Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Aha!" THINKING About Education

"We've overemphasized content, when it's context that matters." ~Mitzi Montoya, Dean College of Technology and Innovation, Arizona State University

(A Post not just for the science educator. I promise.)

Recently, I had my students participate in a seemingly straightforward lab activity. They were given three covered syringes. (No needles, of course!) One contained a solid inside, one had a liquid, and one had a gas. It's likely no surprise that when the students slightly pushed on each syringe (plunger), the solid and liquid did not move, and the gas depressed quite a bit.

A myriad observations were recorded in their journals. But one of the requirements was to create a model— draw a picture at the particulate level—to accurately represent the data they collected. In other words, create an explanation for the observations.

Every group drew pictures with the solid particles closest together, the liquid particles farther apart and the gaseous particles the farthest apart. When asked to justify this model using their data, the classes all stumbled. So I asked, "What made you think that liquid particles were farther apart than solid particles? The solid and liquid each behaved the same way according to your data, right? Why did you draw them this way?" Silence. Stunned looks. Some frustration ensewed. But eventually, one student said, "We learned that liquid particles were farther apart than solid particles. We learned it in middle school." So I said, "You memorized that in middle school. But has anyone ever proven it to you? I mean, how do you know whether that's true?" This same student said, "Whoa. What?! That just blew my mind. How many other things have I just accepted over the years?! Holy s#*t!" Clearly, an "Aha!" moment!

So when we educators are asked to investigate, design, implement, etc. anything to do with those famous buzzwords, Critical Thinking, Inquiry, Engagement, Creativity, do we think there's anything left to learn? Or do we robotically go through the motions asked of us thinking we know all there is to know about these ideas. I think we all can admit that indeed, being a robot is easier sometimes. We might shut down based on the design of professional development, or our fatigue, or the climate we're in, or the stress we're under, etc. We end up thinking about our field—education/teaching—the very way we don't want our students thinking about our classes—with a checklist mentality. "Let's get this DONE."

So we need to model the mentality that we're trying to instill in our students. We want them to THINK. To formulate relevant questions. To justify their thinking. To creatively problem-solve. To efficiently and effectively navigate through all the information at their disposal. To communicate well (reading/writing/speaking). To collaborate constructively with their peers. To be empathetic. Etc. (Is that all?!)

With that said, I have two challenges for you. I always think it's beneficial to walk in our students' shoes from time to time, just to see...

  1. Try to pick one thing out of your next department meeting, faculty meeting, committee meeting, (graduate class, association email, etc.) that you care about. Don't just check something off a list or accept an assignment. Ask questions. Gain some insight. Offer alternative perspectives. Brainstorm creative solutions. Enjoy the process. Play. Etc.
  2. The next time you eat lunch with a colleague, discuss the following. If you could change one thing in your secondary education content area, what would it be? And WHY? Most importantly, what would/do you do to MODEL the change? 
These are two ways we create more "Aha!" moments for ourselves!

For the Science and Math Educators:

The New York Times ran a special edition in their ScienceTimes section last Tuesday. The focus? Science and Math Achievement. It was enlightening, infuriating, affirming and frightening all at once. It was the inspiration for the above post. I highly suggest that any educator involved in science or math education reads this special section as a place to begin investigating the status quo in our field, as well as ponder where to go from here.

There were articles that touched on these questions. (The question is a link to each article.)