematics? Social Studies? Language? Art? Music? Share your experiences by submitting an article to Clearing. Make a presentation of your experiences at the next science teachers conference. Nentor another teacher. Celebrate. You’ve begun a process which has no end.

This article is reprinted from Issue 96 of Clearing Magazine, and is also found in The Best of Clearing, Volume V.

—Jim Martin has retired from a long career as a science educator in which he taught at every grade level from elementary through college, and as a teacher trainer for the Center for Science Education at Portland State University. He also served as president of the Environmental Education Association of Oregon.


Preparing Teachers to Teach About Sustainability

Recently Gregory Smith, Professor in the Lewis and Clark College Graduate School of Education and Counseling, received a $19,380 grant from the Gray Family Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to train teachers in the West Linn (OR) School District on environmental issues. The Environmental Education Program seeks to encourage a strong local land ethic, sustainable communities, and stewardship of the natural environment by citizens throughout Oregon. The Fund is committed long term to institutionalizing a series of age-appropriate experiences that build a sense of place and responsibility towards Oregon and the region.

The Sustainability Education Initiative is a program of professional development coursework and activities for K-12 teachers in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. During three courses offered in 2009, Smith prepared 50-60 teachers to incorporate sustainability issues into their classrooms and help them implement school or community projects that will enhance local natural and social environments. Participants will be eligible for small seed grants to fund start-up projects. The grant aims to increase the number of teachers implementing sustainability projects in schools, and increase student and educator awareness of local natural systems, ecologies, and social needs.

Teaching Teachers in a Learning Garden: Two Metaphors

Teaching Teachers in a Learning Garden: Two Metaphors


by Veronica Gaylie
University of British Columbia


There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.grow wild according to thy nature…let the thunder rumble…take shelter under the cloud…Enjoy  the land, but own it not. (Henry David Thoreau, From Walden)

How does eco-centred teacher education promote ecological ideals while transforming the teacher training process? How can a campus garden engage student teachers in environmental philosophy while promoting new metaphors for eco-centred practice?

One response to these inquiries was to build a campus “Learning Garden,” a model school garden and learning site for student teachers. Through research, physical labour and collaborative learning, the garden grew as a narrative where students learned to become teachers with heart, and earth, in mind. The Learning Garden also exposed new teachers to a concept of the land as both a physical space and an experiential learning process, concepts involving responsible land management, risk taking and community commitment.

BoxBuildingA community learning model, with garden work at the core, promoted local and global knowledge of drought, food systems and farming practices; the model inspired students to want to acquire such knowledge and experience in the first place. The garden shifted learner awareness from personal achievement to the environment itself: from student stewardship of the garden to the impact of that stewardship beyond the garden and into the world. The garden challenged assumptions of ‘teacher success’ and also some of the ideals of environmental education. It was especially the challenges that helped realign ideals and exposed students to the unpredictable processes of both teaching and the natural world.

The critical challenges of teaching teachers in the garden can be described through two metaphors: garden as (physical) environment and garden as community. The garden as environment, a literal outdoor space, involved awareness of local climate conditions and the necessity for drought tolerant plants and native species. An awareness of the garden as environment also promoted concepts of ecological and social justice, with, for example, the decision to donate produce from the garden to the local food bank.  In the garden as community, student teachers learned the importance of respecting and interacting with their location; the learning garden was (and continues to be) strongly influenced by local Okanagan Tradition, which challenged a focus on individual achievement common to most academic programming. In this way, the garden, both as physical space and as a conceptual model, also challenged the roots of teacher training.

