Thursday, 27 June 2013

BBQ Chicken sticks and Teaching as Inquiry

I have always looked at my teaching practice through my research-trained/problem-solver eyes, and only this year have I realised this is a big part of what Teaching as Inquiry is. However, sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day management of classes and workload, and it takes someone else observing your practice to remind and prompt you back into problem-solving mode. I really value my teaching being observed, and try to positively take on board feedback and more importantly act upon it (otherwise what is the point?) I also have to remind myself that while I set high standards for myself, I am just completing my second year out from TCol, and it takes time to incorporate all these wonderful and effective approaches and strategies into my normal/routine teaching practice.

A teacher friend mentioned a strategy to me earlier in the year regarding questioning techniques, and while I had such good intentions of incorporating it, I started this term with a couple of big things to introduce (SOLO taxonomy and Edmodo), and this idea was shelved away on one of my to-do lists.

Feedback from my latest observation was that while my questioning and discussion with the class was good, I was relying too heavily on the same students to answer my questions and drive the discussions, and there were some students that perhaps felt they could 'opt out' of class discussions because I wasn't calling on them enough to participate. I knew this, but the drive to get through content meant I was taking the first hands up to speed up our progress.

This prompted me to introduce the aforementioned technique to improve engagement of all students in my classes, and ramp up the accountability of all students.

The idea is a very simple one called popsicle sticks, whereby each student has their name written on a popsicle stick within a jar, and as questions are asked, their names are drawn at random - they don't feel I'm picking on anyone - and they have to attempt an answer. If they really can't answer (as I said to them, "we're not playing who wants to be a millionaire - there isn't that kind of pressure!"), then they can say they don't know, but (thanks to another idea I read ('no opt out': ), they have to finish by coming back to you with the answer, even if it involves getting another student to help build the answer (perhaps I could introduce this as the "phone a friend" segment of questioning?!). I remove the stick from the jar once they have answered a question, and only place them all back once everyone has had a question, even if that is spread over a couple of lessons. (This is something else to ponder though - do the students who have already answered questions then relax back and disengage because they know they won't be called again?)

I was transparent in introducing the technique to my classes, explaining that I was relying too heavily on the same students again and again, and although there was some groaning about it at first, I really believe that the quieter students felt more empowered to answer questions when they were called on, rather than having to overcome their quietness by actively putting themselves out there by volunteering an answer (although that is where I hope this will eventually lead). I made the whole thing lighter in tone, by admitting my inability to actually find popsicle sticks, and instead having to use the cocktail-type sticks you use for BBQ chicken etc at parties ;)

I asked one of my classes afterwards how they felt about it, and there were positive responses from both my 'usual suspects' and my quiet ones, which was reassuring. More importantly, I have found the engagement level of all of my students has increased, even although it may be by forced accountability, and it's such an easy thing to incorporate into my teaching that I know this is something I will continue to do for every class.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Comfort zones vs Learning zones

I'm a big believer in comfort zones and more importantly, pushing your way through them and into the unknown. I am an introvert by nature, and it is only through forcing myself into situations that I'm not completely comfortable with that I have really grown as a person. My self-confidence has been boosted, I've done things and gone places I never would have imagined. So yes, leaving the comfort zone is good.

However, I was recently at a gathering of Educators, and someone brought up the idea that our students should always be slightly uncomfortable in class so as to learn more effectively. This completely challenged my idea of how I aim for my classroom environment/vibe to be. My initial response was to think: No! Students need to feel comfortable in order to ask those questions they think other people may not value, and to believe that the other people in the room will support their learning. How can you really believe that as a student if you are feeling on edge and have different (stress?) brain chemistry going on? Was the person suggesting that the uncomfortableness should come from the environment of the classroom, or more from the content/thinking/context?

And then I took a step back and really tried to challenge my own thinking (it's quite a confronting thing to do!) Perhaps my reaction was solely based on my own personal experiences of the difference between choosing to go outside my comfort zone when I felt it was required by the situation or by some inner drive, compared to when I was forced outside my comfort zone by other people's actions. Also by what my different reactions were based on how far beyond my comfort zone I went.

I enjoy and thrive on my experiences when I have chosen to let go of those things that are familiar and safe, but I can feel resentful, annoyed and on edge when other people make that decision for me. But maybe that's not the case for everyone? Perhaps I even misinterpreted what was said, or what the intent of the statement was?

My roundabout thinking finally brought me back to the realisation that I personally cannot learn unless I feel comfortable. I can certainly grow as a person, but I struggle to take in facts, consolidate understanding and draw connections between ideas unless I'm relaxed and comfortable. Because I want my classrooms to be as much about me learning from my students, as them from me, I therefore require my classrooms to have a comfortable vibe where students feel safe and supported and their brains can engage without being in 'fight or flight' mode.*

However, I realised that feeling comfortable on a personal level is completely separate to the kind of environment that my brain best functions in.

My research suggested that learning best takes places in a zone somewhere between comfort and panic, called the learning/stretch zone.

