Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Notes Notes Notes: The Sound of My Heart Breaking

I asked my niece in high school, "What did you do in Science Class today"? She said, "I took notes, then answered some questions from a booklet, and then recorded some data from an experiment my teacher was doing for us".

My heart is breaking.

The teacher has a prepared booklet containing the entire course with "fill in the blank" questions stemming directly from the textbook. The laboratory investigations are truly not investigations as the outcomes are predetermined, and the teacher only does the investigation once for three classes so he doesn't have to waste materials. Talk about sucking the curiosity and wonder out of students.

A robot could teach the course.

Why does this happen and what can be done to fix this?

The front matter of the Alberta Program of Studies in Science clearly articulates that curiosity and wonder are fundamental to science education. Somewhere this message is lost on some educators. I am not blaming the teacher; I'm sure that this science teacher is doing the best job he can. He may not realize that his methods are not effective in the classroom and that the learning will be short lived.

Students must DEMONSTRATE their understanding to the teacher. Filling in blanks and writing notes is not understanding and means nothing to students (or their parents).

There are so many great teaching practices that could be used to teach for understanding. Here are a few:

1. Understanding by Design:
2. Performance Assessments:
3. Inquiry Circles in Science:
4. Using music in the science classroom:
5. Science Song Links:
6. Lesson and Tools ideas for Science Teaching:
7. Role Play in Science Education:

Watching students generate their own songs to demonstrate why the line spectrum of hydrogen has four distinct colours is a beautiful thing. It is greatly satisfying to have discussions with the students after they perform their song; far more satisfying than marking "fill in the blanks" where really you have no idea if they understand or can just copy a glossary.

When students are knocking down the door to get into class asking, "Are we singing today?", or "Do we get to build with our playdough?", or "Are we becoming the protein again this class, because I need clarification as to the difference between secondary and tertiary structure?" you begin to feel like you have really made a difference in their understanding and motivation for learning.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Skype in the Classroom

Skype in the Classroom is "a free community to help teachers everywhere use Skype to help their students learn. It’s a place for teachers to connect with each other, find partner classes and share inspiration. This is a global initiative that was created in response to the growing number of teachers using Skype in their classrooms".

I recently had the pleasure of watching two science classrooms Skype together. One classroom was from Edmonton, Alberta and the other from Haughton,Louisiana. The topic was a conversation piece with the theme of "heat and temperature". Here was the project advertised on Skype in the classroom:

Here is the teacher who responded to the proposed project:

Each teacher requested each student create a question to be asked to the other class considering the "heat and temperature" theme. This was done a few days in advance and the questions were shared between classes. During the Skype conversation each student would ask their question (standing in front of the webcam) to the other class and the student who was required to answer it would get up and approach the webcam to answer.

So what did I notice?

First of all the students were giddy with excitement before the class started. The teacher did a wonderful job preparing his students including "practice questions" the class before, a conversation on what is is like to be a Canadian ambassador in an effort to make a great impression, rules of engagement etc. The students even took a look at Google Street View to see what the American school looked like.

Second, there was almost no technological issues. The sound was great, the picture very clear and only a slight delay in video because of the volume of internet traffic during that time of the day.

Third, the conversation between classes took about 30 minutes and the amount of learning that took place was significant. Nevermind the great science connections, I was most impressed with the other learning that took place. The school district I work for has a literacy focus and we all struggle as to how to define literacy. I witnessed many forms of developing literacy during the Skype call. For example, some of these literacy components were: communication skills (students had to stand up and communicate clearly) appreciation for cultural differences (Louisiana students didn't know what a toque was or a toboggan), digital literacy (students were comfortable with the technology and knew to source their research).

Fourth, the level of engagement didn't wear off. There was sustained engagement as the students were taking personal responsibility and had choice for the direction of their learning.

This was just the beginning and for a test drive, an amazing success.