SchoolKidsSchool Gardens in the Context of Environmental Education

David Orr (2004) calls for the integration of environmental education across the curriculum, and a Science curriculum linked to history, environmental ethics, citizenship, Globalization and first hand awareness of how scientific knowledge affects the world outside the classroom. Such a curriculum supports the belief that “…knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world.” (13)

Other environmental writings (Bowers 2006, Shiva 2005) discuss the reclamation of public space as a way of developing socially engaged, knowledgeable communities.  Shiva discusses ‘living democracies’ that promote biodiversity, local action, and ‘reinventing citizens’ and provide a solution to monoculture and socio-economic injustice. (84)

Researchers also outline the need for practical and critical understandings in school gardens and the need to examine concepts such as direct food, globalization and anthropocentric learning models. Such a need can be realized through teacher education that supports critical, eco-centred concepts with first hand experience of land and food. The garden provides a place where students can consider, up close, the threats to local food sources through global agri-business, the commoditization of a basic life source (land and seeds), and various forms of embedded knowledge that contribute to ecological damage. As gardens grow in North American schools, teacher education must prepare future teachers in critical, eco-centred methods and philosophy while exposing  them to tangible, contextual awareness of the learning process itself.

Garden as Environment

Work in the garden began with an Environmental Education class made up of student teachers and practicing teachers. While we weeded, we considered some conceptual approaches to guide the garden: sustainability (passing on the garden to future learners); interdisciplinary learning (connected learning); hands-on learning (learning by doing); xeriscape as alternative to green lawns (responding to local water issues); organic (a contextual awareness of our surroundings as ecological systems); aboriginal traditions (community minded teaching and learning); rotating stewardship (respect for future groups in the garden).  The means of developing the garden’s principles were also meant to create a tradition of discussion that would be passed on to future groups, who could discuss, change, solve or adapt the founding principles.  The basic plan was for a food/drought tolerant/flower mix that would create a blend of “beauty” and “use” while showing how native, non-native and invasive species responded to drought. If the flowers and vegetables withered due to a water shortage, and the xeriscape plants lived, students would have a visual example of the effects of drought. The plan was not to create a showcase of local plant life but to support a learning process where mistakes could bring understanding. This would be a valuable, difficult lesson for new teachers.

The idea of a “Learning Garden” took hold and local businesses eagerly made donations.  The first donation was from a local lumber yard which donated one thousand dollars of red cedar for raised  garden beds, with promises of supplying more at wholesale prices. Other local businesses in the small community recognized that their own children, and family members, would benefit from school gardens.

With so much imported produce in local grocery stores, most of it hauled by truck North on one highway, the students considered the value of maintaining local farms as a means of challenging global food trade. What were the land ethics, the issues of eco-justice involved in building large scale, permanent condo developments on fertile agricultural? What was the connection between a local garden and globalized food ethics?  How could students involve themselves in this knowledge by learning and working in school gardens?

The students engaged in conversations around the larger context of their  local work, providing a practical context for their readings in Globalization from previous course work and personal interest.  While students thought of innovative ways to bring this knowledge to their own classrooms, the method of linking local and global concepts through hands-on learning would challenge teacher education focused on performance standards, organizational abilities and classroom management. By learning in the garden, and in considering the role of the garden in the local and global agricultural community, students began challenging their own teacher training.

PondThe Pond

The garden is located next to a pond filled with a variety of migratory ducks, red-winged blackbirds and other wildlife. One early idea was to use the pond to water the garden, using a pump.

What was the environmental impact of draining the pond? How did we interfere with goals for long term, sustainable land and water use by removing water from the pond? Why was our first impulse in moving toward sustainable land management to destroy it? What previous learning had lead us to seek short term gains, while destroying other life forms?  Leaving the pond alone seemed like an obvious, ecoliterate choice; however the process of coming to this decision was our first instance where a practical need lead directly to questions of environmental ethics. The shift from seeking solutions to asking questions about ecological justice began with contextual awareness, occurring organically within community, within the decision making process itself. Students learned that eco-centred decisions require a constant, conscious effort to weigh the ecological impact of human actions within an ethical framework of ecological justice.

A second example of contextualized decision making occurred when the students developed their garden design plans. The designs were placed on a screen in the classroom, and included a mix of hand-drawn symbols, squares, circles, combined with computer generated garden designs.  One design clearly stood out: it was irregularly shaped, with the exterior parameter of the garden bulging into and oddly shaped arc.  This design was in the actual, irregular shape of the land itself, with areas drawn for garden beds which lead out from a (natural, tree-shaded) classroom area to the composter and soil areas. The plan was organic, irregular, and fit the imperfectly shaped land perfectly. The students were beginning to work with the land by listening to the land itself.

