Thursday, 16 June 2011

Science and Understanding by Design

Why teach Chemistry to Grade 5 students? This is the beginning conversation you would have with your grade 5 teaching colleagues if you were fortunate enough to be part of unit building with the Understanding by Design model.

This model of professional development, in my opinion, is the best learning available for teachers. I have witnessed great collaboration, rich discussions around best teaching and assessment practices and the most thorough exploration of the Alberta program of studies.

I facilitated this process at the high school level, focusing on Science 10, Chemistry 20, Biology 20 and Science 20. I can truly say that I am very impressed with the work that was done. This process has been used in our district across all grade levels and subject areas.

The process begins with Stage 1: Identify Desired Results. Teachers pour over the front matter of the program of studies in an effort to distill out the "big idea" which answers the question, "why teach ** to grade ** students". For some of us it was the first time (since being in University) that we carefully read the front matter of the program of studies. Teachers then collaborate to determine what are the life long learnings from the program of studies and are referred to as "enduring understandings". Discussions revolve around what is essential, what is important to know and do and what is worth being familiar with. It is interesting when you hear, "I didn't know that isotopes are not part of the program of studies, I always teach them!" The next part of Stage 1 includes deciding on the "essential questions". The questions are fun to create. They are questions with no obvious answer, that spark debate and that lead to discussions that uncover the enduring understandings. Questions such as, "if you can't see it, is it there?" could lead to a conversation about the nature of gases. These questions are best written in student friendly language and posted in the classroom to encourage conversation.

Next is Stage 2: Evidence of Understanding. I used to consider the unit exam to be this assessment piece and it came at the end of the unit. Using the UbD model, teachers decide on the assessment piece before the lessons are created so that the learning plan is carefully aligned. Also, the focus of the assessment is a "transfer task" where students transfer their learnings into a performance assessment where the work is truly authentic. Moreover, the transfer task is given out to the students at the beginning of the unit so they know exactly where there are headed.

Stage 3 is the development of the learning plan. This is the hardest of the collaborative work. It takes a significant amount of time for teachers to create the lessons where the focus is on the demonstration of student understanding. Many secondary teachers have used the "worksheet" model of teaching. I'm not blaming anyone - I know that when you are working alone, it is very difficult to always teach for understanding. So, when teachers are given the gift of time and allowed to collaborate to create amazing lessons, then that is what happens. The quality of the lessons were remarkable!

To see what can be created by 12 teachers in seven days, take a look at the Biology 20 UbD Teaser under the Tab, "Lesson Design" for just a teaser of what we created. As you will see the document is over 100 pages but I can only upload a mere 1.0 MB. Please remember that this was created by Edmonton Public Schools Teachers.

UbD is a great model for teacher collaboration!

Monday, 13 June 2011

True Investigation for Young Students

Imagine a classroom where the elementary teacher says to the students, "Investigate factors that affect the size of shadows".  She then steps back and watches the young scientists at work.  They quickly form groups of two to three, make a table with the headings, "manipulated variable, responding variable and control variables". Students enthusiastically begin brainstorming possible testable questions.  Phrases such as, "how should we change the manipulated variable?", or "no, that isn't a measurable variable. Maybe we should pick length in centimeters" or, "should time of day be controlled?" Over the course of the next few days, the students work through their investigations testing their questions and analyzing their data.

Students are very capable of designing their own testable questions in science.  Given a chance and enough practice students can learn more about real science and creative solutions than the current textbook publications can offer.

It is a real disservice to the children when we stifle their scientific creativity because of what we lack.  I have noticed that a significant number of teachers tend to shy away from investigative science.  They lack the background and confidence necessary to facilitate true investigations.  What they don't know is that the method is quite simple and after a few practices, the students will really begin to understand the process.

When I taught junior high science, I used this method and the students would come to class excited and always asking, "what investigation are we doing today?" I was able to dangle the investigation carrot and use the process successfully about once every two weeks.  It takes a significant amount of time but is well worth the effort.  The students take real ownership of the learning, are truly engaged and become life long learners of science.

If you are interested in facilitating investigation in your classroom, I have posted the process under the tab, "Promoting Inquiry".  If you have suggestions that will also improve science teaching, please leave a comment.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Science Sucks at this School

I couldn't believe my ears.  I had just walked through the halls of an Alberta K-12 school and overheard some teenage girls speaking of their science classes.  What happens to kids to make them despise their science classes? Children are born scientists, constantly playing with their environments.  They experiment, manipulate variables, measure, record and analyze during their formative years before schooling begins.  I have witnessed my own children excited about their science classes in Grades one and two and by the time Grade three comes along the happiness starts to fade. And unfortunately too often junior and senior high school science hammers the last nail in the science coffin and students decide that science is too hard or just not for them.  The passion of exploration is gone, curiosity stifled and authentic lab time almost gone. 

My hope for this blog is to explore methods and best practices in science teaching across all grades and all sciences in an effort to engage students fully in science.