Rebooting the Science Classroom
I have been a part of collaborative conversations among different groups of colleagues where this question keeps surfacing : What kind of school do we return to? Do we return to what we have always done? Or, do we take what we’ve learned in a very atypical situation and rebuild something better than what existed before? At the risk of being overly obvious, this past school year was anything but "traditional". In that, we discovered many traditional instructional tactics and strategies didn't hold up, especially when it came to science instruction. The toolbox containing sit and get, lecture, worksheets and vocabulary lists did not serve students, nor teachers, very well. It was just as disengaging remotely as it was in-person and because the expectation of deep learning is not present in those tactics, compliance could not endure. It hasn't for quite some time, but that was masked in ways that could not be hidden during the pandemic. Jennifer Gonzalez, known for her work on The Cult of Pedgagogy, recently wrote:
"The kind of teaching that was happening in a lot of schools was only “working” because the kids were physically in front of us, so most of the kids, most of the time, did what we told them to do. It was a tacit agreement made between educators and families all over the world: You send us your kids, they sit in our schools for seven hours a day and do what we tell them to do, and we’ll give them good enough grades to pass. There was no guarantee under this system that they were actually learning. And there was also, DEFINITELY, no guarantee that they would ever be excited about it." --Jennifer Gonzalez, “The Easy Button” (The Cult of Pedagogy)
It speaks of this tacit, contractual agreement that is rooted in compliance over student engagement. When we think about it, this has largely been the case in our educational system since the 1700's. Students come to school, sit in their seats (often in rows), memorize facts, take tests, are awarded letters and numbers to quantify their achievement, move on and we repeat. The inception of the NGSS has re-established and ushered in the notion students are capable of far greater than we could ever imagine when we: (1) provide them the opportunities to explore phenomena, (2) pursue authentic questions, (3) engage in science and engineering practices with meaning and context and (4) demonstrate their learning in unique ways that embrace equity and student choice. That is the essence of what 3-dimensional learning and the NGSS demands. It's the reason it exists.
That said, the traditional tactics and strategies didn't hold up when the school environment changed. The primitive teacher toolbox was specific to one type of learning environment. School, and subsequently learning, happened from approximately 7:30am - 2:30pm. Students punched in, punched out and that was it - a tacit, contractual agreement. So, if the traditional strategies fell apart during the pandemic, why would we go back to what we know doesn't work? Would we not want to go back to something better?
To me, this seems like very fertile ground for motivating shifts in practice. In order to redefine learning, especially in terms of what it means to learn science, the high-impact tactics and strategies have to transcend the physical environment. In other words, when we engage students meaningfully in exploring and making sense of the world around them, it doesn't matter where they are physically located because the things that we know impact learning aren't restricted to a time frame or building. We saw many wonderful examples of this during the pandemic where students were engaging in science learning outside school walls, and for many of them, this was the first time their educational experience allowed them to. In that sense, when we embrace high-impact strategies and tactics (Driving Question Boards, coherent lesson sequences, 3-dimensional assessment, authentic use of the Science and Engineering Practices, etc.) learning can happen anywhere, any time because we are building student proficiency in exploring the natural world, asking questions about it, pursuing those questions and developing explanatory reasoning. We are not building proficiency in using science words or reading a number on a graduated cylinder. Instead, we are building proficiency in being a learner.
What does this mean for us? What does this mean for the future? It means that we are in the middle of the largest educational experiment that has happened in human history and we have a responsibility to figure out how we move forward. We learned that some things fell apart and some things held together. We also learned that because traditional elements of school crumbled in many ways, so did some of our students. We saw some students struggle immensely. We saw families struggle to help their students. We saw schools struggle to help their families. BUT, (there is a big "but") not all students struggled...only some.
We actually saw some students do very well. Some students excelled more in the remote environment, for one reason or another. Sometimes those reasons were social or emotional and not having to deal with the daily social consequences of being unique among peers was a relief. Some students don't like populous settings, have social anxiety, are less distracted, and thus, more productive at home. Some students are very autonomous and task-oriented, so they thrive when given a list of objectives and more than one day to complete them. So, the question becomes... when the learning environment changed, what made the students who thrived different from the ones who struggled? What made some students more academically resilient and have more stamina, while others could not seem to manage their time or had dozens of missing assignments? Even if parents were unemployed or there were 4 children in the home all remote learning simultaneously, I would argue the things that made students successful include characteristics such as: flexibility, self-regulation, growth mindset, composure, confidence, efficacy, future thinking, coping strategies, emotional regulation, metacognition, among others. (Sulla, N., Schools and the Next Horizon, 2021). You don't have to look much further than the architecture of 3-dimensional learning and the demands of the Next Generation Science Standards to observe how each of those are cultivated in a classroom where students are highly engaged in pursuing authentic questions rooted in explanatory phenomena. Those are elements of agency that are built through carefully constructed lessons, have appropriate scaffolds and invite ALL students to the table to engage in learning.
Also happening concurrently is teachers are craving professional development on the topics of social-emotional learning and trauma-informed approaches to teaching. Why is that? I believe it is because teachers are attuned to what I described above - that students who demonstrate academic resilience and stamina do so because they possess a social/emotional skill set that separates them from their peers. Somehow, they have an uncanny ability to self-regulate, manage their time, focus on the task at hand, be flexible when necessary and still perform at their greatest potential. That is likely because they learned to do so. Those are not innate qualities born into you on day one of your life. They are learned over time. I believe this is what we dream for our children. Regardless of what percentage of our students pursue careers in science-related fields, I would argue 100% of them will need to be able to self-regulate, manage their time, focus on the task at hand and be flexible when necessary to perform at their greatest potential.
Are we always thrilled when a student wants to pursue a career in science or follow in our footsteps to be a science educator? Of course! Do we need deliberate and more concerted efforts to increase the number of women in science fields? Absolutely. Should we be cultivating student interest and encouraging students to identify and pursue their passions in science-related fields? Undoubtedly. But, won't that happen if students are highly engaged in learning science? Won't meaningful classroom experiences of exploring the world around them under the guidance of a master teacher inspire them to learn more and be more deeply engaged? If our efforts are focused in the right places, and we are committed to creating authentic, engaging and equitable learning environments, we will see more women in science fields. We will generate brilliant physicists and chemists and infectious disease specialists. And, if we embrace the holistic nature of what it means to be meaningfully engaged in exploring science in the classroom, we will see students identifying and pursuing their passions while simultaneously developing the skill set necessary to becoming a resilient learner.
Sometimes it can be crippling to think of the magnitude of a task like this. In Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, the authors depict a story about the eradication of Guinea worm disease (Grenny, et al., Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, 2013). Guinea worm disease is a water-born parasite by which its victims ingest the larva by drinking contaminated water, the larvae hatch into worms and then burrow out of the body by whatever route possible - including the muscle, skin and you can imagine other options. “This causes such enormous pain and suffering that the host eventually rushes to the nearest water source and plunges the emerging worm into the water to find momentary relief” (p. 28). What happens? The cycle continues. The larvae are back in the water, people ingest the water and contract Guinea worm disease. When you continue in the same practice, the same result ensues. In 1986, Dr. Donald Hopkins decided to take on this enormous task. At the time, over 3 million people in 23,000 remote villages in 20 countries were contracting Guinea worm disease every year. All that was required to eradicate it was to change the behavior of 120 million people spread over 10 million square miles. Seems like an impossible task, right? In 2018, there were only 28 cases worldwide due to the eradication efforts of Dr. Hopkins, the World Health Organization and the CDC. Focusing on vital behaviors that drive measurable results can influence historic and unprecedented change.