PIC_0379Garden as Community

A community model of teaching and learning grows from school gardens. Instead of prizing ‘ownership’ of land or ideas, the learning garden was focused on an ideal of shared local knowledge. The new cohort of students typically wanted a quick, practical route to becoming teachers. Most of the students had recently completed four year undergraduate degrees in single teaching specialties; they were conditioned by an academic system of independent achievement and individualized recognition. Students emerged from academic undergraduate conditioning and most wanted to know instead of learn in a learning garden. When I told the students they would be developing curricula, methods and lesson plans around native plants, global education, local food and other eco-centred issues, a handful seemed interested.  One student told me: “I hate nature.”  During the second garden cohort, ideals for an eco-centred, community model of teacher education seemed at odds with a college system biased towards grades and individual stamina and success. In Spring, a dedicated group of the middle school cohort, post-practicum, continued building the infrastructure of the garden by building up the soil and designing the beds. We learned of a plan to drain the pond to make way for the new business/engineering building.  Our very presence seemed to challenge the land development that suddenly surrounded us on campus. When I told the students, they wondered how a campus that prides itself on ‘sustainability’ could consider removing a pond. The argument for removing the pond was that the pond was man-made, and therefore not ‘natural.’

The water issue found us taking personal responsibility for decisions  which would have a lasting impact. Our first lesson in making positive, conscious decisions for the garden, taught us the importance of listening to all members before making decisions. The land taught us to stay still. And listen.

The students and I were suddenly aware of the power structures that surrounded us. One student offered to live in a raft on the pond in order to save it from destruction.  At this time, we learned the challenges of building eco-centred community within previous, existing models of learning.  We experienced the growing pains of eco-centred teacher education; their academic, undergraduate education had not nurtured a collaborative learning model and, through eco-centred teacher education, the students and I learned, with some difficulty, how to build community from scratch.

What is the role of a teacher educator in guiding student teachers toward community based, eco-centred learning? Planning the garden, then planning and replanting the garden during the second teacher education cohort, brought forward the importance of process. Nurturing plants from seedlings, observing their growth, at the same time students and teachers learn from the garden, is a powerful way to help future teachers learn how to learn. Initial reluctance largely gave way when students worked together to apply their knowledge. I observed how problems resolve with the literal manifestation of abstract plans and knowledge. If, for example, a student wants to plant a rose, instead of native, drought-tolerant plants, a prolonged, decontextualized discussion could ensue in a classroom environment.  In the garden, however, it is obvious that a rose in our local climate requires a lot of water and care.  Is the student willing to provide that? Is a rose practical in a desert landscape? What are the cultural assumptions that lead the students to believe a rose is ‘beautiful’ if it uses one hundred percent more water than a local plant, such as an Oregon grape? For students new to a garden, learning does not lie in certainty, but in mistakes, and in defying preconditioned notions of learning.

BigGardenDuring the first year, threats to the garden community (physical, ethical, external, internal) all somehow related to concepts of individual ownership. In a western model of education, it seems that just as people care about land, they also want to control it.  The experience of the garden as a co-operative, shared model of learning made us aware of land models based on ownership and profit. Building the garden made visible the larger learning community, and prompted new understandings of the role of teacher education within that model. Is the role of a teacher educator simply to teach students how to exert control over all other natural species, including their students?  As Wendell Berry (2002) states, a community “…must change in response to its own changing needs and local circumstance, not in response to motives, powers, or fashions coming from elsewhere.” (163)  When learning supports peace, community, and environmental awareness, new values emerge that help learners make ecologically just decisions that challenge ingrained learning patterns. In this way, a garden challenges teacher education at its very roots.

“Hope Trumping Despair”

The story of the learning garden is about the impact of local, small scale actions on larger systems.  One school garden, with sometimes just a single teacher’s involvement, can produce far reaching effects.