So maybe this is what I'm aiming for (and hope that I do most of the time!) Provide a learning atmosphere that is mentally stimulating, mentally challenging, mentally outside of their thinking comfort zones, but still within an environment in which they feel unthreatened on a personal level. This has also made me reflect that I do nudge students beyond their comfort zones in terms of their learning experiences, but I always try and maintain the good relationship that we have so they feel anchored. I instinctively push my thinking beyond what I read on the page, but not all students can do this yet. If I left them to wallow in their true comfort zones, they would spend the lesson texting and gossiping (well some of them would anyway!)

So, I am grateful for views that seem to oppose my own, because firstly, life would be so boring if we all thought the same way; and secondly, when I use these opposing views to challenge my own thinking (rather than just dismissing them out of hand), it opens up doorways into learning about new aspects of my own practice. In this case, although I initially disagreed with what was said, that "students should always feel a little uncomfortable", I really just needed to clarify and expand my understanding.

(I realise too that sometimes I'm late to the party of certain aspects of educational research, but I've decided that coming to a way of thinking prior to stumbling across the research that supports the view is a good opposed to looking at it as me re-inventing the wheel! Ever the optimist.)

*Fight or flight......
From a biology perspective, when animals are in threatening situations, the adrenaline starts pumping, heart rate increases and a lot of other physiological factors come into play which result in a stress to the body. Life is stressful enough for teenagers! They don't need a stressful classroom environment on top of things... so the push into the learning zone needs to be a gentle one, where they feel supported, but their thinking is stretched and challenged.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Real science-land and skills

The fluoride debate in the media at the moment (in relation specifically to the Hamilton council deciding to remove fluoridation from the city water supply) has reminded me why we as science teachers have the potential to play a vital role.

It is not enough to simply teach pre-determined science content to our young people any more.

We must teach them the skills to be scientifically-minded, responsible consumers of digital technology. We must teach science to them in authentic ways that resonate with them, and make a difference in how they view the world. It is not enough to teach them as if we lived in (as I call it) "perfect science land" where every experiment works and all theories are apparent and obvious, and nothing is laborious and repetitive.... and you simply have to persevere until your research provides the long-awaited-for fruition. They need to see a glimpse of what 'real' science is like and that good research and scientific findings take time and effort.

These students have a huge amount of content and resources at their fingertips, but we have to provide the context of the content and show them how to use the skills to best utilise the content.

These are young people that have grown up as digital natives, surrounded by the internet, and yet for the most part these young people do not approach the constant flow of information they receive with caution or wariness; it seems more often that they blindly trust anything their friends link to on facebook.

Recently, in a class discussion on nutrition within a Human Body unit I was doing with a year 10 class, a student earnestly told me that fast food was bad because (wait for it!).... they put fish genes into their chicken burgers. What's worse is that no-one in the class questioned the statement - they all looked horrified and were no doubt gearing up to tell more of their friends later.

Now I grew up with urban legends about fast food outlets, but they remained just that - urban legends. With the internet now such a omnipresent force, these once urban legends spread (and these 14 year olds are not exactly checking on first!) and become somehow more believable because they are on a website somewhere.

The student had not considered what her statement even meant, simply that it sounded shocking enough to tell others as a party trick. The how's or why's went unthought of. I explained that as a researcher, it had taken months of writing applications to the relevant government bodies and an awful lot of funding to even import a genetically modified organism into the country, and there was strict control about exactly where this organism could be used and stored..... but apparently all you need is the kitchen of a fast food outlet and you can somehow shove fish genes into burgers! And it was a given that these imaginary fish genes were of course harmful. The idea that you consume fish genes every time you eat fish also hadn't occurred. (I did inform the student in a gentle way, getting them to come to the alternative, more likely conclusion by themselves, but inside I was horrified that an otherwise pretty clued-up 14 year old could think this way - my naivety perhaps!?)

Regardless, it is our role as science teachers to guide these impressionable students into becoming scientifically-minded, objective (and dare I say, slightly cynical) thinkers. They need to understand the difference between sciencey-sounding writings on a random blog and the scientific findings published in a peer-reviewed journal. They need to be able to take a wide-range of information and draw their own well-thought-out conclusions. In this age of instant gratification, the correct answers are not always the ones we come to first, and real science can take time and deep thinking about issues.

I want my students to leave school with the ability to question material that they read; to ask the why's and how's; to take their time in coming to a truly informed decision - one where they have considered both sides of an argument and looked deeper for the real science behind the presented facts, an informed decision where they see where the bias and vested interest is and take that into account, an informed decision where they look past the pseudoscientific language that is so often thrown around and in reality means nothing.

They also need to have the basic knowledge to interpret those findings, to understand what the language means and to know where they can go to reliably further inform themselves.

I want my students to be informed, responsible consumers of and contributors to the internet age and to make scientifically-sound decisions based not on the random ramblings of someone who is inherently anti-science and pro-conspiracy theories. To give them an insight into the efforts and diligence that go into science research. And to me, that is where the future of teaching science lies.
Further thinking: I want to clarify that I still believe there is a place for science content being taught - there are so many aspects of science that need to be explicitly explained and demonstrated so as to avoid the misconceptions that students so often have, and teachers are in the position of being able to see where to build the scaffolding and how to allow the students to understand. However, this alone is not enough; we must teach them the skills and context to properly understand and value the content, and more importantly, we must teach them to question the content, including what we teach them!

I'm also aware that ranting is not enough.... blog post to come on what I am doing to put my thoughts into action...