Garden-based teacher education puts the ideals of environmental education into practice. Conceptualizing new forms of eco-centred teacher education also helps remove the myth of control and knowledge “ownership” for new teachers. It would be impossible for one person to build and maintain a school garden, and it would be purposeless, since land cultivation is always rooted in a process of shared knowledge. A school garden is always, simultaneously, environment and community.

BuildingStairsAs David Orr and others have stated, while it is vital to inform students of the scientific facts about environment, it is even more important to change the ways of living and thinking that have contributed to environmental destruction. Working in the garden teaches teachers to approach the land in the same way they might approach their students, taking a holistic, process-oriented approach. Such a community depends on individuals succeeding within and for the survival of the community; in working the land, students see how their efforts helped the land produce at a level that is sustainable, in context, with minimal impact on surroundings. In a garden, students are not silenced into discipline or disciplined into silence; the reasons for both talk and silence are apparent. Community becomes both the process and goal of learning. As taught in aboriginal Tradition, a garden teaches young people to also learn ‘how our actions are always tied to others, and how some actions disappoint and hurt.’ (Armstrong et al. 2000)

Beginning with visions and ideals about the land and learning, the students teachers and I grew alongside the garden: unpredictably, in the context of organic life. A garden reveals how the process of learning, rooted in the context of one’s surroundings, becomes the lesson itself. To learn in a garden with students is to be in a constant state of environmental and community activism. As veteran social activist Grace Lee Boggs states, a community garden is a sign of “hope trumping social despair” at the grass roots level where we ‘regain our humanity in practical ways.’

Veronica Gaylie, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, has worked as a high school English teacher and is now a teacher educator in interdisciplinary, ecology-based learning. She is the founder of the learning garden at UBC Okanagan.

Lasting Change: Teacher Driven Place-based Education on the Colorado Plateau

Lasting Change: Teacher Driven Place-based Education on the Colorado Plateau

Teachers consult a map during their place-based project in Colorado.

Teachers consult a map during their place-based project in Colorado.

by Deanna Erickson

Learning from the Land
Anyone who has traveled through the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States will remember it distinctly as a place like no other.  Towns are scarce, rivers are legendary and rocks seem to bend and twist toward a sky filled with harsh clear light. This is the Colorado Plateau, a region as marked by its geography as by its inhabitants.  The land of the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo and Hopi, colonized by the pioneers, now includes a disparate mix of ranchers, miners, river runners, and migrants who landed here out of a general longing for vast and wild places.  Gifted (or some would say cursed) with more National Parks then anywhere else in the country, Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas and vast tracts of National Forest, an inhabitant of the Colorado Plateau can hardly deny the significance of this unusual place.

In the middle of the Colorado Plateau, grappling with the wilderness and the human diversity, sits the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education.  Since 1984, this small non-profit has quietly been connecting people with the land, fulfilling its’ mission of creating lifelong learning experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service,  adventure, and conservation programs. Janet Ross, the Executive Director,  founded the program after falling for the Plateau as an undergrad at Prescott College in Arizona. Originally, the school focused on programs dubbed “Southwest Edventures,” consisting of rollicking river trips, guided canyon hikes, and days spent tracing the rocky path of the Puebloan ancestors often referred to as the Anasazi.

Photo by Deanna Erickson

Photo by Deanna Erickson

In the late 1990’s, the outdoor industry began to set up shop on the Plateau. Big tour operators, with their heavyweight marketing tactics, made it clear that Four Corners School and its non-profit budget would need an alternate means of accomplishing its mission. In 1997, Ross, with her decades of experience in outdoor education, went to public school districts and simply asked them what they needed. Was it field trips? Trainings? Guided tours?  The feasibility study lasted a year and interviews were conducted with superintendents, principals and teachers representing every school on the Colorado Plateau.

This is what the schools said: Field trips are one-shot wonders. The kids have a positive experience, but the long-term effect is limited and the input of resources is draining.  Bring us a program that trains our teachers in outdoor education so that we can learn where we live. Our backyards are a potential classroom. Let’s take our students there.